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Monday, 7 September 2015

Jack Nowell on penmanship.

The instructions sound like something out of a spaghetti western. “Walk down the main street and you’ll find me.” And, sure enough, there is English rugby’s most far-flung international player, standing in the narrow lane, clutching a pint-sized French bulldog named Boo. With the golden Cornish sunshine lending an extra twinkle to Newlyn’s sparkling harbour and the sea beyond, Twickenham seems a thousand miles away.

This sense of separation comes at a price. When the Nowell family wanted to watch their son Jack win his second cap, against Scotland at Murrayfield, the round trip involved spending 20 hours in the car. It takes two hours to reach Exeter, his home during the rugby season, and five hours to drive to England’s training base in Bagshot.
The family trawler, Louisa N, named after Jack's Mum
As he leads the way uphill to the family house, within sight of his father Michael’s trawler on the quayside below, the long-haul existence of the Nowell clan becomes ever more apparent. “My parents are so used to the road up to Exeter they could almost do it in their sleep. It used to be the furthest point we’d go when we were minis. Now it’s a home game.”

It reinforces just how much time and effort is required for any Cornish kid to play elite professional sport, although the proposed new Stadium for Cornwall in Truro should help.

England have capped some Kernow kings down the years but most have been forwards: Stack Stevens, Phil Vickery, Graham Dawe, Trevor Woodman. The great Richard Sharp first played for England while at Oxford University. “I know people have dreams but it never happens to someone from down here,” continues Nowell, having led his visitors past the “Gone Fishing” sign on the gate and settled down on the terrace with Boo. “There was no way you’d ever think you’d be here in Penzance one day and the next at Twickenham playing for England. There was no way that was going to happen to me.”

And yet it has. While his friends have taken jobs as lifeguards or relocated to the Scilly Isles – far handier than London – to start businesses, Nowell is very much the local hero. The wave of pride felt in Newlyn if he plays any kind of role will outstrip even the extraordinary reaction to his England debut last year. “Mum said all the chalkboards outside the pubs simply read: ‘England v France. Jack Nowell. Make sure you’re here.’ My nan went out to walk the dogs and said there were floods and floods of people.”

Many were relations. “We worked out the other day we’ve got 28 cousins on my dad’s side. He’s one of four and they’ve all had four kids each. My aunties, uncles and cousins didn’t get the chance to come out to Paris so they all made sure they were there. They said watching it was one of their best-ever experiences.”

Such is the interest they have even commissioned commemorative World Cup banknotes in Exeter with the 22-year-old Nowell’s image on the front.

It illustrates one of life’s enduring truths: the smaller or more remote the community, the more intense the emotion when one of their own makes it big. Nowell is effectively representing not just Newlyn but its bigger neighbour Penzance, the whole of Cornwall and Devon and every deep-sea fisherman in the country.

On our way down to meet Nowell Sr on the quayside and discuss the local fishing industry (on the rise), we even spot a side street called Jack Lane. It turns out his grandmother lives there. “It’s always been called that … I’ve got a banknote but I haven’t got a lane named after me.”

Nowell, though, never really fancied going to sea himself. He would more likely have become a gym instructor or joined the armed forces but his multiple tattoos still reflect the family’s heritage. “A lot of them are about protection from the sea. Walk down there and every single fisherman would have a tattoo, even if some of them are not very good. A lot of them will be naked girls with their boobs out.”

Both he and his dad have more artistic Japanese-style designs. “I’ve been brought up with tattoos. Everyone’s got a tattoo in my family. My brothers are now 10 and 16 and they’re both talking about getting full tattoos when they’re old enough. In the old days that’s what fishermen used to do. They’d go out fishing, come in, get a taxi to Plymouth for the weekend, get drunk and get tattooed. Then they’d come back and go fishing again.”

While the leisure pursuits of English rugby players may have changed somewhat since Wavell Wakefield’s day, the traditional eating habits of the Cornish athlete are also deeply ingrained. “I do enjoy a good pasty,” says Nowell. “My family know my favourite is steak and gravy so Mum bought me about 20 of them up to Exeter for my birthday in April. I can’t tell you how many I’ve eaten – that’s a secret – but I’ve got a few left in my freezer.”

It can only be hoped England’s conditioning staff are not Guardian readers. But one of Nowell’s greatest qualities is his refreshing openness; he doesn’t care where he’s playing, who he’s playing against or what Twickenham’s alickadoos make of his appearance. “No one’s ever mentioned my tattoos or my haircuts. The big thing when you’re playing for England is that everyone is from different backgrounds. Some are from inside the M25, some are from Cornwall, but you’ve got to be as one as a team. Everyone’s very respectful.”

Nowell, even so, admits he feels luckier than most. It is his firm belief – and Vickery has long felt the same – that too much raw sporting material in the far south-west goes untapped. “Definitely. The amount of talented players I’ve seen playing down here is amazing. There was a guy at Penryn who always wore a blue scrum hat. He was awesome. And whenever we played against Bodmin, they had the ‘Bodmin Beast’. We were only 14 but I swear he had a bigger beard than my old man. He’d make about 50 metres with about five of us on his back. Every single local side has those players.

“But you have to be lucky to get picked up from down here. When I was starting out my idea of what I was going to do in future was maybe to play for Penzance.”

The turning point – for both him and his close friend Luke Cowan‑Dickie – was Exeter’s promotion to the Premiership in 2010. “Exeter getting promoted came at the perfect moment for me and Dickie. We realised that if we went to Truro college and put our heads down there could be a chance for us.”

Nowell, whose mother remembers her six-year-old son initially clinging to her leg at Penzance & Newlyn RFC and refusing to play mini-rugby, was selected for Redruth’s first team at 16 but still pinches himself at his rapid rise from the World Cup-winning England Under-20 ranks to the senior squad. “It’s a weird feeling, especially because I’m a back rather than one of those stereotypical big Cornish props with scary beards and hands like pasties. At least Dickie’s carrying on that tradition.”

Yet beneath the surface the engaging Nowell has carried a secret he can only now reveal fully. When he made his England debut he did so on virtually one leg; a long-standing knee problem, belatedly diagnosed as patella tendinitis, was threatening to curtail his career. “I can say it now: it was very painful. I didn’t want to make a big thing out of it at the time because I wanted to keep on playing. In one of my first Exeter games, against Prato, I ruptured my medial ligament. I went to see the specialist who took a look and said: ‘Don’t worry about that, it’ll mend. I’m worried about your tendon.’

“He reckoned if I’d carried on I wouldn’t have been able to play for another year or so. I was 18. It was one of the scariest things I’ve experienced. A lot of people grow out of it but, for me, it carried on and got worse. Thank God I snapped my MCL [medial cruciate ligament].”

As recently as last season, even so, it was still a concern. “I’d learned to deal with the pain. I came to the stage where I could have kept going but I didn’t know how long the knee would last. After a while I wouldn’t sidestep off my left leg. One day, when I was training with the Under 20s, a few of us were chatting and someone jokingly said: ‘It’s all right when we play against you because we know you only step off your right.’ I just thought: ‘Everyone’s starting to notice now.’”

The upshot was an operation that forced him to miss last summer’s tour of New Zealand and threatened his international development. “It was a hard decision, because I’d got the shirt and wanted to keep it. But if I wanted a good, long, healthy career I knew I had to have the operation. It was tough but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The difference from a year and a half ago to now is ridiculous. Crazy.”

The 80kg (12st 8lb) kid who joined Exeter had swelled to 98kg (15st 6lb) by the time he returned from his operation, although England’s punishing summer fitness regime has dragged his weight down again. Whether he can oust the in-form Jonny May from the starting XV or not, his ability to bust tackles, scrap for anything and fill in at both 13 and 15 make him a hugely valuable squad asset. “I’d honestly say I’m not one of the fastest wingers in England but I definitely prefer the contact side. I enjoy getting stuck in. If I was a bit smaller I wouldn’t be able to do that sort of stuff.”

This is not a player likely to be paralysed with fear when the World Cup comes. “I’m a big believer that if you get yourself too worked up you’re not going to perform. On the bus to the ground I don’t want to be too serious straightaway or get too worried about it. My shut-off point is when I come in from the team warm-up. You do have a little think about all your family watching but then you concentrate on your game.”

As we bid farewell to Boo and her attentive owner one final thought occurs. Nowell is as comfortable in his tattooed skin as any rugby player I’ve ever interviewed, utterly at home at the furthest end of England. “When I walk around here I’m not Jack the rugby player. They just treat me as normal. I’m just Jack, that’s what I love about it.” Newlyn’s distant tranquillity, though, will be shattered once the World Cup starts.

From the tip of Cornwall to the bright lights of London, the sense of anticipation grows daily.

Full story courtesy of the Guardian: