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Feyi-Waboso finds Six Nations fame but still only ‘scratching the surface’
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Feyi-Waboso finds Six Nations fame but still only ‘scratching the surface’

It would easy for Immanuel Feyi-Waboso to bask in the limelight of his recently acquired fame. The other day even an actor masquerading as a patient during one of his student medical exams sent England’s new shooting star a breathless message afterwards. It was a similar story on a local GP placement last week. “They don’t treat you any differently but they just say: ‘Well done,’ which is nice.”

Ask the 21-year-old Exeter wing for his own reflections on his near vertical ascent to national sporting prominence, however, and his post-Six Nations self diagnosis is fascinating. “You say I’m a Test player and it’s nice of you to say that. But I feel like I still have a long way to go to be a proper Test player. I wouldn’t call myself a Test player yet, I’m still getting there.”

Having played only a handful of club matches for Exeter – less than 12 months ago he was still playing for Taunton in National League One – there are even times, sitting in his student hall bedsit, when he wonders if he has been having some weird out-of-body experience. While others discuss whether he could soon be a British & Irish Lion – “Obviously that’s the dream at some point” – he prefers to highlight the reality. “I’m not going to be too naive about it. I’m not even an established Premiership player really.”

Nevertheless, Exeter and England have majorly lucked out. Had life panned out differently, Feyi-Waboso could be playing for Cardiff and Wales and studying in the Welsh capital. Instead, the University of Cardiff rejected his application and, after he relocated to Aston University to study medicine, the financial collapse of Wasps left him in limbo once more.

Exeter’s director of rugby, Rob Baxter, stepped in to broker a deal with the University of Exeter and the rest has been oval-ball serendipity. As Baxter says: “He had that Jack Nowell-type ability to break a tackle and make yards but with more pace and probably a bit more natural athletic ability. That kind of stuff is like gold dust.” Some eye-catching form for Exeter duly catapulted him into England’s Six Nations squad and his ball-carrying dynamism has made him an instant Twickenham fan favourite. “The exciting thing about him is that, as an actual rugby player, he is just scratching the surface,” says Baxter. “But his ability on the ball is so big the world is his oyster.”

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso of Exeter goes over to score their side’s first try against Saracens in OctoberView image in fullscreen

The next chapter commences this weekend when Exeter visit Sale on Sunday, his first game since missing England’s final championship game, in France, with a concussion. The story was that Feyi-Waboso had self-diagnosed his own condition but the truth is more nuanced. “Self-diagnosis? I don’t know where that came from. To be fair, I said I had symptoms so we sat down and did an HIA. I didn’t feel great, I had headaches and a lack of concentration. So I didn’t want to play like that. I’m inexperienced as it is … I felt like I would let down my team if I wasn’t fully there.”

The memories of his try in Scotland, however, will never fade. “The stadium was so quiet … it didn’t feel real. I remember diving down and thinking: ‘Did I even score?’”

The Ireland game was similarly “surreal” in other ways. “It was easily the best game I’ve played for emotion, physicality, speed – it was just the peak of everything. The Marcus Smith drop goal at the end … it was a dream. It was so weird, it was crazy.”

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As and when Feyi-Waboso pulls on an England shirt again there will certainly be plenty of keen supporters worldwide willing him on, ranging from his granny in Cheltenham to Nigeria and the United States. “My mum is Nigerian but almost everyone on that side of the family – her mum is Jamaican, her dad is Nigerian – lives in America. All my dad’s side are English. They are Nigerians, but they live in England. Even when I was younger and playing in Wales, they were like: ‘You’re going to play for England.’ It’s funny how things turn out. They were all super happy I was playing for England.”

With his strong family medical pedigree – “My brother is now a doctor, my dad is a doctor and ophthalmologist and my grandad was a gynaecologist. My uncle is a gynaecologist and my auntie is an optician” – the Cardiff-born Feyi-Waboso also hopes Welsh diehards will understand eventually why he declared for England. “I didn’t expect people to be so interested or to care so much. In the end, though, I’m super happy with my decision. I have family here, and my development as a rugby player has been here. For me as a rugby player, England was definitely the choice I wanted to make.”

With his concluding first-year medical exam due in early June, there should be no barrier to selection for England’s summer tour to Japan and New Zealand. “My last written exam is 10 June and the first summer tour game is on 22 June. Hopefully I will get it done and I can then focus on my rugby. It is greedy of me, but I still want more.” His growing army of fans feel similarly.

Source: theguardian.com