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Immanuel Feyi-Waboso: ‘The Lions is every rugby player’s dream – it would be unbelievable’
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Immanuel Feyi-Waboso: ‘The Lions is every rugby player’s dream – it would be unbelievable’

The future for Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, the meteoric new star of English rugby, could be as glittering next month as it is filled with gravitas in the years ahead. England’s summer tour of Japan and New Zealand will surely include the 21-year-old Exeter Chiefs wing, who won his first four caps during the Six Nations. His opening three appearances came from the bench, and featured a try against Scotland, but his starting debut, as England ruined Ireland’s grand slam ambitions, provided the most substantial evidence of his composure and talent.

He offers engaging company but is also different to most modern rugby players. After admitting it would be “the stuff of dreams” to play against the All Blacks, and perhaps score a try in Dunedin or Auckland, the medical student moves on to a weighty subject. He is certainly the first sportsman I’ve interviewed who might specialise in plastic surgery to help burns victims or patients born with a cleft palate.

These contrasting prospects, spanning rugby and surgery, belong to the same realm of possibility which has transformed Feyi-Waboso’s life over the past nine months. Exactly a year ago he had just completed his loan spell at Taunton Titans, who finished second from bottom in National League One this season. Now, after 23 games for Exeter and his Six Nations breakthrough, Feyi‑Waboso is being lauded as the charismatic fresh face of English rugby.

He smiles when I ask how he is feeling after such a tumultuous time as, on Saturday afternoon, Exeter play their last home game of the regular season, against Harlequins at Sandy Park. “It’s been the toughest season so far, physically, but I’m getting more and more comfortable playing 80 minutes,” he says. “So I’m still feeling good.”

Before Friday night’s matches, Exeter were lying seventh in the Premiership table, two places behind Quins, and even if they win this weekend and beat Leicester away next Saturday, they will still need other results to help them reach the top four. But Feyi-Waboso insists they can make the playoffs.

“Yeah, obviously,” he exclaims. “We have a young group but we’ve never doubted ourselves. Some people feel we’ve over-achieved this season, but we still want to do far more. After beating Gloucester in our last game [with Feyi-Waboso scoring a try] we kept our hopes alive and hopefully after this weekend we’ll be in a stronger position.”

Harlequins lost to Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final last Sunday while Exeter had a break. “Maybe this will help us,” he suggests, “because it’s a shorter turnaround for them. But Harlequins can score from anywhere. If you switch off for a second you’ll get punished. It’s going to be another tough game and that’s what the boys and I have loved about this season. Every game matters and, as a young squad, we’re becoming more experienced in these pressure situations.”

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso evades an attempted tackle by Ireland’s Bundee Aki.View image in fullscreen

Feyi-Waboso is still a little wide-eyed about the step up to international rugby where even more intense pressure can feel suffocating. “It’s tough,” he admits, “and it can feel crazy because you’re playing with the best players. Even an opposition tight forward has the ability to punish a mistake.”

He seemed immediately at ease in the international environment but, on the inside, did he struggle with nerves? “Definitely. Internally it was crazy. On the bench in that first Italy game, I was taking it all in and thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ But, coming on the pitch, Sladey [Exeter teammate Henry Slade] was there. I play with Sladey week in, week out, so there’s an element of comfort in that.

“The first thing that happened for me was a lineout which saw Italy playing out from their 22, and coming straight towards me. I’m straight in the game and that was the best thing. But I had so many nerves going into that game, and against Wales and Scotland. It was surreal.”

After England lost to Scotland they were under fierce scrutiny before facing Ireland at home. “Everyone was writing us off and saying Ireland are the best team in the world. But I believed we just needed to back our ability as we have amazing players everywhere. There was an energy about our group and we really had a go at them.”

England beat Ireland 23-22 and played positive rugby which lifted a previously disconsolate Twickenham crowd. Feyi-Waboso seemed to exemplify their rejuvenation and it emerged that he had been entertaining his more experienced teammates with his piano-playing skills all week.

He looks embarrassed. “I think a lot of the boys were actually annoyed by it at the end. I was just playing pop songs on the piano. Nothing that great, really.”

Such self-effacement is typical of Feyi-Waboso and, despite being a near-certainty for England’s tour, he points out: “I have no idea whether I’m going to be selected. Hopefully I am. I’ve spoken to the coaches about what they think I’m doing well and what I need to improve on. But in England there are loads of great wingers and your place is never secure. I’m just trying to work on the weaknesses and build on the strengths.”

Has he visited either Japan or New Zealand? “No, but I’ve always really wanted to go to Japan. I’m not bothered about travelling but Japan is that one place I really want to go to as a tourist as well as a rugby player.”

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso smiles as he poses for a photo at Sandy Park in Exeter.View image in fullscreen

New Zealand carries a deeper meaning for Feyi-Waboso and he concedes that, for him, the All Blacks once assumed a near-mythic status. “They definitely did. From the haka to their ability to just play through or round anyone, their skills, to all the big names, it just felt like they’ve been the most formidable team. If I was to play against them all that needs to go in the bin. I need to see them as humans again. So that would be an interesting adjustment.”

As for the idea of scoring a try against New Zealand, Feyi-Waboso shakes his head in wonder. “That’s the stuff of dreams,” he says, before remembering to sound rooted in reality. “But I need to get selected first. If I’m in the squad, I’d love to play against them, do well and score. Against a team like New Zealand you find out how good or bad you are.”

Another towering ambition lurks enticingly and he says: “I’d also love to play for the Lions [in Australia next year]. That’s every rugby player’s dream in the northern hemisphere. It would be amazing and unbelievable. But, again, there are so many good wingers out there.”

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Feyi-Waboso is most impressive in his ability to balance professional rugby with his medical studies. “It’s definitely been challenging, especially in the early stages,” he says. “But if I was just focusing on rugby I’d probably have social media a lot more, so I’d be looking at comments and back at games, just killing myself in a hole because the perfectionist in me would do that. But if I play well or badly I have medicine. They work well together.”

As crunch time approaches in the season, Feyi-Waboso is also in the thick of exams and final assignments at Exeter University. “I’ve got another exam next Thursday and an assignment is due just after that. My last exam is on 10 June and then I will also need to do the assignment I deferred to the summer because I missed it during the Six Nations.”

He laughs when I ask which he prefers. “Definitely exams. I hate assignments. If I don’t get through medical school, it’s probably because of those assignments. Exams is where I thrive. If you ask me questions I’m way better at answering them than structuring and planning the whole thing. I’m not a fan of assignments.”

Has he decided on his eventual specialism? “I’ve always liked the idea of plastic surgery in the sense of helping people who have suffered burns or cleft lips. The reward would be huge and it also requires some artistic flair. If I get to do such work one day I would definitely be able to look at what I’ve done and be proud of it. But in medical school, you don’t really know until you go on the wards.”

Feyi-Waboso scores a try for Exeter at Gloucester.View image in fullscreen

Feyi-Waboso nods at the suggestion that working in this field of plastic surgery would mean he could help patients overcome psychological trauma as well as physical impairment. “That’s exactly it. That mix of the psychological and the physical is very important. The rewards would be amazing after seeing patients leave hospital happy.”

Rugby and medicine often clash with shuddering impact in the amount of concussions that blight the game. Feyi-Waboso brought his symptoms of concussion to the attention of England’s medical staff who advised him to miss the game against France. “I definitely think about concussion,” he says. “I’ve had a few and, knowing that I want to become a doctor, head trauma’s obviously not good. I was gutted to not play in France but I’m quite young and had quite a few concussions, so I don’t want to jeopardise my future.

“I also don’t want to be a burden to England. If I was playing with a concussion my reaction time wouldn’t be the same. We’re all trying to avoid concussions but sometimes they’re inevitable in rugby. So it’s important to look after yourself during the return-to-play protocol.”

Feyi-Waboso survived the implosion of his former club, Wasps, and has since thrived at both Exeter University and the Chiefs. When Wasps folded as a Premiership club in October 2022, Feyi-Waboso had played just two games for them. He stresses that the impact on him can’t be compared to a senior player at Wasps.

“I was only 19 and didn’t have ties anywhere whereas a lot of the boys had families, kids. Wasps going down was no easy thing for me but I’d only been there for a year. I was living in a 16-man academy house and when you’re living with 15 other boys, you get really close. So that was really sad but two of them ended up coming with me. Greg Fisilau and Alfie Bell are at Exeter now. I lived with them in the hotel for the first year and I’m probably going to live with Greg next year.”

Does he still see any of his Taunton teammates from his loan spell? “Some of their boys trained against us with the navy team. And one of the boys from Taunton is going out with my flatmate in uni, so I see him regularly and I’m in touch with a few of them. It’s been a big transition but they’re really happy for me.”

It is easy to share the delight of Feyi-Waboso in his extraordinary transition. But his future, both this summer and in the coming years, promises to be even more interesting in both rugby and medicine. He is so busy that he just smiles and shakes his head when I ask if he has booked a break after his exams and England’s tour: “I’ll plan a holiday when the time comes but, until then, I’ll just keep going.”

Tickets for the Gallagher Premiership rugby final are available at https://www.premiershiprugby.com/

Source: theguardian.com