BY TOM VALE
Wasps Academy graduate Jacob Umaga has been called up to England’s 34-man squad ahead of the Guinness Six Nations which starts next month, marking a remarkable 15 months for the 21-year-old.
The former Kenilworth School pupil, who’s played rugby locally at Kenilworth, Broadstreet and Hinckley has had quite the journey - and this Wednesday will be flying out to join his England teammates in Portugal for Six Nations preparations, alongside Wasps teammate and Club captain Joe Launchbury.
Uncapped Umaga, who is the son of ex-Samoa star Mike and nephew of former All Black Tana, revealed where he was when he found out about the news, and is relishing his exciting opportunity.
He said: “I got added to a WhatsApp group chat by an England member of staff with all the logistics for the upcoming weeks. I thought I was being pranked for a second!
“When I found out, I was actually at the house of a girl I’ve been dating, making a stir fry for dinner! I’d just met her mum for the first time and it all just happened in one big moment.
“I was on the phone and she was like: “Why aren’t you talking?” and I just said: “I’ve just been added to a group chat!”
“I had a look through of who was in it, and I saw Joe Launchbury, Elliot Daly and Jonathan Joseph, and I was like okay this could be something!”
Turn back the clocks 15 months – to October 2018 – and Umaga was lifting the Mitre 10 Cup trophy with Auckland in New Zealand, after a fruitful spell with the North Islanders, playing the majority of his rugby at full-back.
He soon returned to England and Wasps and was loaned out to Yorkshire Carnegie in the Championship to gain even more game-time as part of his rugby development over the coming months, alongside being back amongst his Wasps Academy teammates in the Premiership Rugby Shield.
From December through to April, Umaga played seven of Wasps A’s ten matches in that competition, amassing 82 points in just seven outings as the youngsters produced four stunning bonus-point wins to complete their campaign.
Eight of that group; Umaga, Tim Cardall, Owain James, Gabriel Oghre, Will Porter, Callum Sirker, Sam Spink and Tom Willis, all graduated from the Senior Academy to the first-team set-up in June, while 11 Wasps Under 18s moved up into the Senior Academy during that period.
The beginning of the 2019/20 campaign saw five of those youngsters shine in the Premiership 7s, as Wasps reached the final – with Umaga breaking the competition record as he racked up 61 points across the two September days.
Opportunities then came in the Premiership Rugby Cup and also in the league for Umaga and his fellow graduates, in which the promising youngsters have consistently been putting their hands up for selection.
The opening day of the season saw Umaga make his Premiership debut against London Irish in October, before his man-of-the-match European debut in November in the win over Agen.
After signing a new contract, the stand-off has since started every Premiership game – excelling in his performances with another man-of-the-match showing against Bristol Bears, and he has now accrued 70 points in 8 starts and 2 appearances from the bench this season.
All of this has culminated in Eddie Jones deciding to add him to his 34-man squad ahead of the 2020 Six Nations – and Wasps Director of Rugby Dai Young was quick to praise the progression of his Academy graduate.
He explained: “It’s a recognition of how well Jacob has played this season. He’s worked his socks off to improve.
“He had a stint in New Zealand which gave him some great experience. I think playing in the Mitre 10 Cup competition and rubbing shoulders with some quality players gave him a lot of confidence and belief and he’s come back and gone from strength to strength.
“He’s certainly been a different player this season – he’s got our attacking line moving really well, takes it to the line really well, and makes good decisions. His kicking game is excellent too.”
Umaga, who has represented England at Under 18 and 20 levels, admitted the call-up came out of the blue – but that should Jones call upon him for action, he will seize the opportunity with both hands.
He continued: “It’s a bit surreal. It’s been a crazy 24 hours. I woke up this morning thinking: “Did that actually just happen?!” Everyone’s been congratulating me and it’s been a really nice feeling.
“I called my dad and all I could hear was screaming down the phone from my dad, mum, brother and sister. My mum didn’t believe me at first, she thought I was talking nonsense so I had to call her back and say it was real!
“It was out the blue. I’d just been getting over the concussion from a fortnight ago and focusing on trying to get back fit for Saturday’s game.
“This time last year I was playing for Yorkshire at Richmond on a Saturday night so to make my Premiership debut, my European debut and now this – it’s been a whirlwind of a year.
“I just want to take in as much as possible. For me, it’s about learning and the opportunity to learn off the likes of Owen Farrell and George Ford – watching them and trying to build and be the best player I can be.
“Any chance I get, I’ll try and take it.”
Director of Rugby Young believes Umaga’s international selection is great recognition for Wasps – and that his progress shows what can be achieved.
He added: “Jacob’s selection is another recognition for our Academy, and for the Club, that we’re bringing youngsters through.
“We all knew he had that potential in him but he’s done it all himself. He’s had the opportunities and thrived with each opportunity he’s been given.
“It’s an encouragement to up-and-coming players around what can be achieved. Every one of them has shown they’re more than capable of holding their own in the Premiership which obviously bodes well for the future.”
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