Aaron Wainwright has made a big impact for Wales in recent months, but it has come as little surprise to those in the know at Cardiff Met. The Dragons player – who celebrates his 22nd birthday today – was on a familiar path to success as Kasey Rees discovered.
As Wales got their World Cup campaign off to a flying start by beating Georgia on Monday, although Justin Tipuric earned the man of the match award, many observers’ eyes were on former Cardiff Met student Aaron Wainwright.
Three years ago, hardly anyone outside of the university had heard of Wainwright. If they had, it may have been because he once played football for Cardiff City’s academy.
Now, he is in Japan at his first World Cup and poised to be a key member of the Wales back row that will attempt to get the better of Australia on Sunday.
Not bad for a player who only made his debut for the Dragons against Cardiff Blues in October 2017.
Since then, the 22-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise. He made his Wales debut as a replacement on tour against Argentina last summer and prior to Monday’s opening fixture against Georgia, the flanker had only started in five of his 12 international appearances.
But after becoming a Grand Slam Six Nations champion in his first tournament, he has quickly become the No.6 Wales have been seeking since the forced retirement of Sam Warburton – strong, relentless, and durable, if rarely flashy.
Director of rugby at Cardiff Met and Wainwright’s former coach Danny Milton could not be more proud of his former player’s success.
“It is a fantastic achievement for Aaron and the credit for his success is down to his hard work,” says Milton.
“He is a top quality athlete, but more importantly a quality person.
“Aaron has put himself in the position to be one of the first names on the team sheet with his recent performances and credit must go to the Dragons’ academy and James Chapron for shaping his development.”
There was no doubt that the former Archer would be selected for Japan as he had impressed Wales coach Warren Gatland with some eye-catching performances in the World Cup warm-up matches this summer.
Milton adds: “I was over the moon when I saw that Aaron was selected for the 31-man squad. I am overjoyed for someone who has worked so hard and earned his reward.
“It’s early days to make comparisons to Sam Warburton, but Aaron certainly has the physical attributes as well as the character to become a consistent Welsh international.
“Lots of young players have the opportunity to be part of something special at this World Cup and Aaron is certainly one of them.
“His development is down to a whole range of factors from Cardiff Met, to the Dragons and Whiteheads RFC, where he started. Here at Cardiff Met, Chris Davey and Dai Watts, to name just two, had a key impact while Aaron was here. And we are just so pleased to see Aaron now out in Japan.”
Before being included in this year’s World Cup squad, Wainwright was named coaches’ player of the year, players’ player of the year and supporters’ player of the year at the Dragons’ end of season awards in May.
But only two years ago he was still playing for Cardiff Met in the BUCS Super Rugby competition.
His progress is further proof of the value of Wales’ leading sports university’s rugby programme at Cyncoed in Cardiff and the role it is playing in allowing future players to break into professional rugby alongside their academic studies.
Wainwright has followed in the footsteps of current Wales hooker Ken Owens and former Wales second row Ryan Jones, who were also part of the Cardiff Met rugby programme.
Milton says: “We have a few ex-Archers in the World Cup with Aaron and Ken in the team, so we are confident our programme can deliver high class academic rugby graduates.
“There’s no doubt that having strength and conditioning four times a week alongside study goes a part of the way to preparing people for the top end of the game.
“We are a small part of a good example of player development principles – highlighting the role higher education can play in developing performance athletes, holistically.”
Wales now face the Wallabies next in Group D and after Wainwright’s powerful contribution to the team’s victory against Georgia on Monday, he looks odds-on to keep his place in the back row.
That will please his many fans at Cardiff Met who will be eager to see the former Archer now go on to become one of the youngsters to make a lasting mark at the tournament.