Wales back row forward Aaron Wainwright has been one of the success stories of the World Cup. But had Newport County got their man five years ago, then, as Graham Thomas reports, it would been a whole new ball game.
If Aaron Wainwright had taken a different path at 17, then he could have been playing Premier League football this weekend instead of trying to help Wales into the final of the Rugby World Cup.
The Wales flanker has been one of the breakout global stars of the tournament in Japan, his status already assured before his man-of-the-match performance in the victory over France in last week’s quarter-final.
In images that flashed around the world, Wainwright, 22, was filmed and photographed with a flying French elbow in his face that led to the sending off of Sébastien Vahaamahina.
It didn’t prevent the flanker from hitting the heights last week and he could again be a critical component for Wales as they bid to beat South Africa on Sunday and reach the final.
They will certainly be hoping he does so at Newport County, as well as at Cardiff City, the clubs where the 22-year-old showed enough promise as a box-to-box midfielder that they were disappointed when he chose the oval ball over the round one.
Sporting crossovers between rugby and football are not unusual. Wales and Tottenham defender Ben Davies was a useful rugby player, while Gareth Davies, Sam Davies, James Hook, Gavin Henson and others were all promising footballers.
What makes Wainwright more unusual is that he’s a forward rather than a back. Few pack-dwellers dream of being Patrick Vieira as the flanker once did.
County youth team coach Danny Elliott – and current assistant to first team manager Michael Flynn – oversaw the development of Wainwright when he arrived at the League Two club.
“We had a strong team at the time,” says Elliott. “We’d just won the Under-16s National Division. Regan Poole was part of that group and went on to Manchester United.
“A few others went on to make first-team debuts. I’m sure Aaron would have got a chance if he’d continued the progress he was making.
“I’m not a big follower of rugby, but I saw his try the other day and I thought, yes, he could make those bursts from midfield.
“He had the athletic and physical build, but he’s shown how adaptable he is. I’m sure the attitude, level-headedness and good direction that he had from his father has helped become a success in rugby. Those things can make you successful in different sports.”
Wainwright had ended up at Newport after being released by Cardiff at the age of 16, from where he had trained and been part of their development programme for six years.
Elliott recalls: “We share a very good relationship with Cardiff City, the moment he was released there they were on the phone asking us to take a look at him. We liked what we saw.
“But he’d just had the knock back at Cardiff and was doing his A Levels. He was hoping to become a dentist and his father was looking at the sensible option of Aaron going to university and getting his qualifications. Rugby was in the background and he was enjoying that, but he wasn’t taking it too seriously at the time.
“He was a nice, quiet reserved lad. Physically he was built well and very athletic. He was good on the ball and had a good range of passing.
“He was a very powerful midfielder and similar to a player we’d had two or three years previously. He reminded me of (Wales international) Lee Evans, who is now playing in the Football League at Wigan. Lee’s done well and Aaron had a lot of those qualities. He could get around the pitch and get box to box.
“He came into the group as a bit of a bit of an outsider, but he fitted in well.”
Should be a good game Bristol Rovers vs Chelsea U23s pic.twitter.com/pSHa0sc2Ef
— Danny Elliott (@dannyelliott17) September 24, 2019
The crunch came for Wainwright when County offered him a scholarship that would have meant moving from his school in Bassaleg to Llanwern High School.
As he keen to continue with his A-levels, he turned down the football offer and threw himself into a rugby career that would quickly progress from Whiteheads RFC, through Cardiff Met and into the Dragons’ regional set-up.
“We told Aaron there was an opportunity for him here, but his dad was under no illusions that football was a very hard game to get into,” adds Elliott.
“What happened to him at Cardiff had a huge impact on him. It was a shame he decided to stay at school because Michael Flynn was coming in as academy manager. He would have been great for Aaron as a central midfielder himself, and taken him on further.
“The County programme was based at Llanwern High School. Our scholars would train there, education was provided externally by the Football League.
“But he chose to stay at Bassaleg and do his A Levels. I’m sure if he had hung around and continued his progress he would have got a chance – and taken Flynny’s place!”
County’s loss has been the Dragons’ and Wales’ gain and if Wainwright comes home from Japan with a World Cup winners’ medal, then that will be an accomplishment to match anything he might have achieved as a footballer.