By Graham Thomas
WillGriff John talks a good game – and in a blend of accents that reflect the spicey variety of locations that have taken him to his first cap for Wales.
The 27-year-old speaks in tones that sound both familiar and yet strange at the same time, with elements of his upbringing in the Rhondda, his time spent in New Zealand, and his most recent and current days living in Manchester from where he has forged an impressive reputation as a tough scrummaging tight-head prop with Sale Sharks.
Asked to describe his accent, he says: “Maybe Kiwi predominantly, but there’s a bit of Welsh in there, too, and a bit of Mancunian sometimes. It’s a strong mix.”
There is a directness and straightforwardness and about John that is refreshing as well as slightly disarming.
If he can translate those attributes into head-on combat against the Scottish front row tomorrow, then Wales might finally go some way to solving the set-piece problems that have bedevilled them so far in this Six Nations.
John replaces the injured Dillon Lewis in the No.3 shirt, but may have won the nod regardless of others’ unavailability as Wayne Pivac searches for someone to fill the void left by the long-term injured Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis.
Born in Plymouth, John spent most of his childhood growing up in the Rhondda and played for Wales through the age group teams to U20 level.
He played for Pontypridd but wasn’t considered good enough by Cardiff Blues who let him go and he eventually travelled to New Zealand where he spent five years in his early 20s playing for Northland province.
He eventually returned to the UK to join Doncaster Knights, but it was only after his move to Sale Sharks – coming under the guidance of their coach and former front rower Steve Diamond – that he began to deliver eye-catching international performances.
“I always felt that I had the ability to play international rugby but it took a little bit longer than I expected,” he says.
““I went to New Zealand just for a change of scenery. Being in the valleys for all my childhood and playing rugby here for the whole time, it was something different.
“My agent is from New Zealand and knowing (former Cardiff Blues captain) Paul Tito, too, he helped me go over there. It was about a change of scenery, a change of rugby and just to get a bit of experience.”
“It was definitely a dream of mine to play for Wales. My dad being Welsh, my mother being English and me being born in England but growing up just half an hour down the road from here, it was always a dream.
“I never really thought about playing for England. That’s what I really wanted since I was a five year old boy – to play for Wales.
“I’m rather large so I’m hoping to bring a bit of physicality, really. I’m just hoping to smack some boys about.”
John used to play in the back row as a No.8, which means there is a useful ball-carrying foundation to his game that should suit the more varied handling game which Wales coach Pivac is trying to develop.
“He (Pivac) just said it’s a big job for me. I’m starting for my first cap in such a big game.
“He just said to do what I do week in week out for Sale. It’s about me ensuring a solid scrum and as I said, smack a few people.”
John has sporting pedigree, too. His father Dennis – who passed away six years ago – played professional football for a number of clubs in the 1970s, including Swansea City.
“This was quite a while ago but he played for Plymouth Argyle, Swansea and Millwall. My dad actually put me into rugby first.
“I did play a bit of footy in primary but I was a little bit too big for football so I just stuck to the rugby.”
John’s father may have been an early influence, but more recently it is Diamond at Sale who has honed his raw ability and mental strength.
“He’s put a lot of faith in me having signed me from Doncaster. It’s nice to be around people like Steve who is a very confident person and has a lot of belief in what Sale can do.
“There’s a lot of other boys there who see that too. There’s a lot of boys buying into that and it’s a big squad effort at the moment.”
For a while after being named for his debut it looked as though the coronavirus outbreak might end John’s dream of a first cap, but the match – and the debut – go ahead.
“It means a hell of a lot to me obviously. It’s been a long time coming and I’m pleased to finally be able to play on the big stage.
“To wait this long to have a cap and to all of a sudden get it pulled away, it would be very unfortunate. I’d have been devastated.”