Meet the latest back-row to have caught Jones’ eye
Jack Willis, the jackalling maestro, is on course to regain England slot after injury cut short his previous call-up
When Jack Willis first joined the Wasps academy as an 18-yearold, he would take every spare opportunity he could to spy on the senior back-row forwards and in particular on George Smith, the Australian openside.
Sometimes he would be invited to join in their training sessions, but more often than not Willis would be on the sidelines just trying to absorb everything in front of him. At 35, Smith, who did more than any other player to revolutionise the art of jackalling, should have been content to pick up a tidy pay packet in a one-season spell before jetting off into the sunset. Instead he ended up being awarded Rugby Players’ Association’s Player of the Year and took Willis under his wing, even going so far as to review his A League games.
“I would play on the Monday and he would go through it that week and drop me some notes of the clips and let me know what his thoughts were and what he would have done in different situations,”
Willis tells The Daily Telegraph.
“That advice was invaluable. He didn’t have to do that. This was his own time, but it is the mark of the man.”
Willis, now 23, remains a committed student of the game. He estimates that he spends five hours every week analysing the breakdown with Matt Everard, the Wasps transition coach. “So much of jackalling is about instinct,” Willis explains. “You don’t have time to think on the pitch. If you do, the opportunity will be gone. That’s where all those hours during the week pays off.”
His tally of 30 turnovers this season demonstrates how refined those instincts are. According to Opta, only Leeds’ Hendre Fourie has ever won more turnovers in a single season and there are still eight Premiership games remaining, although Willis has been rested for tonight’s match against Worcester. He also ranks first for ruck arrivals. It helps that his latest breakdown masterclass against Northampton came in front of Eddie Jones and England’s coaching staff. If Smith is one role model, then Willis’s other inspiration comes a little closer to home. Steve Willis’s career never reached the heights that Smith’s did, but he played with no less dedication for Reading Abbey well into his 40s.
“He was very aggressive and physical,” Willis says of his father. “He would stick his head into anything. I have a vivid memory of seeing him in the sin-bin and we ran up to him asking what had happened and he would say, ‘not now son, not now’.
“In a rugby sense, it was always the passion he showed and how much work he was prepared to put in for his mates around him. Outside of that, I admire him for what a kind bloke he is and how he always puts other people first. My mum [Joanne] is the same. The way they brought us up was to put other people first and treat people like you want to be treated.”
That generosity has extended to being foster parents to more than 30 children. Steve and Joanne first approached Jack and his brother Tom, who does start tonight for
Wasps, when they were in secondary school with the idea while their sister, Annabelle, was in primary school. “They said ‘we are thinking of trying to give back to families in the area and help kids who have not been as fortunate as we have been’,” Willis says. “All of us were 100 per cent behind it.
“We had some really unfortunate children come into our home. They do feel like a sibling, so it is hard when it gets to a stage whether either the parents are in a position to take them back or they move on for adoption. It is cool to see that transformation and I think it was a massive part of who we all are today.”
Perspective then comes slightly easier to Willis than it does to some of his peers. Even so, little could
‘You do not have time to think on the pitch. If you do, the chance is gone’
prepare him for the whirlwind end to his breakthrough 2017-18 season when he was named in England’s squad to South Africa. Nine days later, playing in the Premiership semi-final, he was illegally cleared out at a ruck, simultaneously injuring his left ankle and right leg. “The immediate moment when it happened the pain was ridiculous, but then it just stopped,” Willis says. “By the time the physios got to me, I thought ‘I’m OK now’. Then when I was being carried off I could feel my knee swaying and dropping out of its socket. That’s when it hit home that the tour I had ahead of me, which would have been a dream come true, was not going to happen.”
Even when he returned after nearly a year, it was clear his ankle required a further operation and another few months out of the game. “That’s a lot of time to spend lying on your bed, especially in those first few weeks when you think what am I going to do if rugby is finished?”
So Willis started an evening plumbing course with his brother. His course results are due next month. Then just before the pandemic struck, he was approached by a former teammate, Alex Lundberg, to set up a finance and search agency, RockCap, which sources land and investment opportunities for multi-million pound companies.
“Before my injuries I did not realise that I was trapped inside the rugby bubble,” Willis says. “Now when I am at the club I give everything I can. When I leave the club, I can really switch off and devote my focus to something else.”
With his rugby hat on, he knows better than to talk up his chances of international selection. Jones loves nothing better than to snub the media’s darlings, but even he may find Willis’s turnover count hard to ignore. “All I can control is how hard I work,” Willis says. “Jackalling is my strength but being a rugby player is not just about having one skill in one area. I did not intend to come back to be the same player that I was before my injury. Why limit myself to getting back to a certain level when I can think about how can I improve and change the way I play as the new Jack Willis.”
Keen to learn: Jack Willis spends five hours every week analysing the breakdown
Making his mark: Jack Willis touches down against Northampton last weekend