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Waller: Opportunity knocking for Saints in Premiership Rugby Cup

We sat down with Northampton Saints prop Ethan Waller ahead of this weekend’s trip to face Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership Rugby Cup, where a place in the semi-finals of the competition will be on the line for the men in Black, Green and Gold…

Q: Ethan, how are you finding things back at Northampton Saints?
EW: It’s been really nice being back. Obviously this is my hometown, so I get to be around family and stuff – plus I’ve got a young daughter now, so being around family for childcare is very useful! Her being able to grow up around all her cousins and grandparents is brilliant. On the rugby side of things, I’ve really enjoyed being back around the environment. It’s obviously a special place to be, a special place to play, although it’s been a bit of a frustrating start for me. I probably haven’t played as much as I wanted to, but this weekend is a great opportunity to go and show what I can do on the pitch and really push for a place in that Premiership squad because that’s the ultimate aim.

Q: Is that the best thing about the Premiership Rugby Cup, giving players a chance to earn themselves more regular game time?
EW: I think so, although for the first part of it, ironically from a loosehead point of view, we were a bit decimated with injury. We didn’t necessarily get a lot of game time during the earlier rounds, and then everyone got fit after they finished. It’s a great competition, especially when it’s in those midweek games as you’ve got to use your entire squad and rotate around, because it’s very hard these days to double up from weekend to midweek. It’s been a good opportunity for some of the young lads to get a chance in front of the Franklin’s Gardens crowd and experience first-team rugby, especially some of those boys who are in their first year in the Academy. It’s a great competition and it is fantastic for squads all-round.

Q: You of course won the competition with Worcester Warriors last season, how good an experience was that?
EW: For us at Worcester it was incredible – I don’t think we’d won anything top-tier before and that squad had obviously been through quite a lot in turbulent times. When I was there, I went through multiple different sets of coaches in my five years, but the one constant was that playing group. That playing group had been through thick and thin and we became very close, so when it came to winning a trophy, it was just jubilation. It was a perfect little swansong for me. It’s obviously devastating to see what’s happened to them now, but fingers crossed they can find a buyer and come back into the Premiership because it would be a massive shame to lose them.

Q: By the final against London Irish, you knew you would be coming back to Saints. How did the return come about?
EW: I got a phone call from Dows [Phil Dowson] and he said there was an opportunity for me to come back, an opportunity for me to play, and he thought I’d fit into the system here. I knew a fair few of the coaches – I’d obviously played with Dows and James Craig so I knew them as people, I was coached by Sam Vesty at Worcester, and I knew Ferg through conversations I’d had with him after games when we played each other. It was a unit that I knew and was excited to work with. Obviously, being away I kept an eye on how they were playing and the style of rugby that we play really does suit my game. Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll get a bit more opportunity to show how I can fit into that.

Q: Speaking of Worcester, have you been surprised by how well Fin Smith has settled into the environment at Saints?
EW: I don’t want to big him up too much, but I know how classy he is and I knew it when I played with him at Worcester. I played alongside him on his debut when he was 18, down at Bath, and he just bossed that game like he’d been playing for decades. He’s a confident lad, he’s very, very tough for a fly-half and you will never see him shy away from tackles or the physicality of things. But he’s just an extremely classy player as well, and when it was announced he was signing here it felt right because he fits into the style of game we play, and you’ve seen from his first few games that he’s played really well. He’s only going to get better for us and having him here is good craic – but don’t tell him I said it!

Q: Did having your brother, Alex, here make it easy to keep track of what was going on at the club during your five years away?
EW: I always would have kept track anyway because it’s my hometown and I grew up watching this Club. Being able to have the opportunity to come back here and have another crack at it was one I couldn’t turn down. 

Q: You touched on it being a frustrating season for yourself so far – how much of a setback was the head knock you suffered against Leicester Tigers, three minutes after coming off the bench?
EW: That certainly didn’t help, that’s for sure, but it’s one of those things where you’ve got to take your opportunities when you get them. In this game, everything is on such a fine margin so when chances to play come, you have to seize them. Unfortunately, I got injured in that game and I get a couple of chances a few weeks later, but competition is tight between the looseheads at the moment. This weekend, I’m getting an opportunity and, fingers crossed, next week I’ll get another opportunity [against the Barbarians] if all goes well. I want to be able to show the coaches I can fit into this team and I can contribute in a really positive way.

Q: Let’s look at Saturday’s game against Newcastle Falcons, where Saints have a shot of reaching the semi-finals of the Premiership Rugby Cup…
EW: The opportunity is clearly there for us. We’ve spoken about it briefly, but for us the focus is on performance. We know that if we do perform then the result will come, so the focus for us is how we perform and how we put our best part of our game onto the field on Saturday. Obviously, going away there is never easy and there are a few young lads coming in who have never had the chance to before – but it’s up to some of the more experienced lads, including me, to guide them through that. 

Q: Does it feel strange to think of yourself as one of the experienced heads in the squad?
EW: Believe me, it feels weird! Now that I’m back in, it feels very odd because I thought I would just be slotting back in, but I’m 30 now and closer to the end than the start. I think I’m one of the oldest players in the squad this weekend, which is frightening because I never thought I’d be saying that! But I do like it because there are a lot of good young lads around here and if I can help these lads perform to the best of their ability then I’m doing my job and hopefully I can do that.

Q: Is it difficult to know what to expect from Newcastle, seeing as they will be making a lot of changes as well?
EW: It’s a bit of an unknown – obviously, we do our due diligence on opposition teams and we’ve looked into the way that they play and some of their plays, but the focus this week is very much going to be on us. Like I said, if we can perform in the way we know we can, we can succeed against any team. When we go up there, we’ve just got to be able to execute our game to the best of our ability.

Q: Just finally, you’re famous at Saints for producing your Christmas pantomimes, is there anything in development this year?
EW: I’ve had a few people ask me this and last year, when I put one on for my brother’s testimonial, I put it together within two weeks. At the moment I’ve got nothing, but don’t count it out because I’ve done it in shorter timeframes!

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