The England Rugby team of 2015 is a diverse group drawn from all four corners of the country. How did they start their journeys in the sport which has given them so much and what, allied to their undoubted talent and dedication, made the difference in those crucial early years? England Rugby TV investigates the rugby roots of a range of stars from different regions, continuing with Jack Nowell in Newlyn.
“He’s not ours, he’s Newlyn’s,” smiles Louisa Nowell when she considers how the small, scenic fishing village in West Cornwall feels about producing an international rugby player from their proud ranks.
England wing Jack Nowell’s mum – a keen runner who readily admits she avoids routes through the village while training due to the amount of people who disrupt her rhythm with cheerful enquires about how her son is progressing – rapidly emerges as the key figure in getting the precocious talent started in rugby.
"He’s not ours, he’s Newlyn’s"
Rugby is rife in the area and provides a natural fit for boisterous youngsters who want a team sport to supplement their regular beach activities. With trawlerman dad Michael away at sea for much of Nowell’s early years it fell to Louisa to take the five year-old down to Penzance-Newyln Rugby Club. But it did not all start swimmingly.
“There were a few tears, a few moments holding on to me on the sidelines saying ‘I’m not going to play’ but in the end, after a month or so, he did join in,” she recalls.
“It turned into fun for him, I think when he realised that nothing was expected of him and he could just go and enjoy himself then it was alright.”
With the broad grin that is never far from his face, the Exeter Chief – now aged 21 – confirms the story, and adds another not insignificant detail to his early motivations.
“I used to ask to go down there but I never really joined in, I never fancied it until one time I randomly said I was ready to go out and play,” he says.
“I remember my dad saying that he’d give me one pound for every try I scored but in one game I scored 12 tries so my dad refused to pay me!”
On the picturesque mini and junior pitch nestled behind the Green King IPA Championship side Cornish Pirates’ Mennaye Field ground, Nowell was coached by Nick Brooks. Described by Louisa as “a second dad”, Brooks coached the youngster for a decade and it is obvious why he took to the sport so enthusiastically.
Newlyn, with a population of 4,000 people, is a friendly, community-orientated place with the added air of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth atmosphere. That attitude saturates mini and junior rugby in the village, with parents getting eagerly stuck in alongside their children. Rugby is about having fun and playing a team sport with your best friends.
“You could see, even at that young age, that Jack was a balanced runner and could pass the ball – if you could get him to pass it that was,” says Brooks, whose son Ben has been one of Nowell’s best friends since those first sessions.
“He had pace, he had a nice step, he had vision, it was all there. But at that point there was no way you would think he was going to be an international.
“All the lads that played in that early age group were in local schools within a couple of miles of each other, they would play with each other and then they would turn up and play rugby with each other.
“It is a close-knit community and we just tried to have fun. They were all very good friends, including the parents and there was a good social scene.”
Exeter Chiefs hooker and England tourist to New Zealand last summer Luke Cowan-Dickie – standing tall by Nowell’s side at every stage of his rugby career – was also part of that stellar minis crop. But you would be mistaken in thinking Nowell made a seamless transition from his Cornish community to England age-grade honours and ultimately the senior side.
Nowell’s ambitions in the game were modest and only developed bit-by-bit, as he explains. “The first stage of me thinking I could be a professional rugby player was when I was finishing college.
“Going into college I wasn’t even expecting to get in the Truro College first team; I thought I would be in the second team or the third team for the first year. But playing first team rugby for college and also for Redruth, at the end of that Exeter told me that if I trained well, played well and performed in those games that there would be a contract waiting for me at the end.
“For me that was a real goal and I think if I didn’t have that offered I wouldn’t have known what to do. After getting the contract with Exeter I was just happy to be a Premiership player but once I was up there I just wanted to go forward.”
Up until that point becoming a part of the family’s fishing tradition – operating since the 1800s when gill nets and sails were the order of the day – was a potential option, as Nowell used to tease his mum. Michael Nowell describes the profession as “not for the faint-hearted” and does not expect Jack’s younger brothers Henry and Frankie to join the business either.
“I’m a partner with my brother Steven; we’ve been in partnership for 23 years now. In the summer time it can be lovely – the sunsets are beautiful – and you can go swimming but in the winter there are gales and it can be frightening. And if you don’t know what you’re doing it can be dangerous.
“It’s been a steady living for us and there’s a good future in it, but whether any of my sons will come into it or they’ll follow Jack we’ll see. I wish they would follow Jack actually; I missed a lot of them growing up being a skipper and at sea all the time. We used to do eight days at sea and maybe only have one day off, so I did miss a lot of it. It’s quite nice being ashore and being around a bit more.”
Nowell is immensely proud of Newlyn and spending the majority of his time in the high-octane world of professional rugby, “would not change for anything” the way he is treated by family and friends when he’s back in the village.
Sporting the same maritime-inspired, sleeve tattoo as his dad, he concludes: “I’m just Jack from Newlyn. My whole family still lives there and it’s nice to go back and be brought down a peg or two and keep both feet firmly on the floor. I love the fact that my family treats me the same, my friends treat me the same, they still tease me all the time.”
And his parents believe his upbringing has made him a better rugby player and helped his rapid rise to the very top of the sport. “He’s pretty laid back and I think that makes him a better player,” says Michael.
"Everyone treats me the same in Newlyn; I wouldn't change that for anything"
“He’s very proud of where he comes from and the history of Newlyn; we’re slightly different but he’s proud of that. Not that many people get that far from down this neck of the woods.”
While England Rugby TV is wrapping up a thoroughly entertaining day, one moment neatly encapsulates Nowell’s connection to his early rugby education and the enduring importance of where it all started.
Brooks recounts how he was at first slightly bemused to receive an unexpected call from Nowell on his birthday – “you’ve never called me on my birthday before, Jack” – in February 2013, only to become emotional when the boy he had coached for a decade offered him one of his prized tickets to watch his England debut against France in Paris the following Saturday.
He was speaking from the same mini and junior pitch where Nowell first picked up a ball and while the anecdote was being gleefully delivered, two figures added to the steady stream of youngsters chucking a ball around before training.
Frankie Nowell, aged 12 and a talented scrum half on Exeter Chiefs’ books, had arrived to slot a few conversions with his dad. You get the sense that the pitch will always be valuable to rugby in the area and maybe, just maybe, there will be another international off the Nowell production line.