Jack Willis doubts he will ‘ever be fully at peace’ with England ineligibility

Alex Spink
England's Jack Willis after the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool D match at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, France.

England's Jack Willis after the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool D match at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, France.

Jack Willis has revealed how he deals mentally with being ineligible for the England rugby team he has spent his life working to play for.

The Toulouse star admits he will “never be fully at peace” with the scenario he finds himself in: at the peak of his career, playing for the most successful club in Europe, yet not allowed to represent his country.

On Sunday evening, he confirmed himself as one of rugby’s finest back-row forwards in a try-scoring display against Bordeaux, sharing a field with France stars Antoine Dupont, Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud and Matthieu Jalibert.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be fully at peace”

But that cuts no ice with Rugby Football Union bosses, who insist on Red Rose players operating within the English club system.

This is becoming a hotter topic by the day, with Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Lewis Ludlum, Kyle Sinckler and Courtney Lawes about to join the English foreign legion in the Top-14.

Lawes spoke out last week, telling Twickenham chiefs that “if your best players are playing abroad, then you’re only hurting yourself.

“We’ve seen some of our players become better abroad,” he added. “You’re wasting their talent if you’re not picking them.”

Despite England’s much-improved showings against Ireland and France, the world’s richest and best-resourced rugby nation has not won a World Cup since 2003 and lost more games than they won in three of the past four Six Nations.

“The hard thing for me is being out here I don’t have the opportunity to give myself a shot,” says Willis, who moved to France only after his Wasps folded and he was left without a club.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever be fully at peace with it.”

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A year ago, England head coach Steve Borthwick appeared to push for a change to the RFU policy.

“I want to make sure we are able to select the greatest number of players possible,” he said. “And the best players possible.”

Premiership Rugby boss Simon Massie-Taylor quickly extinguished this hope by declaring that “we all agree England international players should be playing in the Premiership”.

From the home in the south of France he shares with fiancee Megan and their two young children, Willis has seen opinion sway one way then the other, powerless to influence it in either direction.

Complete reverse

When he signed a new deal with Toulouse and their team of Galacticos after the World Cup, he felt “it was heading towards that it was going to change”. Now, he concedes, “it has done the complete reverse.”

“If I’m honest, change doesn’t look likely at the moment, and I have to get my head around that,” he admits. “Things change at different points, and my situation might. But as things stand, this is where I’m at.”

It is a source of obvious frustration for a player who won his 14th cap against Chile in September, and while Willis understands the reasons for the ruling, he has needed to develop a coping strategy.

He explains: “In order to be happy in life you can’t always be looking over the fence at the next thing. You’ve got to be at peace with the decisions you make.

“If you spend time worrying about what you haven’t got, if that’s the mentality you have, it can become quite exhausting.

“Obviously, I will always want more England caps. To play for England is incredible. I’ve got some incredible memories doing that. But the most important thing for me is to focus on playing as well as I can for Toulouse and see where that gets me. And to focus on how lucky I am to be in the position I’m in.

“I’ve got an amazing family that supports me to the hills. I’m very grateful for that. I’ve got to play as well as I can with a smile on my face. That’s my prime aim at the moment.”

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Learning from Zach Mercer

The example of Zach Mercer is a salutary one for Willis and any other French-based Englishman who might think coming home is the panacea.

Mercer, French Top 14 player of the year at Montpellier before signing for Gloucester with the clear aim of making the World Cup, was then cut by Borthwick.

“There you are, no guarantees,” said Willis. “Zach is a fantastic player, and obviously, I don’t know the situation or the conversations he had with the England coaches, but you can never guarantee selection.

“If I was coming back to England one of the biggest motivators would be to try and give myself the opportunity to play for England, but you can never have an expectation that that’s going to be the case. There are too many variables.”

Defeat at Bordeaux leaves Toulouse second in the Top 14, three points behind Stade Francais, with an upcoming Champions Cup last-16 home tie against Racing 92 who, next season, will have Farrell calling the shots.

Willis, for one, looks forward to welcoming the former England captain and his family to France.

“Someone like Owen, who’s given everything to the game in England his entire career, deserves to go and do whatever he chooses,” he says.

“I honestly think it will be great for him to have something different, and I wish him all the best. The same for Manu (Tuilagi) at Bayonne.”

Wasps return?

As for Willis, could a return one day to his beloved Wasps even be a possibility?

The two-time European champions last month confirmed they had secured the “core sustainable finance” and remain on track to “eventually” relocate to Kent.

“Ah look, pulling on the Wasps shirt again probably right now feels a bit of a fantasy,” Willis says.

“It’s something in the back of my mind that I never quite got to 100 games for Wasps and I really do wish all the guys working for the club the best on that front.

“Their key aim is creating something sustainable and if it’s not possible to create that they won’t do it. I think that’s the right mentality and I really hope that’s the case because what we went through wasn’t fair. It was tough for everybody.”

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