South Wales coach full of pride after Immanuel Feyi-Waboso try against All Blacks as ‘tough conversation’ pays off

Alex Spink
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso scoring for England against All Blacks.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso scoring for England against All Blacks.

Saturday morning in South Wales and a cheer goes up as England score the try which puts them ahead against New Zealand.

Watching from afar Anthony Johnson, a former British judo champion turned rugby coach, raises his arms then smiles to himself.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has just latched onto Marcus Smith’s long pass and scored his second try in two Test matches on tour.

Feyi-Waboso delight

The player he coached as a kid at Rumney rugby club, just outside Cardiff. The player who, but for him, might not even be playing rugby let alone starring at the highest level of the game.

“He’s thriving, isn’t he,” says Johnson, who coached Feyi-Waboso from under-11. “He was like that as a kid, to be honest. The tougher the competition the better he seemed to become.

“Playing sides we knew we were going to beat he’d turn up lethargic. Against the big boys he was a different animal, he couldn’t wait to play. Manny rises to the challenge.”

The All Blacks discovered that in Dunedin, just as Japan had the game before in Tokyo.

There was no panic from the 21-year old, no over eagerness, as England surged towards the try-line shortly after half-time with the scores locked at 10-all.

He waited patiently on the left as Tommy Freeman punched the first hole right of the posts. As All Black eyes focused infield on Maro Itoje, then Chandler Cunningham-South, taking the ball up, Feyi-Waboso kept his width.

By the time Sam Underhill and Ben Earl had each had a dart New Zealand’s defence was softened like a piece of steak tenderised by a meat mallet. It was try time for the young Exeter wing.

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As he touched the ball down, Johnson looked across at his wife and they laughed in unison at what had become of the boy they helped turned into a rugby star.

“It was a surreal moment,” he recalls. “My wife used to be [team] manager and we quite often talk about Manny. It’s amazing to see him doing the things he is at the level he is.”

How different things might have been had Johnson not persuaded Feyi-Waboso’s father that his Cardiff-born son was a generational rugby talent.

Dr Andrew Feyi-Waboso, a consultant ophthalmologist in South Wales, was determined nothing should get in the way of his son’s own path into the medical profession.

“We had a tough conversation at one point,” Johnson reveals. “He did not want him to play at all. Education was everything.”

The former judoka had already seen enough of the young Feyi-Waboso to know he possessed an X-factor.

“He was quick, he was powerful, he was intelligent,” says Johnson. “He understood the game, had a good eye for the ball. Above all he was such a physical athlete. Even at a young age, 13 to 14, he would stand out.

“That day talking to his father I tried to spell out how different Manny was as a player. How phenomenal an athlete. I said to him that if he did choose rugby there was a real good possibility he could make it.

“His dad was fairly strict and didn’t want rugby to effect anything, but I assured him he could play the game alongside his education.”

Johnson says the breakthrough came when he persuaded the player’s dad to come and watch a couple of his regional games.

“Manny had a stormer and the family saw for themselves how much he stood out. That group of players were the elite and Manny stood out a mile. His dad was like, ‘yeah, yeah, I see’.”

Feyi-Waboso went to Clifton College but when he failed to get onto a medicine degree course in Cardiff – despite achieving one A* and two As – took his studies to the midlands, enrolling at Aston University and joining nearby Wasps.

That thrust him onto England’s radar and, well, the rest is history. Having a Gloucester-born grandmother of course helped.

“Some are very tribal, they want everyone to play for Wales, I’m just thrilled he’s thriving in the environment he’s in,” says Johnson. “Seeing what he is doing now gives me so much pride.”

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