This year should have been the happiest of Chris Wyles’s life. He’s already helped Saracens to their first-ever Premiership title and the other proud bookend to his summer will follow when he plays in the World Cup for the United States. There is no doubt that when he returns from New Zealand, Wyles will reflect on the best 12 months of his rugby career.
And so he should. For a player who almost turned his back on the sport four years ago, a Premiership winner’s medal and a second World Cup is vindication for sticking at it, for believing in himself. It’s all been going his way on the pitch – but Wyles’s satisfaction from his achievements have been tempered by a crushing bereavement.
As the 27-year-old joined his Saracens team-mates in parading the Premiership trophy around Twickenham, it was the absence of one of his biggest fans that sat at the forefront of his mind. His mother should have been there to witness her son’s finest hour, but had lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in March, aged 61. For Wyles the final was a day of the deepest sadness mixed with ultimate elation.
“You have two complete polar opposites: on the pitch, my most successful year in rugby and yet off the pitch it was probably my hardest year,” he admits. “It’s just a shame that she wasn’t there to see us lift the trophy. She would have been very proud.”
Wyles is full of praise for the support given to him by Saracens during his mother’s illness. The club provided a VIP box for his family at Vicarage Road to allow her to watch him in action, and allowed him all the time off he needed to cope with his loss. “All the lads rallied around,” he adds. “It was a great example of how a club can help out a player. When it all happened, the rugby helped me get away from it – I was able to distance myself from the situation. It’s also shown me that you never know what’s round the corner. You have to seize every moment.”
Wyles impressed that message on his team-mates in a meeting during the week leading up to the Premiership final, although they may not have needed telling. After being beaten in the showpiece the previous year by Leicester, they weren’t about to let this opportunity to beat the Tigers and lift the trophy slip.
“It feels great to be part of a Saracens squad that has won the championship,” says Wyles. “The next stepping stone is to be consistently a top-four team in the way Leicester are. You could call it revenge of sorts, but we wanted to play that top team in the final.
“It’s been an unusual journey for Saracens, which started two years ago with Brendan Venter coming in (first as director of rugby and now technical director), with a lot of changes and a lot of upheaval. Then we had Mark McCall taking on the job of director of rugby midway through this season, and it’s built up to this point. I’m still pinching myself thinking where we’ve got to.”
Wyles agrees that the win will put an extra spring in the step of Saracens’ international players when they appear for their respective countries at the World Cup. It’s a tournament that has special resonance for Wyles, who had been on the verge of quitting rugby before being summoned by the USA for the 2007 World Cup.
Wyles was born in America but moved to the UK with his English parents when still young. After graduating with a politics degree from Nottingham University and cutting his teeth with the city’s rugby club, Wyles was signed by Northampton but endured a torrid season as the Saints were relegated. Walking away from it all seemed a great idea – but the Eagles provided salvation.
“It was the end of a very tough season, which didn’t go that well for me personally, and I was at a stage where I was thinking I’d had enough of rugby,” he admits. “The US heard I was eligible; it all happened quite quickly and it saved my career. I was feeling low in confidence and thought, ‘I have a degree, I’m going to use it’. I wasn’t in a great place and had America not come along and given me a new lease of life I don’t know what I would have ended up doing.”
In France, then Saracens coach Eddie Jones spotted Wyles in a pool game against South Africa and the rest is history. But Wyles’s own progression contrasted with the fortunes of his country, who lost all four games and finished bottom of their pool. With Australia, Ireland and Italy lying in wait in New Zealand, another formidable task confronts the Eagles. But Wyles, who is joined in Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad by club colleague Hayden Smith, believes the USA can chalk up what would be only their third win at a World Cup this autumn.
“The Russia game is a massive one for us,” he says of the Pool C clash on 15 September. “Our World Cup will be based on that game. Outside of that, we have three games against three of the best sides in the world. You learn about people in these situations. It’s a great opportunity to show what kind of a player you are.”
It’s time for Wyles to “seize the moment” then, and give his dramatic year one final twist.
This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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