The uncapped Sale No 8's ball-playing and lineout skills have propelled him into Eddie Jones's first England squad. Son of Grand Slam-winning captain Bill, the 23-year-old has taken a different route to most in the pro game, as he recently told Rugby World…
I first played rugby aged seven at Fylde RFC. The ground was only a two-minute walk away and it’s where all my family have played their rugby as well. Then I moved on to schoolboy rugby at Arnold School in Blackpool, which doesn’t exist now because it merged with our local rivals King Edward’s.
I’m the youngest of three brothers. Sam, 30, is captain and No 8 at Fylde where I played a lot of rugby with him. Danny, 33, stopped playing when he went to work in London as an accountant.
I’ve only been a forward since I was 16 or 17. I wasn’t that big and played at fly-half or centre, and kicked goals. Growing up I followed the likes of Will Greenwood and Jonny Wilkinson, the 2000-2003 era.
It helps to have played in a variety of positions. I feel comfortable with ball in hand, especially in the wide channels. Not that I shirk going into rucks and doing the tight, nitty-gritty stuff – that’s my first priority – but if I can be used in those wider channels, that’s where I’m most effective.
I like the responsibility of making decisions on the pitch. Michael Paterson called the lineouts last year but then got injured, so Nathan Hines suggested to Steve Diamond that I have a go. They helped me massively. Bryn Evans is doing it this year but I’m comfortable stepping in.
We’re seeing more defending teams not contest at lineouts, which is not a positive move – it gives the opposition easy ball. If you’re well drilled, then the lineout is a good weapon to win ball back and slow down opposition phase play.
Brian Ashton was a big influence on my development. I played under him at Fylde and his way of thinking I’d never experienced before. He helped our attacking play, making us think on the pitch. To have world-class coaching like that at my age was really beneficial.
Alex Kaye at Durham University was also very influential. He toughened me up and gave me the belief that I was good enough to play professionally. I keep in contact with him a lot.
We won Rugby World Team of the Year at Durham and had to replicate a team shot. It was at exam time and we had to spray champagne everywhere and then go back into the library to do our last-minute swatting up!
The National Leagues contain some of the most skilful players I’ve come across. They maybe didn’t fancy the professional game or weren’t quite big enough.
In the Premiership there are lads I played with for England Students, like Alex Lozowski, Richard Barrington and Simon Hammersley, or against, like Tomas Francis at Leeds University. It’s rare for young forwards to get much game time in the Premiership so to do three years at university level is a great stepping stone to the professional game.
I missed the boat in terms of age-group rugby. I only moved positions at 16, 17 and wasn’t picked up by any Premiership clubs. I went to university purely to get a degree and chose Durham because of its strong rugby reputation.
Going to university made me more rounded as an individual. I studied geography and my dissertation was ‘The impact of mining on water quality in the Northern Lake District’. A thrilling title! It seems a long time ago now that I was stood in a river taking water samples and reading many a journal on water quality.
I had no thoughts of being a pro player. Halfway through my second year at Durham, I was offered a contract by Sale, who Fylde used to play in pre-season. I’d trained with Newcastle Falcons in pre-season and had to decide between them and Sale. I chose Sale because my roots were in the North-West and they were maybe showing a bit more ambition.
I’ve played at Twickenham five times. Four of them were with Durham: the Middlesex Sevens in 2011, and three successive BUCS finals. The last of those was my favourite day at the stadium because I was captain in our last game as a group of players and we beat UWIC. It was also my 21st birthday.
The other occasion was for England against the Barbarians last May. My try from that game is on YouTube because of an unbelievable bit of skill by Shane Geraghty, who flicked the ball between his legs to pass to me. I saw the hooker coming and thought I’d try to get outside him. Fortunately I did.
I’m one of the youngest ever Barbarians players. I played for them in 2010 when I’d just turned 18. Brian Ashton was the coach and I played against Combined Services at Aldershot and later against Richmond, when they celebrated their 150th anniversary.
Paul Deacon does a lot of skills work with us at Sale. We want to feel comfortable with ball in hand, try to keep the ball in play and challenge opposition defences. Sometimes it’s hard to break defences down but we know that eventually as fatigues sets in, and concentration goes, it will create opportunities for us.
I went to three matches at the World Cup – England v Uruguay in Manchester and both semi-finals. The two best teams were in the final. You’ve got to watch what New Zealand are doing, with Kieran Read, and Brodie Retallick as a second receiver in the line. The way they move the ball, they are so clinical. And they can up the intensity at any moment, like they did after half-time in the semi-final against South Africa.
Tiger Woods left me starstruck. I was only about ten or so at the time and saw him in the clubhouse at the Open at Royal Lytham, when the press were round him. He was actually stood next to me.
I follow golf and cricket, and football too – I support Blackburn Rovers and go to watch them when I can, which is about five times a year. My favourite sportsman is Cristiano Ronaldo but if I could have a free ticket to any sports event I’d probably go to Super Bowl – I’m a Patriots fan.
Fish and chips is my weekly ‘cheat’ meal. But I eat a lot of Italian food, pasta dishes. That’s my favourite food, and not just because I play rugby.
I always have to do the same pre-match warm-up. I do some short sprints, and take three high balls, but if I drop one I’ll have to take another.