Tavis Knoyle may be only 21 but he’s got an interesting – and varied – CV. His list of jobs includes labouring, packing shelving in a factory, window fitting, rubbish collection and working in a coalmine. These days, of course, he’s a professional rugby player hoping to go to his first World Cup.
The scrum-half has always had talent. He learnt the game at Glynneath and played for Wales U16 as well as being picked up by the Ospreys academy, but there were no full-time contracts forthcoming when he left school at 16, hence his forays into the workplace. His stint at the Ospreys lasted a year – “I didn’t get much of a look-in as there were so many scrum-halves there,” he says – and then he started turning out for Neath. It looked like his rugby career would be on a semi-professional basis at best – but then Phil Davies stepped in to help him make the breakthrough in 2009.
“Phil fought very hard to play me for Wales U20,” explains Knoyle. “They had a policy of picking people in academies and as I wasn’t involved in one he had to fight tooth and nail to get me in. It was hard for him to pick me because I wasn’t training every day with an academy, but he told me to keep doing what I was doing and I played a few games in the Six Nations. I have a lot to thank him for.”
Knoyle impressed enough in those matches to be snapped up by the Scarlets, much to the delight of his dad David, who’s supported Llanelli for 40 years, and he quickly made the step up to the Wales senior squad, making his Test debut against New Zealand in Dunedin last summer. He admits that the step up to professional rugby has meant a few lifestyle adjustments.
“I remember watching the 2009 Lions tour and seeing players like Mike Phillips and Steve Jones,” he recalls. “They were people I never thought I’d meet but now I’m training and playing with them. It’s great but I’m trying not to be overawed by it; I respect them but have to get on with it.
“The only thing I was doing to keep fit before was road running and I wasn’t very good in the gym. I was really bad when I came to the Scarlets, embarrassing. I’d just been relying on weight rather than strength, but I’ve got better.
“I used to eat lots of junk too; I’d have sausage rolls every day. My diet’s changed dramatically and I’ve lost 13kg to go down to 90kg. Now I eat things like meat, eggs, salad – boring stuff! When I finish playing I’ll be 19st because I’ll eat all the crap in the world!”
Knoyle is currently working on his own culinary skills having just moved out of the family home in Glynneath to Llanelli. Scrambled eggs are fine but he admits his dad has been trying to teach him to cook things like steak, with limited success. However, for the next few weeks at least he shouldn’t have to worry too much about mealtimes as that will be taken care of for him while he’s in camp with Wales.
This month he’s targeting the World Cup warm-up games against England and Argentina to push his case for a spot in Wales’ 30-man squad. The other No 9s in the training party are Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel, Richie Rees and Lloyd Williams, though Rees was dropped for the second Poland training camp. Given recent form, Knoyle is one of the favourites to make the trip to New Zealand and he’s doing all he can to improve his game and therefore his chances.
“I want to be a good ball player. Steve Jones talks about keeping the ball alive and I’ve got to try to offload more and keep it alive. I’m trying to develop and bring that to my game.
“I’m working on it all the time and I watch other scrum-halves like Dwayne and Will Genia, looking at the way they move the ball. I look at Mike and the way he keeps the ball in contact, his defence and tackling ability. I’m trying to get all that into my own game.
“It’s about being accurate in everything I do and being confident. There’s less chance of making big mistakes if I do the basics well. The World Cup is a good thing to look forward to and I’m working hard towards it. I’m just trying as hard as I can and working hard.”
Knoyle was in primary school when Wales hosted RWC 1999 and he recalls all the pupils watched the opening ceremony, followed by Wales v Argentina, together. He also got to see Wales play Samoa in that tournament. He was “up in the gods” at the Millennium Stadium for that match – the only Test he’s ever been to as a fan – while he’s now the one people are watching out on the pitch. He may not have taken a conventional path to the top, but he’s enjoying it all the more now he’s there – and a smile is never far from his face.
“It’s brilliant. I’m never down, I’m always happy. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I used to think I was in dreamland but now I’m doing it. I just enjoy playing rugby and I’m very lucky.”
This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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