From Kinshasa to Cardiff, Exeter University to Test rugby, this talented and versatile back-row has big ambitions. This feature first appeared in Rugby World in January
Cut another angle and you’ll see a different side to Wales’ Christ Tshiunza. Start off with his university studies. At Exeter uni, he studies sports science – makes sense – and business. That one? “I see it like a hobby because I’ve always wanted to get into the business world,” he says.
The adroit Exeter Chiefs back-five forward then catches the word ‘hobby’. For a start, he doesn’t quite know which aspect of the business world he’d wish to burst into, merely that he wants to make a big impact when he does decide. This is more like a driven young lad keeping his hand in on something that’s a little bit different.
Look at the 20-year-old’s journey from war-afflicted Kinshasa to Cardiff, and from university rugby to the Six Nations scene, though, and it has all been about offering up something brilliantly different. In past months, for example, he’s been tearing about for Chiefs with a seven on his back. However, he is anything but the fetcher type. As he explains with a knowing laugh: “I would like to publicly state I am not a traditional seven! But in terms of playing style and what the team wants to achieve, I suppose it depends, because every team plays differently.
“But at Exeter Chiefs they actually prefer playing with two sixes. They’ve tried playing with a conventional seven – Matt Kvesic was here before, for example – but I think they like two sixes as it offers options around lineouts and around the set-piece. They prefer a good, average height of a back five. Literally nothing changes (for me) apart from scrums as well. I don’t mind whether I’ve got six, seven or four on my back. It doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Which is fair enough when playing at club level. But with the log-jam of Welsh back-row talent, you do need a point of difference. And whatever Wales’ recent travails have been on the park, there is still an incredible opportunity for some young players to make roles their own.
On his potential calling card, Tshiunza says: “The fact that I can also play in the second row, to cover at four, sets me apart from a lot of them. Fair play, a lot of them are really good and I give credit to so many of them, but the thing we’ve lacked a bit with our back row is height. Which then takes away your lineout options.
“Like any other game, set-piece is everything so if you can’t win the ball at set-piece you’ve got no strong foundations to play off. Jac Morgan is a great player but quite small. We have Tommy Reffell who is also a great player. Sam Wainwright is another great player – a bit small. Taine Basham is a great player but also quite small. Do you know what I mean? So my ability to also be able to play in the second row sets me apart.”
There’s a refreshingly unfiltered directness about Tshiunza. You sense that he’s excited about what is happening in his professional life, but he is taking a lot in too. Having had a hiding off the All Blacks in Test rugby, to scoring a flying, touchline-burning try against Harlequins, to even recently playing university rugby, he’s certainly experiencing many varying forms of the game.
Related: The Intercept: Exeter’s Match-winning Try Against Harlequins
And on those games, while the 6ft 6in star can feel the different demands in pace (in terms of speed of thought and foot), he can still see the processes at play in each. It’s that approach, he suggests, that meant that when he crossed the sideline for his first Test match, against Fiji, he wasn’t nervous. You might want to put that down to precociousness.
It’s starkly clear just how young Tshiunza is when he says he has known Exeter and Wales squad-mate Dafydd Jenkins “for a long time” before saying that would be about five years! However, that is more likely to reflect his early awareness of what life can throw at you.
So in rugby terms, it will be reassuring for Wales and Exeter fans to hear the marauding forward talk of how complete players have to experience the rubbish results and knocks as well as the victories to be more rounded people. But in real-world terms, you can’t ignore his back story.
The making of Wales’ Christ Tshiunza
Born in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil war was the grim reality that finally forced the Tshiunza family (including Christ’s four sisters) over to Wales. Christ initially spoke no English. But he received the support of a community that barely knew him to begin with and as he grew in confidence and height, Welsh rugby became, well, unavoidable.
Tshiunza jokes that he only really touched a ball because he couldn’t avoid it, in 2013, and even then “my rugby knowledge before 2015 was non-existent!” But Whitchurch High School, situated in the northern suburbs of Cardiff, has reared more than its fair share of sporting superstars. Former Wales and Lions skipper Sam Warburton went there. So too did footballing hero Gareth Bale and Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. The school saw something special.
Soon it must have felt like fellow players were diving off the fast track as Tshiunza grew in power. From Cardiff U16 and U18, then pro team interest, contracts and a Test debut as a teenager.
The expectations are understandable. When The i newspaper recently asked Amazon Prime Sports’ pundits who to look out for in November, Warburton said of Tshiunza: “We’re looking for guys to fill the enormous void that Alun Wyn Jones will leave. I think he could be a player who could wear that Welsh shirt for the next decade.
“He’s 6ft 6in and he’s gifted from a physical perspective. He’s a great rugby player as well, a really intelligent rugby player and he’s really grounded, he’s willing to work hard and he’s won Man of the Match a few times already in the Premiership this year.
“I’m just hoping that Wales do give him that chance, whether it’s in the five or the six shirt. Because 12 months is a long time in international rugby and I think from now to next year, he could be one of the Wales superstars at the Rugby World Cup if he’s given the chance.”
Asked if he ever wants to model his game on other players, though, Tshiunza again touches on the idea of smashing moulds as he explains that he doesn’t want to copy any other top player’s playing style, though he may want to emulate certain elements of their careers.
“It’s players like Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Alun Wyn Jones,” he says. “I really admire the careers that they’ve had, and how they came up through the ranks as well. Their involvements with the Lions and for their national teams.”
All three play very different games, too: “I probably think I’m a young hybrid of those three,” Tshiunza replies. Then he describes how he thinks about his game at the moment: “It’s just instinctive. Everyone has different physical abilities. Like big strong props who like hitting a ruck, I’m not sure they think about hitting rucks, if you know what I mean? It’s about however best you benefit the team. Like Ellis Genge for instance – I don’t think he thinks about how he’s carrying, it’s just something that’s innate to him.”
Fans will hope he holds onto that instinctive side of his game. But while Tshiunza loves the people of Wales and is fiercely proud to represent them, he also tells us about Congo, which he hasn’t been back to since leaving there as a young boy.
“My sisters went back there for the first time in 13 years and they loved it. We’ve got so much family there and it’s about learning about your culture. It’s why everyone eventually does something like going onto Ancestry.com; it’s to know where you are from and what shapes who you are and where your parents grew up.
“It was a real eye-opener for them and it’s definitely something I want to do soon. With rugby’s schedule it’s tough though.”
Of course, there is no avoiding how big a year 2023 will be. And at this point the youthful confidence of Tshiunza again merges with an infectious ambition, the kind that coaches love.
As he explains: “The opportunity to be able to play in the Six Nations, to play for a Premiership team and also to do that in Europe, but also with the World Cup around the corner, it really is a one-from-one year. So I’m really going into 2023 with my head down and just grafting.
“I’ve got my whole life to rest. For me, 2023 is one of those years. I’ve already started prepping for it. I don’t really go out. I don’t want to get distracted and I want my body to be in the best shape possible because of all the rugby around the corner.
“I’m really looking after myself. So 2023 is a big year – it is definitely not a time to rest!”
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