TV celebrity Gregg Wallace has embraced rugby as a player, coach and supporter. The sport makes him feel like the cat that got the cream, as he tells Rugby World…

Gregg Wallace: “The best thing I ever did for my son was to take him to rugby”

GREGG WALLACE is the face of the BBC’s popular food programmes, fronting Eat Well for Less, Inside the Factory and, of course, MasterChef and its various spinoffs. The 53-year-old Londoner began his career in Covent Garden Fruit and Veg Market and later created George Allan’s Greengrocers, which achieved a turnover of £7.5m. The father of two children, Tom and Libby, he lives on the Kent coast with his wife Anne-Marie.

He’s about to hit the road with a brand-new stage show, Gregg Wallace: Doesn’t get tougher than this, which runs from September to November at selected UK venues. Rugby World spoke to him about another passion in his life – rugby union – for a column that features in our October 2018 edition. Here’s what he had to say…

RW: When did your interest in rugby begin?

GW: At secondary school. I was brought up as a Millwall supporter, so I was really into my football. I was quite a bright boy, I could read books, and I went to grammar school. I went to the London Nautical School. Funnily enough, Jeff Probyn (ex-England prop) went there as well. I discussed this with Jeff over a pint, he’s a few years (nine) older than me. They played no football, they only played rugby, so that’s when I started playing rugby.

Jeff Probyn

School link: like Wallace, Jeff Probyn was introduced to rugby at the London Nautical School (Getty)

RW: What position did you play?

GW: I played all across the back-line. I was never good enough for the school team. When I finished school, I didn’t play again until I was nearly 30 years old. I was playing for the local (soccer) team in Bermondsey and I was the only one who really watched rugby on television, the Internationals, none of my friends did. And then in the pub one day came this guy, a friend of a friend, who was the scrum-half at Eton Manor in East London.

He said to me, “I don’t meet many people round here who like rugby.” I said, “Well, I only played at school.” He said, “Why don’t you come to training?” So I started playing rugby again at the age of 30, at Eton Manor. I wasn’t good enough to break into the first team, and this time I played hooker. Which I really, really enjoyed.

After that, I played for London Welsh Occies, the vets side. I was in my mid 30s, going on 40, and by then my son (Tom) was five and in the minis at London Welsh. So I started coaching.

RW: Coaching your son’s team?

GW: Yeah, we moved from Richmond to Kent, so I coached him at London Welsh and then Whitstable rugby club. And then he went to Blackheath where they had really good coaches. I didn’t do any coaching after that.

Gregg Wallace

Show time: Wallace is going on tour (Jamie Hughes)

I’ve got two (coaching) certificates, one at London Welsh and the second at Whitstable. Because I played, and not all the dads played, I knew more about rugby than a lot of the other dads. And I was only helping out with the minis. The head coach said, “You’re good at this, why don’t you do this with us permanently?” And the club paid for me to go on a course and get properly qualified.

So that used to be my Sundays – coaching the kids. And my son was a much better player than me. He played scrum-half. I would go to watch his school team and he’d say to me, “Dad, can you just come as a dad and not as a coach?” “Yeah, okay, son.”

RW: Does Tom still play?

GW: Tom (now 24) has given it up for the time being. But rugby is what me and my son do together. We go to watch Wasps, home or away, and we watch England, home or away. That’s what we do together.

The best thing I ever did for him was take him to rugby at five years old. It’s been great for him, for his personal growth, and the best thing I ever did for us as father and son. It’s given us this great social life, and this great shared interest.

RW: Why do you love the game?

GW: I loved playing it, it’s such a physical and mental test. I love watching it because it’s so complex and it’s ever evolving. And also I just love the people who watch rugby, I just love the atmosphere of rugby. To be an away supporter, either of a club side or a national team, is just a glorious time.

Nizaam Carr of Wasps

Driving force: No 8 Nizaam Carr is one of Wasps’ big signings for the 2018-19 season (Getty)

I make a point at Wasps, if I see away fans in the car park, I go up to them and greet them and make sure they know where they’re going, and which bars to use. And I like the welcome that I get at other rugby clubs. So I enjoy the social side of it and I find myself so fascinated by the game itself, and how it evolves.

RW: So you’re a regular at Wasps then?

GW: Yeah, I like it up at the Ricoh Arena. My wife’s family are from Coventry, so I see them when I go up there because they’re Wasps fans. My wife’s cousin is in the Wasps academy.

I had a personal ambition fulfilled last season. I’ve always wanted to be famous enough to be picked out by the camera at a rugby match. And it happened for the first time ever at Wasps-Saracens at Allianz Park. It finally happened.

My son didn’t come with me to that match and he texted me before kick-off to say, “Big game today, Dad”. I said, “Yeah I know, I’m here”. He said, “I know, I’ve just seen you on the telly”. I went “Yes! Yes!” I texted my wife and said, “Have you recorded the match?” “Yeah,” she said. “Hooray!” I said.

So even though I’m on hours of television every year through many different series, it was that, being picked out by the camera at a Wasps match, that really made me happy.

RW: Who are your favourite players? We hear that Christian Wade is one of them…

GW: Yeah, I text Wadey regularly. He’s one of the most exciting rugby players I’ve ever seen. That man could go round three opponents in a phone box. From a standing start he’s absolute mustard. I like his mum and dad as well. I regularly have a drink with them after the match.

Christian Wade scores for Wasps

Gas man: Christian Wade scoring at Saracens in May – the match that saw Wallace fulfil an ambition

RW: What are your hopes for the new season?

GW: I’m really concerned about England at the moment. I’d like us to employ a bigger, angrier pack. I’d like to see some more grunt from one to eight. Not picking on any individuals. I’d like to see Ellis Genge (recovering from knee surgery) make a start for England. I’d like to see Wadey on the wing and Genge in the front row.

And I just want to see Wasps beat Exeter Chiefs or Saracens because we seem to be able to beat everybody else comfortably apart from those two teams.

RW: You won’t have to wait long for the first opportunity. Exeter visit the Ricoh next week…

GW: Exeter are my favourite set of away fans. I got annihilated one year. I put on Twitter, “On my way to the Ricoh to see Wasps. Very much looking forward to having a beer with the fantastic Exeter Chiefs fans.” Their official site got hold of it and tweeted, “Exeter fans on your way to Wasps, attention: Wallace is buying the beers!”

I just got inundated! Annihilated! I love rugby, don’t you? It could only happen with rugby.

Exeter Chiefs fans

Good company: Exeter fans enjoy the atmosphere ahead of last season’s Premiership final (Getty)

RW: Any stories from your travels around the Premiership?

GW: Quite regularly I get an invite to be in with the directors or the owners. I’m friends with Martin Thatcher, who owns Thatcher Cider, and he sponsors both Bath and Bristol, so that’s a good day out for me! My son lives down in Bristol, so I’m really pleased that Bristol Bears have gone up.

Shall I tell you what happened at Bath this year? They served me gravy instead of toffee sauce with the sticky toffee pudding! The catering manager came along and said, “I can’t believe of all the bloody boxes we’ve messed up the one that Gregg Wallace is in!” The gravy looks the same as the toffee. It was in a jug for us to pour on ourselves. I was outside at the time, talking to Matt Banahan. I came in and all the guys in the box were going “Uuughh!”

I’ve got to know Semore Kurdi, who owns Newcastle rugby club and is a great guy. He doesn’t drink so I sat having lunch with him. I said, “Your love of rugby… what is it about rugby and beer that you don’t like?” He looked at me and said, “Would you like a beer?” I said, “Please, if that’s okay!”

RW: We understand you’re an ambassador for a couple of rugby charities. Can you tell us more…

GW: That’s right. The (link with the) Hambo Foundation started with Lewis Moody and a friend of mine who’s a Leicester Tigers fan. They said, “Can we auction a dinner with you?” I said, “Yeah, we’ll have a dinner at The Ivy. I’ll come along to that.”

I met Hambo’s parents and knew nothing about Hambo at all. So I invited him to the BBC Good Food Show in the Midlands and met him, and decided that I’d like to help his charity.

Matt Hampson at a legends match in 2013

Charity fund-raiser: Matt Hampson watches a legends match at Welford Road in 2013 (Getty Images)

I’m the only person ever to go on Soccer AM holding a rugby ball. They said to me, “You can’t come on here with a rugby ball.” I said, “This is the Hambo Foundation rugby ball and I promised them that I’m bringing this on, so if I’m not allowed (it) on, I’m going to walk.”

People don’t know this about Hambo, he’s a massive foodie. Really into his grub and his wines because that’s something he can do the same as all his mates. So I’ve had two incredible dinners with Hambo and his friends.

I’ve been on the pitch at Leicester Tigers with Hambo; out of respect, I did take my Wasps scarf off. Otherwise I thought I might get booed! He raises money for youngsters that have had spinal injuries, whether that’s through rugby or sport or otherwise. It’s such a worthy charity and I get to mix with rugby players and chat about rugby a lot, which is one of my favourite pastimes.

“I’m the only person to go on Soccer AM holding a rugby ball”

The Wooden Spoon Society I got involved in because of big Phil Vickery, who won Celebrity MasterChef. I became friendly with him during his time on the programme and he’s heavily involved with Wooden Spoon and asked whether I’d be willing to help him host some events for them, which I was happy to do. Out of respect for Phil but now of course I’ve got to know people at Wooden Spoon as well, so I’m happy to be involved with that.

RW: What are you up to away from rugby?

GW: I have a new theatre show (click here to buy tickets). It starts in Lincoln on 8 September. There’s ten dates that you can find on my website between then and Christmas. I did four shows last year without advertising it just to see if they would work. And they do work. In terms of content they work really well.

But this is the first time I’ve officially done a theatre tour. If it works well, and all the signs are that it will, there will be 20 dates the year after.

Gregg Wallace

Juggling act: fitting in Wasps games will be trickier when Wallace starts his UK tour (Jamie Hughes)