Rugby: Ball's fast rise from bowler to test lock

By Gavin Mairs

Jake Ball has no regrets playing for Wales. Photo / Getty Images
Jake Ball has no regrets playing for Wales. Photo / Getty Images

When Jake Ball runs out at Twickenham tonight (NZT) for the vital Six Nations clash between Wales and England, he will most likely be recognised by England supporters as the one with the WG Grace-style beard who took chunks out of the French pack as a late stand-in for Alun-Wyn Jones during their victory in Cardiff.

What is certain is that few beyond his father Dave and grandfather Cliff, who will be in the crowd, will be aware of the extraordinary story behind the journey that took the 22-year-old lock to the test arena with Wales in his first full season of professional rugby.

Born and raised in Surrey until the age of 16, Ball had been on the verge of becoming a professional cricketer in Australia when he made a volte face to pursue a career in rugby just four years ago. Since the age of 15, his life had been dedicated to cricket, with his family's decision to emigrate the following year to Perth, Western Australia, largely based on the desire to give him the opportunity to follow his sporting dream.

A fast bowler who at the age of 17 was clocked at over 130km/h, he was regarded as one of the finest talents in the state under the tutelage of former test player Geoff Marsh at Fremantle District Cricket Club.

A year after leaving England, he was selected to open the bowling for Western Australia under-19s. When he retained his place the following year, he was destined for a professional contract and had been asked to join a fast-track training programme at Australia's famed centre of excellence in Queensland, the nursery for future test cricketers.

Then he had what he describes as an "epiphany" during a game. He walked away from it all to have a crack at making it in rugby union, his sporting first love.

"I was playing an A-grade game in Fremantle and I came off at tea and my mother was there watching and I just told her, 'I am not enjoying this any more. I love the bowling part of the game but I can't stand standing around the field'," Ball said. "I knew in a couple of months there would be a contract on the table but deep down I knew I did not have it in me to want to do it professionally.

"I told Geoff Marsh and he tried to convince me to keep playing but my mind was made up. Deep down inside, I missed my rugby. I would probably say I was quite aggressive for cricket. I didn't like getting nicked through the slips."

The fiery side of his character, his 1.98m frame and no little skill enabled him to make the transition to top-flight rugby with remarkable speed. He had begun playing at the age of five at Camberley, starting on the wing but moving to the back row by the time he was captaining Surrey under-15s before moving to Australia.

Not long after pitching up at the Palmyra club in Perth, where he would end up in the second row, he was fast-tracked to train with the Western Force. After bulking up his fast-bowler's frame from 95kg - his current weight is about 124kg - he was signed on a short-term contract.

He attracted interest from Llanelli Scarlets, who by then had become aware of his Welsh roots. His father, a former No8 with London Welsh and Harlequins, was born and raised in the north Wales town of Pwllheli. He received only a five-month contract from the Welsh region but this season forced his way into the starting XV, with his hard-hitting style bringing him on to Warren Gatland's radar as he searched for alternatives for the unavailable Ian Evans, Bradley Davies and Ryan Jones. When Alun-Wyn Jones withdrew on the morning of the France match with a foot injury, he was given his first start in the 27-6 victory.

On the eve of playing against the country of his birth, Ball, who was born in Ascot, insists he has no regrets about declaring for Wales.

"There were never any thoughts of playing for England," Ball said. "The reason why I came to Wales was to play for Wales.

"I am just glad I made the change when I did. It could have been a totally different situation if I had taken a professional contract in cricket, played for a year and not been happy. Sometimes I have to pinch myself about how quickly it has come about but deep down, I knew I could do it."

Meanwhile, England coach Stuart Lancaster has had to insist that his callow team are ready to show their growing maturity against Wales. Asked about Gatland's assertion that the English "boys" who suffered a thumping defeat in Cardiff last year may not be ready to become "men", Lancaster was defiant.

"Ever since that first summer tour of 2012 in South Africa, they have shown that they are able to go toe-to-toe against any international team," Lancaster said.

This is an England side with backbone, as shown by their comeback victory against Ireland a fortnight ago. Now they need to back that up with another big performance at Twickenham tonight.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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