Ealing hooker Alun Walker was left in no doubt what a bit of unexpected exposure can achieve. The Trailfinders Cup, an ad-hoc three-team pre-season tournament quickly organised in order to give some game-starved Championship clubs some matches, was supposed to begin out of sight and out of mind.
January 16 was set to be the Saturday of a weekend jam-packed with Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup fixtures. However, their cancellation created a void where the meeting of Ealing and Saracens suddenly became the only show in town.
Billy Vunipola’s appearance in the Sarries XV was the pretence for numerous heavy-hitters of the English rugby media circuit to don their masks and descend on Vallis Way along with England head coach Eddie Jones.
In the end, though, it was the two-try Trailfinders hooker who caught the eye in the 27-26 win by his team, so much so that he was quickly speculated as a potential left-field inclusion in the Scotland Six Nations squad due to some injuries in that position.
The suggested tie-up eventually came to nought, Gregor Townsend already having settled on the four No2s he wanted to rock up to training at Oriam this Monday to begin training for a campaign that opens with the February 6 London clash versus England.
PLAY OF THE WEEK:
Next is Alun Walker’s first try, which gave us the lead in the second half! pic.twitter.com/3GjyFyBKw8
— Ealing Trailfinders (@ealingtfrugby) January 19, 2021
All the same, Walker’s name was in headlines he never could have imagined. “That was pure speculation,” he told RugbyPass about the coverage suggesting he was a potential Scotland pick. “I have not been involved in any of that stuff since I was a young kid back at Edinburgh.
“It was just speculation. I got a lot of jabs off the boys. It was back and forth with other people. But there was no real substance behind it, shall we say. It was one of those where the club is first and foremost and anything that comes on top of it will come because of what I’m doing here.”
What the 30-year-old has been doing at Ealing is an incredible shift where he deserves any accolade he gets. It was 2014 when he first pinned his colours to the London club’s mast, a year on loan at Nottingham bringing the curtain down on his time at Edinburgh but unexpectedly opening a door elsewhere.
Walker had twice played Ealing during that Championship season and while they went on to be relegated to National One, there was something about Ben Ward that piqued the front row’s interest and convinced him to take a step back into third-tier rugby in England to go forward long-term. Seven years later, the relationship is still going strong.
Looking back on cutting the umbilical cord with his Scottish roots, Walker said: “It was one of those where I was in the mix and then had a really unfortunate injury, a hamstring, and I was out for almost a year. I don’t think that helped.
“I went out on loan to Nottingham and then when it came to the end of that I had a chat with the coaches at Edinburgh. I had moved down the pecking order and being a young kid I just wanted to play some rugby. When I spoke to Ben he sold me the dream about where he wanted the club to go. He’s a great ambassador for the club and when I spoke to him face to face, he convinced me what his club could be.
“You can say it was a bit of a gamble in terms of I was still young 20s at the time but the way the club has developed and the way they treat you with injuries and stuff like that as a person and as a rugby player, I made the right decision in terms of being here. They had faith in me and I still have massive faith in this club. It’s blossoming very nicely at the minute. Hopefully, it can continue to build.”
A consistent performer at Championship level, Walker could at times have opted for greener grass elsewhere but there is an earthiness about Ealing that suits him just fine. His latest contract extension – agreed last March – will keep him on the roster until summer 2022 at a club that could have cast him adrift that long-ago first season in tier three.
All it takes is one game ? pic.twitter.com/H2iIZtFWFg
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 19, 2021
“I remember my first year with Ealing where I blew my leg out, missed the whole year and the club looked after me. I was grateful. Ever since then the club backed me and I backed the club. Loyalty swings both ways. It’s tough to see in professional sport nowadays with that loyalty, but it is something we are starting to drive through the squad.
“We have had boys who have left to have a go at the Premiership who have come back because they really enjoyed where they were in the past. That is a great thing that we are starting to grow. When we went down to National One it was very interesting. It was the first year that Ealing went full-time pro, so we had the squad assembled and were the only team training full-time.
“That was what helped us in National One and then getting up and staying there that first year, the belief in the club and the boys that came in did a fantastic job in just staying up. We all believe we should have been higher up that first season but you could see how we were developing and now we are fighting at the top of the Championship every year and can see where the club wants to go.”
A vibrant academy, shrewd recruitment, an educational tie-up with Brunel and the generous deep pockets of owner Mike Gooley are all aspects of the commendable infrastructure now in situ at the ambitious club who have grand designs on ultimately doing an Exeter – working their way into the Premiership and staying there before certain top-flight administrators get their way and ring-fence the league.
?? How many tries did you score yesterday, Lunny ? pic.twitter.com/dBBxUwAJ6Z
— Ealing Trailfinders (@ealingtfrugby) January 17, 2021
“Some Premiership clubs want ring-fencing for certain reasons but you only have to look at people like Rob Baxter and Exeter and how they did what they did,” said Walker, playing up the credentials of tier-two rugby. “To get to where they are now, that is the ambition of every Champ club that does want to get promoted.
That is where we are trying to get to. Be it now, be it ten, be it 15 years down the line, that is where this club wants to be and the whole ring-fencing, I don’t think it is anything we have spoken about as a club. We have never had those conversations here. We just come in week in week out to do our job.
“Not having a season yet this year it has been tough but as I say with that whole loyalty thing, boys are in here giving their all in this lockdown trying to make sure this club is in the best possible place it can be whatever happens.
“There is a playoff at the end of this year with the way it [the Championship] will work. I know Saracens have a lot of players to come back, a lot of internationals. But for us, it is a case of making sure that this year – and even in this Trailfinders Cup – that we continue to grow to be in the best possible situation for that end of year scrap.
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“Being a long way from home, Scotland down to London, Ealing has been my second family. The fans are very loyal. Mike the owner, I got introduced to him very early on and we stay in touch. This lockdown has been tough for him being away from the club and his environment, but the big thing for us is we are very tight-knit.
“Mike has backed us as a business, as a club, as players. He is our investor and what he has done for us has been amazing. Some of the Prem clubs are struggling but he has always been there for us. Being that far away from home, a lot of the boys and staff included, those conversations are always easy to have.
“There is always someone to look in on you which is nice and we are trying to promote that to make sure people know who we are. Last weekend was a good one for the club in terms of putting our face out there, having people taking notice of who we are what we are about.”
The precious fact that Ealing were able to get back playing is something Walker cherishes given how the UK is in enduring its sternest lockdown yet. “It’s not under-appreciated that you can get in here and be with the boys, have these conversations which people on furlough can’t have. We are very lucky.
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“My missus works as an IC nurse in hospitals so she is working on the front line of Covid and what I do as a job and what she does, there is no comparison. It’s one of those things I feel very lucky about. You go home and complain about your back being sore and then she turns around and says what she has been doing, it very much puts you in your place.
“It’s one of those situations where boys have taken notice of how they need to be whiter than white. We’re in the spotlight and we’re working when a lot of people aren’t. As long as people keep doing the right things, this season hopefully does get started.
“Having this experience has been very humbling. I drive in every day from Oxford and I went from having to leave first thing in the morning at 5am to now leaving at 7 because there is no traffic. Although it is great for my sleep it’s tough to see the city not running the way it normally does because it is a very vibrant city because there are always people around. Now you’re seeing shops closed and shops that are closed for good. It’s something that does hit home.
“We have a high street along the road from the club where a lot of our sponsors are, food stores, individual stores and whatnot. It’s a case of making sure we are doing all we can for these places and vice-versa. It has been very humbling that we are still working through this pandemic, but we have to stick to very strict rules in terms of what we do so we can get this season kicked off.”
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