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'To get a third crack at it, I didn't want to waste it'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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It was quite the enormous summer of evolution for England under Eddie Jones, 16 new caps bringing fresh energy to an environment in need of repair following the derisory fifth place Six Nations finish. For sure, Marcus Smith’s baptism stole the show, his swashbuckling Twickenham impact levering him into an emergency Lions tour call-up, but the breakthrough of 31-year-old Josh McNally was no less impressive given the arduous road the Bath lock travelled to earn his Test debut.

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The RAF weapons technician walked in the door nine years ago at Henley Hawks to play seconds team rugby for a bit of fun, never imagining the multiple twists and turns that would unfold and take him all the way to Jones’ England team sheet. An injury soon nudged him into the grassroots firsts team, then came a first professional contract with London Welsh at the age of 25 that paid far less than his air force salary.

Redundancy followed, the Exiles going bust just a season-and-a-half later, and less than a year after London Irish had offered a pro rugby lifeline he was undergoing heart surgery after suffering a stroke. Somehow, he kept fighting the good fight, though, reviving his career, switching to Bath in 2019 and then getting an emergency England call when the originally selected Sean Robinson got injured in the first week of training.

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That similar injury fate eventually befell McNally, his shoulder getting banged up during the final week of camp, but by then he had done the deed and represented England, starting their July 4 win over the USA. Ten weeks later, his inspiring maiden run still hasn’t properly sunk in.

Instead, the focus since his unexpected debut has been on getting an operation and accelerating through rehab to ensure he will soon be in the Bath selection mix, ready to catch the eye of Jones before the Test squad is chosen for the autumn internationals. That will be easier said than done, however. During the recent series, the England boss wasn’t shy in telling his rookies that the average length of an England Test career was just seven caps, a real blink-and-you-miss-it existence.

Hence the reason why McNally was hard at it just minutes before he paused for a Zoom with RugbyPass, a breathless chat that started with an update on his latest injury status. “I have been doing rehab skills,” he reported, sitting down in front of a laptop to talk shortly after training had come to a stop for the morning. “Just a lot of getting the ball back in our hands. We are not in (full) training at the moment so the guys that are doing rehab are getting used to some of the muscle memory type stuff with the ball in hand.

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“It’s good. It gives you a bit more rugby involvement rather than just lifting weights and running. Hopefully, I will be back in a few weeks. Hopefully, I won’t miss too much. Hopefully, I will be back into rugby in the next week and then back on the pitch sooner rather than later.”

So then, what to make of all this England jazz as a 30-something who thought Test rugby was something long beyond his reach? “It wasn’t something I envisaged happening, especially the age I am at in my career now,” he admitted. “I’d sort of closed that door and it was unbelievable to get the recognition and go into that camp.

“There was a lot of new young talent in that camp – I definitely felt like an older guy there – but to just go in and express myself, do what I have been doing all season, was nice. It was nice to be recognised, but it hasn’t sunk in that I did play for England. To be injured at the end of the camp and coming back into rehab means it hasn’t probably sunk in and it won’t until I get back playing again as a capped international. It was an unbelievable achievement to represent my country and I hopefully can do it a few more times.

“There were a lot of guys getting their first caps, a lot of guys also didn’t get capped, and he [Jones] just expressed how few and far between these opportunities are. Those guys in the circle, Charlie Ewels, Ellis Genge, had gone above that number (the average of seven) and were in 20 caps and above, but a lot of the guys who were there it was amazing to think we can’t waste any opportunity to get capped because you just don’t know when the next opportunity is going to come.

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“That was definitely the mindset of the camp, players trying to get better, trying to improve themselves, and it has definitely made me a lot hungrier to come back to the club and go, ‘Right, what can I improve on, what can I get better, what can I improve in my game to get myself back into those environments again?’

“I’ll do something with them [his England mementoes]. At the moment I have them at home and it’s my wife who more wants to get them up and around. She was probably more proud than I was at the time. As I said, I still haven’t really reflected on it. It’s still just another bit of a game and a good day out. For me now I want to push to be involved, to get back in that frame. Get back fit, get some games for Bath and see what happens.”

It meant the world for McNally to be capped having spent his early working life in the RAF. He grew up immersed in the military, as his dad was a 22-year veteran, and it is a way of life he will return to whenever his rugby career is over and it is time to step back into the real world. “We travelled the world following dad’s life around,” he recalled. 

“We were in the Falkland Islands, in Cyprus, and just growing up around that whole military life, any question I got asked about what I wanted to do when I grew up, it was always to join the military and that is why I joined, it was never to play rugby. It was ‘join the military, travel the world, have a first-class job, amazing training, great life skills’ – and why I have succeeded so well in rugby now is a lot of those are now transferable.

“In talks I have done on leadership, all the skills are very, very transferrable. The teamwork aspect, the drive, ambition, everything comes from the military. I have just been immersed in that my whole life growing up as a kid, seeing that with my dad and then spending five years in the military before going into professional rugby has done me a world of good.

“It’s a different generation now but I know when I was growing up everyone’s first thought was that the military was a great career choice. A lot of mates growing up all joined. I’m not sure it is quite the same at the moment. The militaries are getting smaller and downsizing but it is still an unbelievable career path and one that has sparked a lot of conversations since I have been playing professional rugby. A lot of guys that maybe don’t quite make it, drop out of academies or whatever, they are now asking, ‘What is it like? How is it?’ I can only really speak good words, really.”

And vice-versa. Good words from the RAF were plentifully this summer when McNally was capped by England. “Just to see all those messages of RAF people giving me support was the most humbling thing. There have been people before me who have done this. Rory Underwood is the biggest headline name, but it’s amazing to think I am now in that bracket of an international military player. So many people have done it before, but to be able to do it in the professional era is a bigger achievement. Sam Matavesi, (Semi) Rokoduguni have done it and it’s nice to be able to put myself into that bracket and know that I have achieved something not many people have.

“Obviously my place as a weapons engineer has been filled, the RAF are surviving without me, but when I go back in there is a career waiting for me. I will go back in and do something potentially not in the engineering sector but I want to bring back as much experience as I can learn in professional sport and hopefully bridge the gap between pro and military sport to get a pathway for more players like myself.

“Being able to have tougher conversations,” he replied when asked what exact emphasis from rugby he can bring back to the military. “Rugby as a professional sport has become a very high-pressure environment, so being able to have those tougher conversations, challenging things more. In the military, you take orders from above but just being able to challenge that and being able to work out what is the best possible way – we encourage that a lot in rugby and definitely professional sport, just how to be able to cope in those high-pressure environments.

“We have done a lot of work with the leadership group here at Bath on how to deal with calmness in a game to make better decisions. It is something I have grown massively in the last couple of years and I hopefully can take back to the military or anything really later in life.”

Before we dwell on Bath and the giddy optimism McNally has for the new 2021/22 season, his baby steps at grassroots Henley can’t be forgotten. “I was talking about this the other day, going to Henley for my first training session and thinking it was an unbelievable step up. I had played for the RAF, played a little senior rugby at Spalding when I was based in Lincolnshire, but going to Henley, which was National Two at the time, I was like, ‘This is another level, I’m not sure I am cut out for this’.

“It was a lot more intense, the thinking time was a lot less, and just sitting down with guys in the RAF, they were the ones who were, ‘Look, just back yourself and immerse yourself, you have got the potential, you can learn’. I played three games for the Henley twos and it was through an injury I actually got the chance to play for the firsts and never looked back. It snowballed every single time.”

And yet, there were two cataclysmic moments when McNally’s career nearly melted away like snow on a rope. “With those two situations, I was staring down the barrel of not being able to play professional rugby again. I was in a very fortunate position to have the RAF to support me to take a huge pay cut and play for London Welsh to try and make it in the pro game but around the time London Welsh went bust, it was mid-season and I was injured at the time. I was, ‘Nobody is going to be recruiting me mid-season injured’. I was very, very lucky that London Irish came in and I managed to carry on. 

“And similar in my stroke, I was looking at retiring. If I didn’t find a cure for my stroke, that was going to be game over. From those two occasions, I had prepared in my mind to potentially be looking at life after rugby and going back into the airforce. To get a third crack at it, I didn’t want to waste it and that is what has continued to drive me all the way to this day. I never want to waste a day. I want to embrace every opportunity I get and it has put me in pretty good stead… I have been driven to think I can make it at this level, I’m here for a reason and I’ll try and learn as much as I can.

“I’m 31 and know that rugby isn’t going to be around forever and I just don’t want to waste any opportunity. Here at Bath I never want to waste a season. It’s quite easy when you are 20, 21, you are going to have ten seasons, but at this age now you don’t know how many seasons you have left so you want to just cherish every moment, achieve something and leave your career thinking, ‘I did everything I possibly could to achieve things’.

“I feel for some guys who are creaking already at the age of 26, 27,” he added in reference to colleagues who emerged via the academies and who have only ever known rugby. “For a 31-year-old I feel like I’m moving well, recovering from this injury extremely quickly. Coming into the game late I keep telling myself that I have got another few years ahead of me to play, that I’m still young for this game, that I’m not a 31-year-old in this game. I feel like I have got a lot more to give. My body feels great and it’s not really age that is going to stop me.”

Bath limped home in seventh place last term, a derisory outcome given the swaggering fashion they galloped into the playoff the previous season, but the summer appointment of Dave Williams as attack coach has McNally feeling the possibilities are endless. “We are just going to be a lot braver,” he reckoned. “Before, we played as if we didn’t want to lose.

“We tried to play a game where we would beat up teams upfront and be a lot more physical, rely on our set-piece and suffocate teams with our defence. That was extremely successful leading into that (October 2020) semi-final and we felt like okay we can get better at that, we can get better at plan A and tried to do that last season but teams are getting too wise to it now.

“Teams are keeping the ball a lot more, keeping it alive, and we just didn’t have time to impose ourselves in the set-piece and with our defence. Now we are going to try and win games, not going to try not to lose. We are going to be brave. It might cost us in games. We might concede points but we have got one of the best backlines in the league and we want to be putting those guys over the whitewash and getting those guys tries.

“We don’t want to be scoring pick and go and maul tries, we want to see Joe (Cokanasiga), Ruaridh (McConnochie), Anthony (Watson), Roko (Rokoduguni), those guys playing on the wings, scoring tries. It’s going to be a very different Bath and I’m backing that. People are going to be surprised with the way we come out and play this year. It brings excitement around this place, there is a genuine buzz, not just from the backs but the forwards are enjoying themselves being brave offloading.

“I’m not very good at that sort of stuff, but the boys have all got it in them. I remember Dave’s first session, he was just encouraging lads to move the ball, offload, move the ball, offload, move the ball, and it just seemed so alien to boys because of the way we have been playing for the last few years.

“But everyone has got that ability in them, to bring that into a few sessions and then all of a sudden we have got guys who are throwing offloads everywhere that probably haven’t thrown an offload for the last two years. It’s exciting and ultimately it’s what everyone wants to see, isn’t it? Everyone wants to see rugby like that. Crowds want to see that, we want to play like that. I’m very, very excited.”

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'To get a third crack at it, I didn't want to waste it'

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