Milling around the Vale of Glamorgan, days before Wales left for Japan, the national football side was sharing the same facilities as their rugby counterparts.
Being ushered across the road were a glut of Ryan Giggs’ starlets including Manchester United’s Dan James, Liverpool’s on-loan Harry Wilson and Chelsea’s on-loan centre back, Ethan Ampadu.
James, in particular, was boyish and small-boned. More Lilliputian than Gulliver. Within a minute of them passing, Wales rugby squad members rumbled down the road. The difference in physiques was stark. Alongside George North, Jake Ball and Alun Wyn Jones stood a clean-shaven member of the squad.
With a floppy fringe, wispy moustache and some familiar thick-rimmed glasses stood Aaron Wainwright, looking like an oversized boyband member.
Thankfully for Wales when the clean-cut Wainwright crosses the whitewash, he becomes more Superman than Clark Kent and his dynamism around the park has led to comparisons with two-time Lions captain Sam Warburton.
(Continue reading below…)
Assistant coach Robin McBryde has even said he could be better than the former Welsh icon. A year ago, you’d have said McBryde had his tongue firmly in cheek, but such is the back row’s progress McBryde’s boast no longer seems fanciful.
The 22-year-old was Wales’ standout performer in the summer warm-ups which brought a modest return of one win in four. He made over 80 tackles and bravely stood up to an Irish onslaught, notably throwing himself kamikaze-style at the towering James Ryan to chop him metres from the Welsh try line. The consensus was that he looked to the manor born.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 27, 2019
The first support runner on the shoulder of try-scorers Justin Tipuric and Josh Adams, he offered himself as a one-up carrier around the fringes, made his tackles and stopped the gargantuan Mamuka Gorgodze in his tracks, dislodging the ball. His final involvement in a dominant first-half was a flat pass to Hadleigh Parkes on the way to Liam Williams’ score.
Wainright’s rise has been meteoric. When he was first picked for Wales on the summer tour of Argentina 15 months ago, he was barely a household name outside his first club, Old Whitehead’s RFC in Newport. He was playing as a student with Cardiff Met only 23 months ago he was thrown into back row duty for the Dragons thanks to an injury crisis, but his immense work rate started getting him noticed.
One defensive tracking line against the Scarlets saw him powering past players as if they were stuck in treacle before making a key tackle. It was clear that, athletically, Wainwright could go to the next level. Taking a pew with Wainwright, you couldn’t meet someone more unassuming.
View this post on Instagram
Twenty-two last week, you were soon reminded of his age when his only World Cup memory is Lloyd Williams’ cross-field kick to Gareth Davies to set up a never-to-be-forgotten victory over England in 2015. For context, this writer can remember while in school watching Paul Thorburn knocking over an injury-time conversion for Wales’ third-placed finish in 1987. Coming from such relative obscurity, you wonder what Warren Gatland had seen in Wainwright’s DNA that made him want a closer look.
Smiling, he told RugbyPass: “Warren said he was looking for that someone who had a point of difference, that little something extra.” When pushed on what those are, Wainwright answered without hesitation. “My work rate around the park. He has asked me to focus on my strengths and hopefully I’m showing that.”
Gatland is clearly a fan, talking up Wainright’s explosivity, lineout ability and game intelligence but he knows he has room to improve. He quipped after a stellar, all-action display against England in Cardiff that he was waiting in earnest for Wainwright’s 50-metre break – like, for example, Warburton made against England in 2013. Is ball-carrying an element he can add to his game?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 25, 2019
“Well I’m waiting for my 50-metre break too. Like Warren, I’m hoping that comes in one of the games. I would say I’m pretty quick, so I’ll back myself if the field opens up.”
Wainwright’s prodigious lung-capacity has in part been attributed to a youth playing football where he was on Cardiff City and Newport County’s books. Playing as a central midfielder in the box-to-box style of Steven Gerrard or as a playmaker sitting in front of the front four breaking up play and spreading passes around like Andrea Pirlo.
When it comes to pace, Wainwright says he can hold his own in the Wales back row. “Our GPS unit tracks our velocity but there are a couple of quick boys. James Davies is pretty sharp but I’m up there. Physically, football has really helped with my engine for 80 minutes. You’re used to keeping the legs turning over and I get around the field okay.”
View this post on Instagram
While his international career is still in its infancy, Wainwright is happy to play anywhere and his trajectory has similarities with England’s Tom Curry as a next-generation back row hybrid, so has he settled which number he wants on his back?
“I’ve played at openside for the Dragons but for the moment blindside is where I’ve played my best rugby for Wales. It’s where my skill set is most suited. One of my weaknesses is the jackal area, which I’m really working on, and we have a lot of strength in depth at seven at the moment, so maybe it wouldn’t favour me. I’d love to have a crack at No8 one day.”
Wainwright knows he has much to learn and is thankful for the guidance more experienced squad members have given him. “All the senior boys are helping mentor me. They talk to me during the game, encouraging me to do things better. Dan Lydiate was really good in the autumn internationals when I trained and worked with him, Justin (Tipuric) and Ross (Moriarty) who are always on hand to answer questions.”
With Georgia beaten in Wales' opener, Stephen Jones has finally had an opportunity to grab his breath after an incredible week https://t.co/snuKmUGPuz
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 24, 2019
Another player to give nurture to Wainwright’s talent has been his team-mate at the Dragons, Cory Hill, whose importance to Wales was reinforced by his World Cup selection even when carrying the injury that eventually forced him out of the squad this past week.
“When I first came to the Dragons, Cory was the main person who came to help me with regards to lineout mechanics and structural play. If I wasn’t getting it, he’d sit me down and have a five-ten minute chat with me to help me out. He’s so experienced, a cool head under pressure.”
With Hill having to fly home, Wainwright will be the only Dragons starter at the Tokyo Stadium on Sunday and following a hard-fought win over Georgia, he believes Wales are still on track to get the better Wallabies who have been lying in the long grass.
Wainwright is poised to meet two icons of the game. “I can’t wait to face David Pocock and Michael Hooper and I’m looking forward to having a good battle with them. If we can move on to the knockouts to face the likes of Kieran Read (and New Zealand), it would be awesome. I’d love to see how far we can go in this World Cup.”
Wainwright still speaks in reverential tones about the game’s superstars but if he maintains his current trajectory, he will soon be viewed as a contemporary in the years to come.
WATCH: Alun Wyn Jones reveals the blood, sweat and tears of Wales’ preparations to take on the Wallabies
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.