Lovejoy Chawatama has come a long way since some difficult winter nights as a teenager fresh out of Zimbabwe adjusting to the much cooler environs of south London. The chill in the air just wasn’t what he was used to growing up in southern Africa. “I was used to playing rugby in the sun, not going out and playing in the snow and the cold,” he quipped to RugbyPass.

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“I remember one of the games when it was snowing, I wouldn’t get out and play. I stayed in the changing rooms and a friend had to convince me to come outside. There was no way I was going to play. I was always the last one to come out to training as it was always cold and windy at night. At training I used to wear three, four layers because I wasn’t used to this cold. It’s memories isn’t it? That’s what rugby is all about. I laugh about it now.”

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The 27-year-old has every right to. It was eleven weeks ago – on December 28 – when he reached another milestone in his out-of-the-ordinary journey into the paid ranks of professional rugby – starting his first-ever Gallagher Premiership match.

Unlike the multiple very young 20-somethings who accelerate through the club academy system, star at age-grade international rugby and then jump seamlessly and quickly into the English top-flight, Chawatama’s emergence has been a twelve-year slow burner. Commendably, he hasn’t forgotten where it started as he now coaches the forwards at London and South-East Division One outfit Beckenham.

“It’s coaching my friends and I really, really enjoy that,” he enthused. “Without Beckenham I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I’m grateful for what they have done for me. I joined a week after coming to England when I was 15 and the coach used to pick me up at my house every Sunday and take me to train while mum was going to church. The coaches saw something in me and they sacrificed so much, so going back there coaching now is great to be giving back.”

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It was only in the closing games of the 2011/12 season that Chawatama made the leap that has since taken him all the way to London Irish. He’d been a back row in his formative years but eventually figured prop was the way to go. England Students caps followed during his construction project management degree years at University of West England, and a stint with National League Two South Clifton then became the lever for a journey through the exiles of the capital, London Scottish and London Welsh before his January 2017 arrival at London Irish.

Twenty-three months later, he had the No3 shirt on his back at Sixways, taking on Worcester in that long-craved first Premiership start. “I’d been wanting for that for a long time, grafting away in the shadows and working hard. It was a dream come true, an emotional day, and I’m now working hard to get more.

“When I first came from amateur rugby I was just gym junkie strong, just the strong kid in the gym. My fitness was something I’d to work on coming into professional rugby. I was a bit too heavy, used to be about 120kgs when playing National One, and I had cut down.

“All I used to do when playing amateur rugby was spend time in the gym and study, that was all I did. I never did enough cardio. I didn’t think I needed that and then I realised that to be a professional rugby player you needed cardio, not just strength in scrummaging. Scrummaging was never an issue, although you have to keep learning the dark arts and keep improving. But you have got to keep getting fitter and stronger the right way. You need to carry the weight the right way.

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“That is up to the nutritionist and the strength and conditioning with London Irish… and I worked so hard on that because the game at this level is different. You need to be fast, need to be alive in the defensive line and in the attack, always moving and not being stationary. You’re always doing something. If you’re not fit enough you’re going to be left behind, so I’m always working hard on extras in fitness to keep up and make sure I’m ready when I get my opportunities.

“I’ve come a long way since I joined Irish from London Welsh, understanding what it means to be a professional, what it is to be a Premiership player. I did the rounds in the national leagues, in amateur rugby. My dream was to play Premiership rugby and I have achieved the dream, but it’s not enough for me. I’m pushing to one day become the first-choice tighthead with Irish and my next dream is to try and play for England.”

A giant of the game now bars that route at the exiles, legendary Wallaby Sekope Kepu checking in at Hazelwood at the start of winter after bringing the curtain down on his 110-Test cap career at the World Cup in Japan. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I have been given this year to play in the Premiership. I have always been a big believer that you get what you put in. I’ve been working hard and want to get better and better.

I’m grateful for someone like Kepu. You couldn’t ask for anyone better to learn off. Obviously, he is in my position but I’m pushing him, learning off him as well. He’s a great professional and it’s good to have those people in the club. I watch every other top prop, watch what props all around the world are doing to see how I can improve and be aggressive, to increase my tackles in a game and be effective in and around at the breakdown which is how we are judged on at London Irish, judged on our effort levels.

“You know when you get a jersey you have to give it your all and it’s just knowing when to take your moments in a rugby match, when to do stuff, just knowing how to be effective around the pitch and in scrums. Tightheads use a lot of energy when we scrummage so it’s about being smart how you play. To have someone like Kepu who has played over 100 Tests, you don’t play 100 internationals if you don’t know what you’re doing so just picking the brain of someone like him is amazing.”

Life is rosy for Chawatama, a soon-to-be first-time father who was surrounded by a swathe of energetic kids last Wednesday when RugbyPass caught up with him at Grasshoppers RFC as part of the London Irish delegation running a Project Rugby training session for people traditionally underrepresented groups in the sport.

“I absolutely love days like this. As someone who hasn’t come through the normal route, a day like today is great to give kids an opportunity to come in. I was once one of those kids when star players would come to Beckenham and I aspired to get from there to the Premiership because I saw how normal blokes played in the Premiership.

“The kids here, you know what they are like – questions are how much are you earning, what car do you drive, do you play Fortnite? They are always asking these general things. I’m not a Fortnite player. I used to play a lot of Fifa but now I try and get out and do stuff on my off days.

“That is going to help me in life after rugby. I’m quite a busy person in terms of my days off, studying a personal training level three course so I can be in the gym training people… the career in rugby is not that long, so it’s good to prepare for life after rugby. I’m always looking for opportunities and I jump on them because you never know who you might get to meet and who you might need one day.”

 

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La familia ??????

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England was always viewed as the land of opportunity growing up in Zimbabwe and there were sacrifices before it all gelled together for Chawatama. “Mum wanted to live here to get better opportunities for a better life. She was a teacher who moved up here teaching and I was in boarding school in Zimbabwe while she was over here.

“Boarding school helped me transition better when I did come over to England and I’m grateful for what mum has done for us. My grandparents are still in Zimbabwe and we speak on FaceTime and catch up. Mum goes back three times a year but I haven’t been for a while because what happens with all the studying in between the rugby, it’s hard to get the timing right to go.”

* Project Rugby – run by Premiership Rugby in collaboration with England Rugby and Gallagher – is designed to increase participation in the game by people from traditionally underrepresented groups: Black Asian and minority ethnic people, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and disabled people.

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