For Ben Vellacott, the 2023 World Cup is Everest. But if the electric little scrum-half is to make it out of the foothills, his summer move to Edinburgh is utterly vital. Vellacott has long been sought by England, where he was born and raised, and Scotland, for whom he qualifies through his mother from Peterhead and represented with distinction at U18 and U20 levels. This move north feels like the decisive act in a lengthy saga.
The international talk has cooled these past two years, though, since Eddie Jones was pumping up his tyres as an England cap-in-waiting and Gregor Townsend was trying to name him in a Six Nations squad. Vellacott was used largely as an impact sub by Gloucester, where he began his career, and his 2019 switch to Wasps has only yielded an even greater poverty of game minutes.
The time at last is ripe to move north, embrace a new challenge and go full-tilt for France in two years’ time. “The World Cup is the end goal,” Vellacott told RugbyPass. “It’s only a couple of years away and everybody wants to play in one. But I just want to play rugby and I can offer something different to what Edinburgh have at the moment. I feel like I can spark their attack a little more when needed.
“One-hundred per cent, the World Cup is the end goal. I definitely want to play internationally at some stage but I want to play for Edinburgh to start with before even having those conversations. Playing week in, week out and putting in good performances consistently would hopefully put me in good stead with the Scotland selectors.”
For the entirety of Vellacott’s career, Scottish Rugby have kept a keen eye on his progress. Townsend tried to sign him for Glasgow; Edinburgh had a nibble when his Gloucester contract ran down. At that point, he didn’t feel fulfilled as a Premiership player, scorching off the bench every week, but seldom given the keys from the start.
It’s friends that make the tough times easier. We’ll keep swinging ? pic.twitter.com/l8rbPaJq82
— Ben Vellacott (@BenjiVellacott9) March 13, 2021
“The conversation between myself and Gregor had always happened in the background. There was interest from Glasgow, but the timing just wasn’t right in my eyes. As soon as my contract was coming to an end at Gloucester, it wasn’t the right time for me to move up to Scotland. The Edinburgh nines were performing really well at the time and I just wasn’t the best suited.
“I wanted to try somewhere else in the Premiership, but things just haven’t unfolded my way. When Edinburgh came knocking again, it was an easy decision to move. I feel like I can add so much to the group and just keep improving the club because as you can see from the signings and re-signings, they have got some unbelievable players and a very talented coaching set-up. I’ve always wanted to play in Scotland and I’m really excited to explore a new area and play in a different league.”
These are mighty big decisions and it is the mark of a headstrong player that he is unafraid of change and wary of stagnating in an environment. But frankly, little wonder. Vellacott turns 26 this month and has played only 61 top-level games. In the earliest throes of his Wasps spell, he wrecked an ACL in the Premiership 7s tournament and wound up tumbling down the pecking order. His haul of 16 Wasps matches and just four starts are a stark and meagre reflection of his talents.
“Only playing 15, 16 games in two seasons, that’s not good enough. I knew where I stood in terms of selection, how much I’d played, and that was always going to be a big factor in deciding to leave. I knew that pretty early on in the start of this season. I’ve always wanted to play up there.”
That injury was a real head-scrambler. Not just because of its gravity but because less than a week after recovering, Covid-19 sent the whole game into a state of indefinite suspension. “We’d had a 17-week pre-season and I did all that to then play sevens and do my ACL. I was meant to be out for six or seven months, but I got back in five and then two days after returning to full training Covid-19 hit.
“All of a sudden, it was another three or four months before we were back into training. I’d built myself up – ‘I’ve done so well, back into training, I’ve worked so hard’ – and then two weeks after we went into lockdown, my head was all over the place. I wound up going 15 months between playing games of XVs. When I looked at that I was like, oh wow, this is frustrating because all I want is to be out there playing.”
The timing was awful; the pain greater still. But from the adversity, Vellacott resolved to attack his rugby with a fine-toothed comb. As a pup at Hartpury, he was so freakishly agile that he could contort and scurry his way out of any conceivable jam. But not in the Premiership. Not with international back rows salivating like wild dogs at the prospect of smiting a 5ft 6ins scrum-half.
“I was always labelled as someone who can bring such tempo off the bench. I can understand that, but I want to start week in, week out. Going from the likes of Hartpury Uni, playing in Nat One, Nat Two, even in the Championship, I didn’t really have to manage a game very much compared to the Premiership.
‘If you’re good enough to play international rugby consistently, then great. But if you only play one or two games, it can be a real risk’
– @JLyall93 hears @BenjiVellacott9 on Scotland/England dilemma and joining @WaspsRugby ??????? ???????https://t.co/1F2t2j8v1H
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 23, 2019
“That was a big work-on, just being able to slow the game down in certain areas. Over the last couple of seasons, I’ve been able to work on that, I’ve worked hard with Ian Costello and Shaun Perry on my box-kicking and game management.
“I’d never really had to do that anywhere lower just because my running game was such a strength that I’d use it to get out of areas – in the Prem, defences are so good, that sometimes you just need to exit, or kick to get the ball back. That has come with age as well. I’ve matured over the last couple of seasons.”
Edinburgh ought to be getting a more rounded player than the one they tried to sign two years ago, but how exactly will Richard Cockerill deploy his newest weapon? There is no point in buying a Ferrari to cruise it around at 15mph and there is absolutely no sense in signing Vellacott and having him box-kick teams to death.
Edinburgh were the top try-scorers in the Guinness PRO14 last season, but this term, shorn of Test game-breakers for much of the year, their attack has been too pedestrian, too formulaic and altogether too blunt. “You hear so many stories about Richard Cockerill, what he did at Leicester, working with Ben Youngs, what he has done for players like that – it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” said Vellacott. “The squad they’re putting together and the ambition of the club really excited me.
— Ben Vellacott (@BenjiVellacott9) October 11, 2020
“Everyone knows the attacking style I love to play. If I could, I’d chuck it around from everywhere. That is my USP, that is where I’m different from the other three Edinburgh nines, being able to spark from anywhere, but the three current Edinburgh nines are all really great players and I look forward to playing with them all next season.”
One of that trio is almost certain to leave as Vellacott arrives. Nic Groom’s contract has the option of another year, Henry Pyrgos’ is expiring and the particulars of Charlie Shiel’s are unclear. Vellacott yearns to be top dog at a top club for the first time in his career. Lurking on the periphery, cameos off the bench, will not do.
In the here and now, there is much work to be done. The searing speed and saw-sharp wits are not as keen as they were before his ACL was splintered. “I’m nowhere near where I was before the injury. It has taken longer than expected and that has been frustrating for me, but it is coming back every day in training, the speed of thought is coming back, and hopefully I hit the ground running come pre-season.”
Vellacott has a towering incentive to rediscover his best self. Everest awaits.
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