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FEATURE Ethan Waller: 'I’d rather bow out with more in the tank than claw onto a career'.

Ethan Waller: 'I’d rather bow out with more in the tank than claw onto a career'.
3 months ago

When news broke that Ethan Waller was calling time on a 14-year career in rugby at the end of the season, the BBC ran the story with an image of the man grimacing. On his face was an expression of anguish. With deep wrinkles around his slitted eyes, it seemed as if a decade and a half of propping up scrums had taken a toll. Looks, though, can be deceiving.

“That’s the sort of face I always pull when I’m having a laugh with my mates,” Waller says with a chuckle. “I can see why they went with it. It looks like I’m struggling but I was definitely having a bit of craic with the lads. It’s an interesting photo but, ironically, it doesn’t reflect where I’m at.”

Waller, who’ll be 32 in August, says he is in “excellent shape”. That he’s playing some of his best rugby in a team that has a real shot at winning both the Premiership and Champions Cup. Why then is he joining his older brother and Northampton Saints team-mate, Alex, into retirement?

Ethan Waller
Waller says he’s playing as well as ever but with no new contract offer has decided to quit (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“I started the season with this being a possibility, but it wasn’t really my decision,” he explains. “I knew I was out of contract but when that contract wasn’t renewed the decision was pretty much made for me. I’ve been selfish for 14 years. I’ve put my career front and centre. But now I have to prioritise other people. I’ve got a young daughter and another on the way in May. I’ll miss playing but I’m looking forward to what comes next.”

Born in Kettering and a product of Wellingborough rugby club where he still coaches, Waller’s life revolved around the oval ball. Soon after graduating from high school he was placed in the Saints academy and his future was laid out before him.

“I’ve been scrumming for a very long time,” he says. “This club, this place, it means everything to me. Even before I started playing for them it was a huge part of my life. I used to watch them as a kid and it was always a dream to wear the jersey. To get to ride off into the sunset with more than 120 caps for the club is nothing short of incredible. I’ll be bragging about my time here for the rest of my life as I sit in the corner of some pub.”

We’re playing so well at the minute and I’m loving it. The place hasn’t felt like this for a long time. We fully back ourselves. 

All those appearances came in two stints either side of a six-year spell with Worcester Warriors where he racked up 118 appearances. Though he has fond memories of his time in the West Midlands, and says he’s “gutted” by the financial woes that befell the club, he is clear that the Saints always had his heart.

“I love that I’ll call it quits here,” he says. “And to do it in this current team. We’re playing so well at the minute and I’m loving it. The place hasn’t felt like this for a long time. We fully back ourselves. 

“Last year we were disappointed with how some big games went. We were ahead a lot of the time but let it slip. That hurt our pride a lot. We got to the semi-finals [of the Premiership, where they were beaten by eventual champions Saracens, 38-15] but felt we could have gone the distance. Being where we are now is a consequence of learning from last year’s mistakes.

Ethan Waller
Waller is part of a Saints side who are top of the Premiership and in the Champions Cup quarter-finals (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“The difference that [defence coach] Lee Radford has made is obviously huge. He has given us so much energy. You want to defend the line for him personally. It’s evident in our performances that we trust him. There are no individuals in the line.”

That last sentiment offers a neat segue towards a subject that matters to Waller. As chair of The Rugby Players Association, he is conscious of the need to promote the individual characters within the sport. Failure to do so, he cautions, could be disastrous.

“Except I have no idea how to do it,” he admits. “If I did I’d be a very rich man. But I do know that we have an ageing fanbase. Let’s be frank about that. And the financial issues are obvious for everyone. So we do need to better monetise the game.

Rugby can’t be shy or timid. It has to be bold.

“I guess we do that with the help of the people involved. If 14 years has taught me anything it’s that rugby is filled with brilliant people. Some of the best humans you’ll ever meet. And they’re interesting and enjoy a range of things.

“That’s maybe something that’s changed over time. When I first started in the academy, all the blokes were pretty much the same. We were interested in the same things and spoke the same. Now it’s different. You have guys like [Northampton’s Australian bock-row] Angus Scott-Young who is a keen artist. Other guys in the team are into photography and creating music. You didn’t really have that early on. Social media has been amazing for that. And we’re seeing interesting documentaries coming out. Rugby can’t be shy or timid. It has to be bold.”

Ethan Waller
Waller won the Premiership Rugby Cup with Worcester two years ago before their financial demise (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Waller explains that he will forever remain a “champion of the sport” but is looking forward to a life on the sideline. He is already spending a couple of days a week working at a local wealth management company where he will start full time once his boots are hanging on the wall. He is also the co-owner of an enterprise called Butchers Yard that offers education on open flame cooking. It’s an apt hobby for a man who goes by ‘beef324’ on X and who, by his own admission, has a “head like a cow’.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be bored,” he muses. “I’ll be interested to see what my body will be like when I enter the real world and I’m not doing mobility work every morning and having the same physical routine as I have now. It’s weird because I’m actually doing PBs in the gym and I’m moving as fast as ever.

“I guess I’m lucky. I know many players who retire with aches and pains, and who struggle to move by the end. But I’m in good shape. I’d rather bow out with more in the tank than be clawing onto a career. That counts as a win in my book. I’ve still got energy to play golf with my friends and to play with my kids and be present as they grow up. I’m still functioning.”

I’m emptying the tank. I don’t want to have any regrets. After that I’ll enjoy the next stage of my life. I might even pick up another sport. Or I might just get really, really fat. I’m not sure.

That is not to say that he won’t miss it. The smells of the locker room. The banter on the training pitch. The roar of a crowd that he will soon be a part of.

“It’s a double-edged sword of course,” he says. “Even when I haven’t been playing, just being here in this group has been brilliant. And to do it with my brother is special. He’s had a tougher paper route than I have. You can tell that just by looking at him. We’ve played a lot of our careers together. I’ve also played a lot against him which has been just as much fun. The potential to call it a day having hopefully contributed to some sort of silverware would be massive.”

There’s plenty to do before the ticker-tape parade. If they get past the Bulls on Saturday, they’ll need to find a route around a French giant or Leinster. Northampton are leading the Premiership, but nothing is guaranteed in a league that boils down to two knockout games.

“I’m not getting nostalgic yet, I want to play a big role in these last few months,” Waller exclaims. “I’m emptying the tank. I don’t want to have any regrets. After that I’ll enjoy the next stage of my life. I might even pick up another sport. Or I might just get really, really fat. I’m not sure. I haven’t yet made that decision.”

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