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On an upward curve By Owain Jones

Jonny Wilkinson was a hero in most English rugby-loving homes but one man superseded even the World Cup darling in the Loader household. Roger Milla, the iconic Cameroonian striker, who famously starred in Italia 1990, scoring, before wheeling away to dance around the corner flag. Milla, the sporting god who was deified in their boisterous Reading abode.

Danny Loader, an electric young winger who moved from Reading FC to Portuguese giants Porto, stuck to football, while his bigger brother by two years, Ben (born Benjamin Edimesumbe Loader), preferred the physicality of rugby. Milla was ‘the man’ growing up, according to Loader. “My mum, Celine, is from Cameroon, so watching videos of Roger Milla was kind of a rites of passage in my Cameroonian house.”

The elder Loader has had a breakthrough season. Along with the much vaunted Tom Parton and Ollie Hassell-Collins, he has formed an attacking trident in South-West London that has gained many admirers. The trio occupy three of the top five spots in metres carried this season, and Loader lies third in the list of defenders beaten, showcasing Irish’s attacking DNA and devil-may-care attitude to run it from deep, given any opportunity.  

The 22-year-old makes no apologies for this derring-do, which has seen him scorch the earth from the backfield. “Irish want to play attacking rugby and we’re loving the way we’re playing this season. I want to get my hands on the ball as much as possible, and I know that’s the same for the rest of the backs as well. We like to go wide and stretch teams.”

With a squad that has attracted rugby’s diaspora and has players from rugby outposts such as Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Argentina, Moldova and Zimbabwe, Loader is about as local as you can get. After picking a ball up at six at Reading Abbey RFC, where he played tag with Tom Willis, younger brother of Jack, he progressed smoothly through the academy system, where his first session with Irish was at the old Avenue training base, where he now lives. “The Avenue is now a block of flats where I live. Myself and Matt Williams reckon we’re on the try-line of the first-team pitch, so yeah, you could say I’m a local boy.”

Ben Loader
Loader has been showing defenders a clean pair of heels all season (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

It was at 16 that Loader first started to show the promise that suggested life as a professional sportsman lay ahead. After shining for his local school at the Wellington Festival, which trials the most talented rugby players in the country, Loader was offered a scholarship at the prestigious Wellington School. “That accelerated the rugby side of things,” he smiles. “Quite a few boys around me at the academy either played alongside me there, like Dolly (Tom) Parton, Matt Williams, Isaac Curtis-Harris at Irish, and Josh Basham at Newcastle and Fitz Harding at Bristol. There are Welly boys all over the place.”

The progression to the England age-grade system was seamless for Loader. At 6ft 2in and a few bags of sugar shy of 15st, he had the size and pace to trouble defences. An appearance at the U20 Junior World Cup in 2018 followed, where he suffered his first professional disappointment. In a talented 23, featuring Fraser Dingwall, Ben Curry, Gabriel Ibitoye and Ted Hill, Loader was not selected for the final against the hosts who fielded Romain Ntamack, Louis Carbonnel and Demba Bamba. The omission cut the young flyer. “I remember waiting to hear the team read out in the final and I just missed out. I was absolutely gutted but you have to move forwards.”

I’m by no means the finished article, I know that. There’s a lot to work on. In the past year or two I’ve worked hard on my defence. As a wing, attacking comes naturally. Running fast is what I do.

Loader is self-effacing about his game, knowing there is much work to do to become the complete winger, with his game against Exeter Chiefs last week a prime example. He notched his sixth try in eight games in the first half after a deft offload by Hassell-Collins, but in the second showed his naivete by procrastinating over an awkward bouncing ball trickling towards the try-line only for the razor-sharp Tom O’Flaherty to pounce and score.

“I’m by no means the finished article, I know that. There’s a lot to work on. In the past year or two I’ve worked hard on my defence. As a wing, attacking comes naturally. You know, running fast and running round people is what I do but the positioning side, taking the high ball; it can all be improved. If you can become a player who can rule the air, it can be a game changer. Winning the ball back is such an asset to have.”

Working with Declan Danaher and Brad Davis long after training has finished is becoming the norm for Loader, who is desperate to improve. “It’s the one percenters, doing the extras with the skill coaches, so if you have great players coming down your channel, you can deal with it.”

As for wings in the Premiership he can happily doff his metaphorical cap to, one name springs to mind.

“Louis Rees-Zammit. Everywhere you put him, at every level, he just seems to be able to do his thing. With wheels like that, the game seems to come easy to him. I should also give a shout out to my boy Ollie (Hassell-Collins) who has been tearing up. I’ve played with him since I was 16 and when he plays well it can really lift the team.”

Ben Loader
Loader hammers down the touchline against Exeter Chiefs (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

The London Irish Academy has always produced a rich seam of talent. In recent years, much of it has headed down the M4 to Bath, with Anthony Watson and Joe Cokanasiga, two prime examples of local boys, who have moved to a perceived ‘bigger club.’ 

Loader hopes the next generation of Irish players don’t feel the need to do that. “We want the England coaches to be watching London Irish players with performances that can’t be ignored. We don’t want it to be seen as a stepping stone. That has been the perception of the club in the past, but the young guys here really feel like we are building something, especially with the new stadium. South-West London is an ideal location to attract bigger players and as long as we do our talking on the pitch, the better the reputation of the club becomes.”

Loader spent time in the Championship, and with 13 tries in 18 appearances, he helped them climb back through the trap door to the Premiership and he says there is a sea change at the heart of London Irish since those dark days of relegation. 

“It feels like there’s a genuine buzz around the club and we’re making progress. Two years ago we were in the Championship, fighting to get back to the Premiership, where we felt like we belong. Last year we had some ups and downs but moving into our new home was big for us, our home record shows that. We want to make it a difficult place to come and for the most part, we’ve done that.” 

We’ve got some ridiculous lads at the club. Gus Creevy is the man, an absolute legend. Then there’s Seanie (Sean O’Brien) who is a serious operator. He has brought a professionalism and attitude that we need.

Part of the youthful exuberance emanating from Loader comes from the recruitment policy adopted by Declan Kidney. Alongside the saplings have been placed oaks; players who have excelled in World Cups, Lions tours and captained their respective countries. Loader now acknowledges that flanking his young matadors Parton and Hassell-Collins there are sage individuals from which to soak up information and learn.

“We’ve got some ridiculous lads at the club. Gus Creevy is the man, an absolute legend. Then there’s Seanie (Sean O’Brien) who is a serious operator. He has brought a professionalism and attitude that we need. I think we need to stress that these older guys are not here to see their careers out, they are here to add value. You really feel that. They’ve been there, done that but they’re bringing the young players up with them. In the back three guys like Waisake Naholo are fantastic. If he has a song named after him I figured it would probably be worth picking his brains about the intricacies of playing on the wing. He’s been super-helpful in that regard.” 

Ben Loader
Ben Loader scores against Ireland at England U20 level (Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

Loader is adamant that everyone who is at the club at the moment, young or old, is pulling in the right direction, something he feels they lacked in previous seasons. This is borne out by their elevated standing in the Premiership table. “We had 4,000 in for the Exeter game and the place was rocking, so I can’t wait to see what it’s like with 17,000. The Madjedski was great because it was 10 minutes from my childhood home, but it didn’t suit everyone. The Community Stadium is next-level. We want to keep the momentum for the rest of the season and finish strong.”

As for future aspirations, Loader, who was involved in England’s 2019 Barbarians game, has been left pining for some national representation, but acknowledges that patience will be a virtue.

You come to realise you have to do a job for your club first and foremost. I’ve had the odd WhatsApp here and there [from the national set-up] but it’s not an indication of anything other than you’re on their radar

“When you’re involved with England at age-grade level, it feels like everything revolves around England but once that team disbands, it’s over. That week in the senior set-up was a brilliant experience but after that you go back to your club and you don’t hear anything, which is tough.”

Now a couple of years older and wiser, Loader says that those earlier feelings of rejection, were the mentality of a younger player. “You come to realise you have to do a job for your club first. I’ve had the odd WhatsApp here and there [from the national set-up] which is good to know  but it’s not an indication of anything other than you’re on the radar. I know I have a long way to go. I can’t get caught up in obsessing over squads or dreams of caps because if I’m not ready, I’m not ready. However, if the option comes, I’ll snap your hand off.”

Whether Loader gets a nod in the summer for the Tests against USA and Canada or not, he knows he is on the right track, and if he doesn’t reach Roger Milla’s standing in the Loader family home, he’ll give it a damn good go.

More stories from Owain Jones

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