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FEATURE Ross Vintcent: 'I was lost, up the creek without a paddle'

Ross Vintcent: 'I was lost, up the creek without a paddle'
4 months ago

Ross Vintcent had played precisely one game of rugby as a forward when he left boarding school in Cape Town for a dormitory in Remedello, the rustic little commune in the Brescia province of Northern Italy, and a contract as an Italian academy back-row.

Vintcent had never been to his adopted nation. Never spoken a word of the language. Never envisaged his fledgling career would take him to such a place, which he fondly remembers as “kind of a one-horse town”. He sits now in a Rome hotel room, days from his international debut, with ‘ITALIA’ emblazoned in bright letters across his fleece. “If I had one word to describe it, it would be ‘dream’. It’s completely surreal. I didn’t think rugby would take me this far. When I was growing up, I didn’t actually think I’d play rugby past school. But things change, and here we are.”

At just 21, Vintcent will be on the bench inside a boisterous Aviva, Italy with wounds to heal and points to prove and a date with the champions in their own back yard.

There was nothing pre-ordained about this staggering rise. Vintcent was born in Johannesburg and spent his formative years in Dubai, where his father worked in software. As rugby became his purpose, he pleaded with his mother to let him go back to South Africa and join Bishops College, the fabled rugby nursery attended by generations of his family. He watched the school’s YouTube highlight reel so many times that the music it is set to has become his stadium try tune at Exeter Chiefs.

“When I was 13, I begged my mum to go to Bishop’s and she said I wasn’t ready,” he remembers. “She said it seemed more like I was running away from something than running towards something. When I developed a little, she understood it was something I really wanted to do and two years later, she let me go.

“I was actually playing scrum-half. I’d played a bit of fly-half, bit of centre, and then the coach just said to me, ‘do you want to have a try in the back-row?’ I thought, yeah, let’s do it.

“We played Paarl Gym, one of the more prestigious schools, and covid came straight after so that was our only game of the season.”

For a time, Vintcent drifted. The world shut down; rugby placed in a state of indefinite suspension. He went for coffee with his agent and latched on to Azzurri links, forged by his maternal grandfather. A few months and an Italian passport later, he fetched up in Remedello fresh out of school having never really played in his new position.

“I was a little bit up the creek without a paddle in terms of rugby. I didn’t know what was going on, I’d only had one game in the forward pack. I was a bit lost, to be honest. I was studying for exams, not much going on, no-one knew what was going to happen.

“With covid, there was nothing going on and I thought I may as well give it a go. I spent six months in Remedello – that was tough to get my head around, being so far from home in a place you didn’t know the language, and didn’t have many friends. I had to quickly get over that.

“I was forced to learn Italian as quickly as possible and that’s where I had the most development with it, when I was immersed in it and forced to pick up phrases and sentences and little sayings.”

Clearly, the Italian establishment liked what they saw. Vintcent played a handful of URC games for Zebre Parma and roared on to the Under-20s international stage. He skippered Italy to fabulous wins over England and earned the respect of his new friends.

“There was a little joke that when I did team talks, I would speak into Google translate and it would blurt out the Italian on the speaker. It was a very big responsibility. When [coach] Massimo Brunello asked me, I thought, have you got the right person? But in terms of leadership, it wasn’t necessarily speaking a lot, it was more trying to do my job on the field and that’s what they liked. They wanted someone to just deliver, actions over words.”

Even after all this, Vintcent did not stroll into a professional deal. He enrolled in a business economics degree at Exeter University and almost exactly a year ago, found himself playing for the ‘uni’ against Loughborough.

“I was having so much fun playing with the boys,” he says. “We had such a driven team, good craic, good on the p**s, and that’s where my love for the game grew and it’s only grown further with the Chiefs boys.”

This season has been riveting. Vintcent was hoisted up to the Premiership ranks as part of Rob Baxter’s sculpting of a new Devonian dynasty. The revolution includes Maori gunslinger Ethan Roots and a certain Manny Feyi-Waboso.

Vintcent scored five tries in two Premiership Cup starts, another in a shellacking of Saracens in the league, and one more in the sensational Champions Cup beating of Munster. He looks every inch a thoroughbred back-row and Exeter’s new crop to the manor born.

That is not to say it has been smooth sailing. Vintcent played an inauspicious role in the truly bonkers ending to Exeter’s tie with Glasgow last month. With the Chiefs ahead, feeding a scrum on their own line with time up, most of us inside Sandy Park were waiting for Stu Townsend to simply hoof the ball out. “So was I…” chuckles Vintcent. Townsend was embroiled in a weasel-like scrap with fellow ruck menace George Horne and so it fell to the young number eight to do the necessary. Vintcent scuffed his kick, Euan Ferrie dived home, and Glasgow stole the game. The cameras cut to Vintcent, face wrought with anguish, until the TMO intervened to bail him and Exeter out.

“I got quite a lot of blame for that from the boys but the comms from Stu were, if I can’t get to the ball, kick it out. Maybe I took that too literally! Maybe I was supposed to take a step and kick it or pass it to our 10. That will never happen again. Rob Baxter had a friendly chirp at me in the tunnel on the way back to the changing room.

“He is a very inspiring director of rugby. He knows how to take a group and build them into a cup-winning team.

“There’s a thing called kaizen, a Japanese philosophy, about little improvements. He adopted that mentality right at the start and you can see it in players with their extras, boys wanting to get better, asking questions in reviews. Everyone has bought into his philosophy and it seems to be going all right.

“Manny put it quite nicely: we’re just a bunch of young 20-year-olds running around, having fun, no pressure. That’s when we’ve played our best rugby. It has felt more like fun than a duty.”

Feyi-Waboso’s name has been on everyone’s lips this week, what with the Cardiff-born medical student choosing English rose over Welsh dragon. Warren Gatland has been liberally stirring the pot.

“We are pretty good mates,” Vintcent says. “There was a phase just before exams when we were going into the library to get some study in. His degree is more demanding than mine but he’s a good lad, grounded, he’ll tell you he’s not very funny but he’s a very good person to be around, good energy and a good friend.”

Vintcent did not have the opportunity to lock horns with his study pal in round one, but Italy’s performance was heartening. Their first hit-out under Gonzalo Quesada and earliest opportunity to show the class and cohesion so desperately absent during a bleak World Cup.

“Gonzalo hasn’t talked about it really but the boys in individual meetings have said what the World Cup has done to the Italian reputation,” says Vintcent. “It’s important to put that behind us and start rebuilding with a new head coach and some new boys in the team.”

Vintcent offers an injection of fresh blood, another glimpse of a future club and country are eager to seize.

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