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FEATURE Seb Blake: From Chinnor to the European champions in one crazy year

Seb Blake: From Chinnor to the European champions in one crazy year
2 months ago

It wasn’t until Seb Blake stood in the Stade Marcel-Deflandre tunnel, eyeing up the demigods across the concrete floor, that reality smacked him between the eyes. Will Skelton. Uini Atonio. Greg Alldritt. Monsters clad in yellow; on their way to a second-straight Investec Champions Cup crown. And here he was, a 21-year-old Gloucester hooker with five Premiership starts, tasked with derailing the juggernaut.

“I remember thinking, ‘this is proper now’. That was the first point I realised the level I was playing at, the stage of the competition I was playing in. The first scrum they walked straight over us. Skelton ran at me and I chucked my head at his ankles to bring him down. My dream is to be playing international rugby and those games with that opposition are as close as you can get. That’s what you want to be doing – knowing you can live with that and at least try to match them.”

Gloucester gave the French heavies one hell of a scare that day, almost exactly a year ago. They weaved some magnificent attacking rugby and fell short of a shock for the ages by just three points, 29-26. Blake played 62 minutes of the last-16 clash. He sucked in lungfuls of this rarefied air and found he did not suffocate.

Greg Alldritt’s La Rochelle edged Gloucester in their Investec Champions Cup last-16 tie a year ago (Photo by THIBAUD MORITZ/AFP via Getty Images)

A year before wading into the Atlantic coast cauldron, Blake was on loan down the English pyramid. He spent time with Chinnor in the third tier, more with Coventry and Ealing in the second. Regular Premiership minutes seemed distant, never mind starting against the biggest and best in their own back yard. Then Gloucester lost George McGuigan, Santi Socino and Jack Singleton to injury in short order. George Skivington, their set-piece-enthusiast DoR, sent for Blake, tossing the youngster in for an enthralling run of fixtures.

“At the start of the season I was hoping to get one or two Premiership benches,” Blake says. “My first European game was Leinster away. We got pumped but it was a great experience. My first Premiership game was against Saracens. The following week I played Leinster again. Then we went away to Bordeaux.

“My first Premiership start was Exeter away and the pace of it just struck me, but I managed to pick it up and now I feel comfortable with the pace and physicality of the game and I can impose myself on it a bit more because I’m used to it.

“It was a sink or swim thing and I just managed to keep my head above water. The best way for a player to come on is to play. George had no choice but to play me. I like to think I did a good job and he’s kept a bit of faith in me now, I’m playing more when there are fewer injuries.

“Last season I was just trying to keep my head down and do my job for the team. The confidence it gave me was unbelievable. When you’re young, you don’t quite know if you’re up for it in the Premiership. I did two years in the academy, Prem Cup, on loan a bit, and you’re not sure if you can live it when you get the chance. When I got that chance, I knew I was ready. Now I want to bring more to the table.”

Blake’s skills and physique have been placed under this intense microscope and stood up to the scrutiny. Often, a rookie struggles with the intricate demands and sense-scrambling pressure of lineout throwing, but Blake has endured few hiccups. This is partly because of his own exhaustive analysis. He spools through every throw, every week, from every session, and takes them apart brick by brick.

The way the game is going, if you can do everything a 100KG bloke can do but you’re 116KG, that’s an advantage.

“I love how technical it is, like goalkicking. It’s not all physical and grunting. You’re smashing people then suddenly you’ve got to switch on and perform quite a fine skill.

“I do pride myself on my throwing. I hate missing a lineout even if it’s not my fault – it affects me a little bit. Set-piece is massively emphasised at Gloucester and that has meant my throwing and scrummaging are some of my strengths, and I’ve known the only way I’ll be able to get an opportunity is by being strong in those areas. That has made me love it.

“I keep a chart of every throw with a chart on my iPad. I watch training back and mark a tally for good throws and a tally for bad throws or ones I think would get nicked. Then at the end of the week I’ll work out my percentage for the week including the game. That means even on Monday or Tuesday when you’re learning the lineouts, you’ve got a bit of an edge about you.

“You always want to be at least 90% for the week and I’m quite harsh on myself. Even if it’s an unopposed lineout and the jumper is catching it below their head, I’ll put a cross on it. I’ve got it in the back of my head, knowing I’m measuring myself.”

Blake is comfortable playing at around 116KG bodyweight, handy additional beef to Gloucester’s front row (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Now established as a first-teamer, Blake has laced his set-piece accuracy with eye-catching flourishes of skill and athleticism; bustling carries, heavy shots and a wonderful cat-flap offload to put Stephen Varney in for a winning score at Leicester.

This breadth of capability has not gone unnoticed. David Flatman, once a redoubtable England prop and now one of the game’s foremost pundits, has had a fair bit to say about Blake recently.

“I really like him,” ‘Flats’ begins. “He looks relaxed when he’s throwing in, and strong and sturdy in the scrum. More than that, for quite a young bloke who hasn’t played an awful lot yet, he’s got some lovely touches and has the confidence to throw offloads a lot of people wouldn’t at his age.

“Physically, he looks look like an old-school hooker but when you see him play he’s more like a new-school operator, a really mobile, composed bloke with lots of nice touches.”

England has a glut of burgeoning hookers vying to succeed Jamie George. Theo Dan, Curtis Langdon, Jack Walker, Jamie Blamire and Sam Riley each have compelling skillsets. All are at different stages of development, but well entrenched Premiership players with senior or A caps to their name. None, though, can match Blake’s 6ft 2ins, 116KG heft.

“My point of difference is my size,” he says. “I’m quite a big hooker, but I still offer stuff around the park. If you look at South Africa, Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx are both big like me. I’m naturally quite a big guy and I don’t need to eat loads to stay at 116KG. I’m not chasing that, it’s just what I’m comfortable at. The way the game is going, if you can do everything a 100KG bloke can do but you’re 116KG, that’s an advantage, and the extra weight helps in the scrum.”

These are enticing numbers. Front-rows of Blake’s dimensions and repertoire are precious. Already, eyes from the Test game are being cast in his direction. Skivington selected him for the England A squad which walloped Portugal during February, though he did not play in the match. More interestingly, it is understood the new-look Wallaby setup has been monitoring Blake’s progress.

I’m just hoping to play international rugby and wherever that opportunity is, I’ll take it.

His mother was born in Perth before emigrating to England with her family aged 10. She met Blake’s father at university, and their boy was born and raised in Cheltenham, where he still lives near a whole slew of the Gloucester squad.

Whispers from Australia suggest Joe Schmidt is ready to slacken – or completely abolish – restrictions on overseas players which could open another door to international honours. When confronted by the prospect of throwing in to Skelton in a gold jersey rather than tackling the enormous Wallaby, Blake understandably treads a verbal tightrope.

“I am English and Australian qualified; I have a British and Australian passport. I want to play international rugby if I’m lucky enough, but I haven’t thought about it that much because I need to nail down a starting role at Gloucester.

“I wasn’t captured by playing for England A. I’m just hoping to play international rugby and wherever that opportunity is, I’ll take it. I wouldn’t say, ‘oh I’ve got a burning desire to be massively Australian or massively English’. I don’t feel more one way or the other. I sound more English, I grew up here, but I don’t have a sway.”

Options kept emphatically open. Blake has a lot to do to win Test caps but then again, he was playing for Chinnor one year and against La Rochelle the next. Sport can change quicker than the flash of an Ollie Thorley sidestep.

Gloucester’s season has changed, too. Confused and flailing in the lead-up to Christmas, they embarked on a club-record losing streak in the Premiership so wounding Skivington’s job was called into question. Then, they found themselves. They saw off Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup pools, beat Castres and Ospreys to book a pulse-quickening semi-final date with Benetton at Kingsholm. They eked out wins in the league and roared to a Premiership Cup final victory over Leicester. Suddenly, a cup double is within reach.

Gloucester beat the Ospreys – with the help of Blake’s maul try – to win their Challenge Cup quarter-final (Photo by PA)

“We won our first five Prem Cup games and first two Premiership games so we were seven from seven at the start of the season,” Blake reflects. “For whatever reason stuff just stopped clicking. It was never panic stations. We were trying to find a game plan that worked for us.

“In the Premiership, it’s not been good enough, we need to be up there fighting for the top four. But we’re unbeaten in the cup competitions. A massive turning point for us was coming up to Edinburgh in January, who are full of Scottish internationals, and managing to fight out a win. We’ve found a way of playing that works for us. Benetton are seriously good but we love playing at home. There is not a better atmosphere than Kingsholm, the energy the Shed brings is unbelievable.

“The Premiership is what we wanted but if we could win the Prem and Challenge Cups in the same year, it’s a pretty successful year. For the club to have a European title would be amazing. It’s all we’ve got left this season and we are trying to put everything into it.”

Comments

1 Comment
R
Rohan 87 days ago

A wallaby front-row of Bell, Blake and Tupou…now that would be hefty

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