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FEATURE Will Stuart: 'The World Cup just gone was a missed opportunity'

Will Stuart: 'The World Cup just gone was a missed opportunity'
6 months ago

When Will Stuart was lying on his back in pain on his kitchen floor a couple of Saturdays ago, everything he had gone through to leave him in a state of helplessness felt worth it.

A few hours earlier at a raucous Rec, Stuart had been part of a monumental scrum effort that had obliterated Ulster’s pack and laid the platform for Bath’s first Champions Cup win in nearly four years.

Officially, Beno Obano was named Player of the Match for his performance at loose-head but it was not a black and white decision – even if current sponsors Investec hand out a cuddly toy Zebra to recipients nowadays rather than a crate of Heineken.

Stuart, on the other side of the scrum, would have been equally as deserving of the accolade having won his personal duel with Springbok World Cup winner, Steven Kitshoff.

For the 27-year-old tight-head, there was not only satisfaction that Bath’s scrum dominance had laid the platform for a 37-14 win but also on a personal level, it saw him gain some form of redemption.

Will Stuart
Will Stuart played his part in a thrilling 39-32 win over Cardiff Rugby last weekend (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

“I didn’t get a chance to scrummage against South Africa in the semi-final (of the World Cup) and the last time I’d scrummaged against Kitshoff was the November before and I dislocated my elbow in that game in the scrum,” he says.

“I was scrummaging directly against him but I don’t want to blame him or point fingers! But it was obviously a big one for me to get a few dominant scrums over on him knowing that he pretty much did the same to me before.”

Bath won all 11 of the scrums on their own feed against Ulster, including three penalties as they wrestled back control of a match in which they trailed by six points at the break.

It was a big statement win and one that would have deserved a big night out, if Stuart had it in him.

Instead, the well-spoken Radley-educated prop was holed up at home enjoying the warm glow of satisfaction at a job well done.

I have spent a few nights on the floor tucked up in a duvet with a drip-feed of tea and binge watching Netflix. That’s pretty much it on a Saturday night.

“A few of the lads went for a few beers but I was actually back spasm-ing on my kitchen floor, with a heat pack on my back and with a drip-line of tea from my missus, so it wasn’t that exciting!”

For Stuart, that’s how a lot of Saturdays unfold, whether he has got the better of a revered 83-cap Springbok or not.

“My girlfriend has moved in (with me) recently and has chosen a new mattress, it’s a bit too soft for me so I have spent a few nights on the floor tucked up in a duvet with a drip-feed of tea and binge watching Netflix. That’s pretty much it on a Saturday night.

Will Stuart
Stuart’s carrying game is one of his major strengths (Photo Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

“Post-games are a write-off, I can’t sleep post games,” he reveals.

This is no complaint at the load of work he is being asked to go through, Stuart pointing out that Bath’s Head of Rugby Johann van Graan is very mindful of resting players where necessary. .

Of course, not every Premiership boss has the luxury of a World Cup winner available to them in Thomas du Toit who can play both sides of the scrum, sparing others from being over-exposed without any drop in quality.

Even so, Stuart is grateful for the way he is being managed, something that hasn’t always been the case since he left Wasps for the West Country in 2019.

If I am on the bench or Thomas [Du Toit] is on the bench, in the short time we have been together we have had a pretty good understanding that once someone comes on you just bring the intensity up even more.

“The way Johann’s been running it is different to how it has been at the club before, he is very good at rotation, he has been giving young lads a chance,” he points out.

“Thomas and I have been rotating, one will play 50 (minutes) and one will play 30, and obviously we have Archie Griffin, a young lad who’s a great player who’s getting better and better and is starting to get games. He is rotating us around a lot, and it’s the same with most of the squad.

“A few years ago I was in the trenches playing 80 minutes, week in week out, which was taking a toll. Then I had a couple of years after that where I struggled with injury. Now, with rotation, everyone gets better and the whole level of the squad goes up.

“Johann will say, right, you are starting this week, you’ll get 50 minutes and I just want you to end yourself and make as many big moments as possible, don’t save yourself back to try and make it for an 80-minute stretch.

“If I am on the bench or Thomas is on the bench, in the short time we have been together we have had a pretty good understanding that once someone comes on you just bring the intensity up even more. As a 20-cap Springbok, Thomas is the perfect person to do that.”

Will Stuart
Bath’s improving form has been reflected in a growing group of players within the England set-up at the Rugby World Cup (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Stuart’s memory has aged well with time. In his first season in the blue, black and white, the Hampshire-born prop averaged 66 minutes per game in 16 league starts as Bath scraped their way into the Premiership play-offs, going the full distance in the fixtures against his former club Wasps and Gloucester.

Whilst Stuart has only started three games this year, so not the biggest sample to draw from, that game-time average in the number three jersey has dropped to 56 minutes. Only once, in the home win over Exeter, has he been on the pitch more than an hour, whereas before van Graan replaced Stuart Hooper, it was the case more often than not.

That said, this is a season where Stuart knows he needs to roll his sleeves up and win the fight to be Dan Cole’s long-term successor.

As such, Stuart declined the option of taking a week or two off afforded to him by van Graan when he returned from the World Cup as he wanted to get “straight back into it”.

Part of that was born out of the desire to be involved in a winning Bath team –an experience that had largely escaped him before this season – and part out of the frustration of playing a secondary role to veteran Leicester prop Cole at the World Cup.

Stuart was a replacement in the pool games against Argentina, Chile and Japan and started the bronze medal win over Los Pumas.

In rugby, if you stake your claim you are undroppable; I had my chance to really claim the [England] shirt and I didn’t do that so I ended up playing a few games off the bench and playing here and there.

“For me, the World Cup just gone I would say was a missed opportunity,” he admits.

“I started the first three warm-up games and I had a couple of games where I played okay and one where I didn’t think I played my best.

“In rugby, if you stake your claim you are undroppable; I had my chance to really claim the shirt and I didn’t do that so I ended up playing a few games off the bench and playing here and there.

“As a player, you always back yourself, you always want to be playing, you always think you can make a difference,” he adds. “But I understood Steve’s (Borthwick) reasonings for the decision.

“We had a lot of long chats and we’ve had a lot of long chats since and there’s stuff that he wants me to work on in my game and it’s stuff that I agree with him on, so it wasn’t like I was sat in the stands kicking the seats going, ‘I should have been on there’ at all.”

At least Bath’s encouraging start to the season helped to soften the frustration that he felt whilst out in France and the feeling that the success-starved former giants of the English game could be on the cusp of something special is at the front and centre of his mind as contract negotiations ramp up.

The last deal that he signed in December 2022 is due to expire at the end of the current season and Stuart has indicated that, all being well, he sees his future at Bath, despite the French press linking him with a move to Toulon.

“I want to be part of a team that is winning and pushing (for honours). That’s my main goal, career-wise,” he asserts.

Will Stuart
After a fallow few years, Stuart admits he is enjoying Bath’s upturn in fortunes (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

“We have had a few dreadful years so, for me, to be kind of transitioning through that, through some bad times, to feeling like we are actually competitive and potentially pushing on to do good things is a massive thing for me, it is hugely encouraging.

“Last season, I came back from the Australia tour and that was Johann’s first year and, for me, it took me about a month to realise what Johann is all about, how impressive he is.

“We had an injury-ravaged start last year and quite a lot of close games but towards the end of the year we started to get results and started being quite dominant, which a lot of us in and around the place knew would happen as soon as it started coming together.

“It felt different to the years before where we were losing games. I was pretty dejected about things then, whereas this time when we were losing games I could see it was only fine margins and I can see where we are going.

It would mean the world if Bath were able to keep pushing on here to try and get some silverware, especially having finished bottom of the league after a loss against Worcester two years ago. That would make it all the more sweeter.

“We just need to keep on plugging away at the same thing and it’ll start to come to fruition, hopefully.”

With all the talk of hybrid contracts and the uncertainty over the professional rugby landscape in England, there is a lot for international players to consider when sorting out their futures.

However, Stuart is fairly clear in his mind about how he would like things to pan out.

“We are going through the contractual stuff at the moment. I think if I am part of a winning team and as I said, with where I think Bath can go, and I am playing well, then I think everything kind of takes care of itself.

“It would mean the world if we were able to keep pushing on here to try and get some silverware, especially having finished bottom of the league after a loss against Worcester two years ago. That would make it all the more sweeter.”

Comments

2 Comments
B
Bob 212 days ago

Never heard of Will Stuart but if he ever comes up again against any of Kitshoff, Frans Marlherbe, Ox Nche, Wilco Louw or Trevor Nyakane better say your prayers - you got one over Kitshoff as he slots into a new team environment but beating your chest and pumping yourself up after one game will not go down well in the grunt row club. Embrace back spasms.

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