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Aaron Wainwright: The man who just can’t get enough rugby

19 Dec 2023 6 minute read
BKT United Rugby Championship, Rodney Parade, Newport 18/11/2023
Dragons vs Ospreys
Aaron Wainwright of Dragons
Credit ©INPHO/Ashley Crowden

Simon Thomas

Ask Aaron Wainwright what he does when he isn’t playing rugby and his answer points to a man with an unstinting passion for the game.

“I coach down at my local club,” replies the Dragons RFC and Wales back row star.

“I go down there on a Tuesday and a Thursday whenever I can.”

The club in question is Whitehead RFC in Newport. That’s where it all began for former footballer Wainwright after he was released by Cardiff City at 16 and he relishes still being part of the set-up.

“I had a few friends from school who came through youth rugby with me and they went on to play seniors then,” explains the 26-year-old.

“So it’s quite nice as a way to go and spend time with them, trying to help them and coach them a little bit. It’s nice just to be involved. There’s loads of rugby chat and banter going on, so it’s good.

“I’ve done my Level 1 and 2 coaching and I’ll look to do my Level 3 over the next year or so and see where that takes me.”

Wainwright’s popularity at the club was illustrated by the hero’s welcome he received on his first visit there after returning from the World Cup.

“They had organised to clap me in. I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” he reveals.

“It was such a great welcome home. That just sums up the club and how close everyone is there. It’s such a family orientated club and it was very touching to have that sort of welcome coming home.”

Mind you, he jokes that there might have been another reason for the big turn-out.

“I had a load of kit from the World Cup,” he says with a smile.

“I had put a message in the group chat saying I was bringing some kit bags down with me if anyone wanted to come along.

“The coaches said they had a load of new people turn up just to try and get some kit!”

Wainwright started all but one of Wales’ World Cup matches and was also at No 8 for last month’s game against the Barbarians.

That’s some turnaround from where he was 12 months ago when he found himself out in the cold, having been omitted from the Welsh squad for the 2022 autumn internationals by then coach Wayne Pivac.

“I don’t think many people would have seen me having a chance of going to the World Cup a year ago, myself included, definitely not,” he admits.

“Some of the messages from the coaching staff at the time were probably a little bit mixed in terms of what they wanted from me.”

However, everything changed for Wainwright when Warren Gatland returned as Wales coach and recalled him for the Six Nations.

“He sat us down as a group and said the reason you are here is because of what you are good at, so just keep focusing on those things,” he reveals.

“That really resonated with me and gave me a spur of motivation.”

Wales’ Aaron Wainwright is tackled by England’s Ellis Genge and Max Malins. Ben Whitley/PA Wire.

He was back as a key member of the Wales team by the time he headed out to France for his second World Cup, having been a 21-year-old rookie in Japan in 2019.

“I definitely managed to take it in and savour it a bit more this time, the off the pitch stuff and just embracing being around such a great group of people,” he said.

“It was amazing to share all those memories together.

“I was still taking the rugby side of it incredibly seriously, but also really enjoying the days off and making sure I was making the most of where I was and what French city we were in.

“Experiencing that and having friends and family come out and being able to go to different places and explore those a little bit was great.”

As for the tournament itself, he looks back on it as a mixture of “fond memories and frustration”, with the high of the record victory over Australia and the low of the quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

“When we came back in for the Barbarians week, the message and the chat was still there about how we missed a chance to get to a semi-final of a World Cup.

“I am still pondering on it, what could I have done differently or better in the game to change the outcome. It’s definitely one I look back on and think we missed a chance there.”

His time out in France also inspired a new look, in the form of a bleached blonde hairdo.

“There wasn’t too much thought going into it,” he says.

“It was more a spur of the moment thing – a bit of head loss after the game against Argentina!

“I liked the haircut of the Samoan No 9 Jonathan Taumateine. That was a bit of inspiration for it.

“Then Halloween was around the corner and people were saying to dress up as Tiger King, Joe Exotic, so I thought what a great idea. It was just a bit of fun.”

Now it’s back to the serious business, with a Boxing Day derby against Cardiff Rugby coming up at the Arms Park.

Wainwright heads into that BKT URC clash in peak form, having been named Player of the Match in his last outing, the EPCR Challenge Cup victory over Oyonnax.

Dragons RFC came tantalisingly close to completing a notable French double, only to go down to a heartbreaking final minute defeat away to Pau last weekend.

“The belief and the confidence in how we are playing is there,” says Wainwright.

“It’s just transferring it onto the pitch and doing it for the full 80 minutes.”

In terms of his international ambitions, he says: “I’ll keep trying to secure my place in the starting team for Wales.

“I will hopefully get picked for the Six Nations and just keep going on little stepping stones forward.”

As for his positional prospects, he adds: “I think if I am in a squad where Taulupe Faletau is fit, he plays 8.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that whatsoever. He is a world class No 8, so there are no arguments from me.

“I have accepted if he is fit and firing that I am going to be playing 6 and it’s just about me doing that role as well as I can and adding to the team.

“Back at the Dragons, I am focused on playing 8. I definitely prefer playing there and I think that’s when I can add more. I am more involved in games and I get my hands on the ball a lot more.”

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