Rugby Union:Day of Adebayo arrives

Paul Trow talks to a winger who completes his rise to the top on Saturday
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The Independent Online
Early-season internationals at Twickenham don't usually sell out, and England's meeting with Italy on Saturday will be no exception. Which is good news for relatives of Adedayo Adebayo.

"Most of my 15 brothers and sisters are coming from all over the place and I'm desperately trying to find tickets for everybody," said England's newest wing. "My father's business partner can seat a few in his box but the rest will be dotted around the ground."

Adebayo, who turns 26 later this month, has had a long wait for his first cap, hence his desire to share the occasion with his family. An athletic Nigerian with male-model looks, he started on the fast track to stardom while still a schoolboy at Kelly College, in Devon, and played for England's Under-16, Under-18, Students and A teams in rapid succession. He also caught the eye of the England manager Jack Rowell, then coach of Bath, and became a Recreation Ground favourite while reading economics and social studies at Swansea University.

More than five years ago, when he was barely out of his teens, he found himself on the threshold of full England honours. "I went to Lanzarote as part of the squad which was preparing for the 1991 World Cup and I was quite close to being capped," said Adebayo. "Then I seriously injured my right knee and was out for a year. It happened during a game between Bath and Cork Constitution. Just as Phil de Glanville passed to me, someone took me out."

A generation earlier, the ligament damage he suffered that day would have ended most playing careers. But a combination of medical science and a cheerful disposition saw Adebayo through . . . eventually.

"Getting fit again was a nightmare. They put my leg in a big plaster, saying it would give my fellow students plenty of room to autograph it. The rehabilitation was a long, hard slog and I had a shock when I came back. I thought I was fit enough to pick up where I left off, but everyone had got fitter and the 1992-93 season was a bit of a write-off."

Except for the very end that is. Adebayo was selected for the inaugural World Cup Sevens and went on to play a prominent role in England's ultimate triumph.

"Sevens is a huge test of fitness. I played through it and England's subsequent tour of Canada with a cartilage problem in the same knee. But it was a springboard for several of the squad, like Lawrence Dallaglio and Tim Rodber, and we're all keen to play in the next one [in Hong Kong in March]."

Adebayo in effect completed his rehabilitation the following summer when he played for Southlands in New Zealand. "The people were great but there wasn't much to do there, which helped me to focus my mind. You can see why they produce such good teams."

No doubt impressed by the professional approach he encountered in New Zealand, Adebayo now leaves little to chance. He has his own personal fitness trainer, Dave Crottie, whom he visits at a gymnasium in the City of London, and earlier this year he teamed up with the sprinting coach, John Sullivan.

"The England management told me last season that I needed to improve my speed. John does short-distance sprints with me and we work on my agility and speed off the mark. I see myself as an elusive, yet strong runner - I do what is needed to beat my man and get my team-mates involved. You can't wait for the ball to come to you these days."

A tendency to do just that has probably brought the curtain down on England's longest-running rugby career and, coincidentally, given Adebayo his big break because the man he replaces on the left wing against Italy is Rory Underwood. When the Leicester flier won the first of his 85 caps nearly 13 years ago, Adebayo was still at the Kent prep school where he started playing rugby at the age of eight.

"The headmaster threw a ball at me and that got me hooked. I was also good at hockey and cricket but I really committed to rugby ahead of cricket the summer I was selected for an eight-week England Schools' tour of Australia. You don't turn down things like that."

Like his fellow Bath-based Nigerians, Victor Ubogu and Steve Ojomoh, Adebayo is affluent and well-connected. He commutes between his home in London and a hotel in Bath, and if he hadn't embraced full-time rugby he would have been something in the City. "I had a few interviews lined up with merchant banks, but I've put them on hold. Besides, there'll always be something for me in Nigeria when I finish playing."

So how does a member of the Yoruba tribe from the western city of Ibadan view the prospect of playing for England? "You can't escape from your roots and my family is Nigerian," said Adebayo, whose father was a state governor and then chief of staff under General Gowan in the late 1960s. "But England has given me the opportunity to play rugby, so my allegiance and responsibility as a rugby player is to England."

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