Erinle the Wasp with a head for great heights

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The Independent Online

No sooner had Ayoola Erinle replaced Mark Denney in the final quarter of a Zurich Premiership match last week than Michael Horak, the London Irish full-back, burst through the Wasps midfield he should have been defending for a try. "It was my fault,'' Erinle admitted. "My head wasn't right. I was in such a state.''

More than 20,000 people were at the Madejski Stadium, Reading, and for the first time London Irish had a full house. Erinle was supposed to leave two tickets for his parents. "When I got to the ground I couldn't find the tickets anywhere,'' he said. "I spent the afternoon worrying about my parents. I thought they might have had to return home. Afterwards I discovered they were all right. Some kind doorman let them in.''

All's well that ends well, particularly as Erinle, with an eye-catching break, earned Wasps a bonus point by scoring their fourth try. "I was determined to make up for what happened against Horak. I screamed to Alex King to give me the ball and I managed to beat a couple of defenders. It was a great feeling and a big weight off my shoulders. All that work in the gym is paying off.''

Erinle, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, 23 years ago, is an unlikely convert to rugby union. When he was a toddler his father, who is a gynaecologist, moved the family to Glasgow, then to Middlesbrough and finally Reading, where Ayoola attended the Oratory preparatory school.

"Rugby was compulsory, but I detested it and tried to get out of it. I'd never done anything with that kind of contact before. Thank God something suddenly clicked. It was really weird. Literally overnight I began to enjoy the game. I was a big lad and quite quick, and that helped to get me noticed.''

By the time he was 12 he had moved from the front row to the back row and then to centre. He joined Reading RFC and subsequently played for England Students. Adrian Thompson, the former England sevens coach, recommended Erinle to Rob Smith at Wasps, and he joined the club in 2000.

There were, however, two stumbling blocks to his career as a professional rugby player. He had embarked on a four-year pharmacy course at King's College, London, and as a committed Christian his Sunday duty is to attend the Everlasting Arms Ministry at Reading. Wasps play their home matches at High Wycombe on Sundays. "The Under-21s kicked off at 1pm, which meant I missed quite a few games. Mixing studying with playing wasn't working and I was in limbo. I was put on loan to Henley and that was the best thing that could have happened.''

After Nigel Melville left Wasps for Gloucester, Warren Gatland, Melville's replacement as head coach, watched Erinle play for Henley and was sufficiently impressed to offer him a contract.

"The first thing he told me,'' Erinle said, "was to be more greedy and get my hands on the ball. It was a tough choice, but I decided that pharmacy could wait. It was a mercy killing.'' And as Wasps play at 3pm, he could attend church on Sunday mornings.

Wasps are not short of first-class centres - in addition to Denney they have Stuart Abbott MBE and Fraser Waters - but Erinle, at 6ft 4in and nearly 17 stone, can be used as a big impact player off the bench, a role he will probably fulfil against Sale at High Wycombe today.

"Every week I hope and pray my name's on the teamsheet. I started only nine matches last season, and this season it's been four. I thought during the World Cup it was time to shine, but it's been very staccato. I've had a couple of niggling injuries and that's when the doubts creep in. With God's grace my injury worries are over. You've got to back yourself. There are not many players who think they're not that good.''

Erinle (his Christian name means "joy in wealth") watched the World Cup final at the Orange Tree pub in Richmond, where the lager went down rather well. "I had a rib injury, and when Jason Robinson scored his try I think I damaged them even more. But what a great feeling. It's OK if you lay off the sauce at least a day before training.'' He is almost embarrassed to admit it, but he missed Lawrence Dallaglio's post-World Cup testimonial bash after the victory parade in London. "I fell asleep on the sofa,'' he said.

Regarded at the club as a bit of an egghead, Erinle turned down a course in astronomy and astrophysics in Newcastle. "The subject is a massive passion but at the last minute I bottled it. I thought I might go mad.'' Recently he competed on the TV show Countdown, winning two rounds and a teapot, which has been placed alongside the Wasps silverware, plus the blue riband for winning the Premiership last season, in the trophy cabinet at the clubhouse.

"I'm learning all the time,'' Erinle said. "Having quality people all around you makes you a better player. We've got a very successful squad and I'm just delighted to be a part of it.''