Richard Wigglesworth: Scrum half ploughs on and reaps rewards
Saracens No 9 is inspired by his farmer father's work ethic, which he believes has helped him get back into red-rose contention
Stuart Lancaster was not exactly bereft of scrum-half options when he sat down to finalise his list of Six Nations candidates a little over a week ago: the usual suspects – Lee Dickson, Ben Youngs, Danny Care – were all in one piece and available for selection so, as far as the No 9 position was concerned, the England coach was in the land of milk and honey. Why, then, did he add Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens to the roster? Simple. The farmer's son from Blackpool is, by any fair measure, the form half-back in the country.
He may also be the most motivated. It is 29 years since his father, Peter, underwent heart transplant surgery, and he is still going strong. "Dad doesn't farm any more – the bottom fell out of dairy farming a good while ago – but he diversified in an unusual way by turning his fields into a public golf course and he's so determined to make a success of it, he still gets up at four in the morning, just as he always did," Wigglesworth says. "I admire him so much. He's my hero, basically. If you want to know what a real work ethic looks like, look at him. If 10 per cent of it has rubbed off on me, I'll have all the reasons in the world to be grateful.
"Never once has he made a song and dance about having the transplant or complained about any problems it may have caused him, but we do have a big family lunch every 12 months to celebrate another year of being together. I'd love to play another international for England at Twickenham, with my parents up there in the stand. It would mean everything to me. I have this massive desire to get myself back into the Test scene and make a real go of it. I don't know what the pecking order will be when I get into camp, but I intend to put myself in the best possible light as far as Stuart and the other coaches are concerned."
Wigglesworth was first capped by Brian Ashton six years ago and is now the owner of 14 caps after a couple of red-rose appearances off the bench in Argentina last summer, but he has not started for his country since the first match of the benighted World Cup campaign in New Zealand in 2011. The moment he returned home from All Black territory, he wrecked his knee ligaments in a club match and could only wave his crutches in frustration as Dickson and company embedded themselves with Lancaster, who had succeeded Martin Johnson as England boss. It has taken him months of sweat and toil to force his way back into the reckoning.
Sweat, toil… and no little application. "There are a few things that have gone my way," he says. "For a start, it helps to be in a team playing well and it helps being surrounded by top-quality performers. But it's also true that I've analysed my game more closely, gone into more detail about more individual components of the scrum-half's skill set, than ever before. Together with Joe Shaw, our skills coach at Saracens, I look at every single pass, every single kick and every single decision at the breakdown, from positioning to execution.
"I'm a player who loves to be coached, which is very different from being told how to play. I'm a 30-year-old bloke, I've been doing this for quite a while, and I don't need someone ordering me to do this or do that, but I enjoy working constructively with people who can put an extra percentage point on my performance. That's what I get to do at Sarries and I'm a better scrum-half for it."
The club means the world to him: he still has a good-sized soft spot for Sale, where he spent the first eight years of his senior career, but he regards Saracens as the market leaders when it comes to the fine art of team-building. "When I decided to leave Sale and try something new, Saracens were the first ones to speak to me," he recalls. "After we met, that was it. I had calls from a couple of other clubs but they needn't have bothered, because my mind was made up. I'm a big one for honesty and I believed 100 per cent the things the Sarries people were telling me. Some of my friends thought I was just getting the hard sell, but it didn't feel like that at the time and my instincts turned out to be correct.
"There's so much more to being a good rugby club than simply being a good rugby team and, basically, the deal here is this: they look after you incredibly well and, in return, you give back more than you receive. I'm happy with that. As we speak, my two young kids are safe and sound in the crèche at the training ground. It's something I could have sorted out myself, but that level of support from the club makes my life that much easier. The spirit we have here – and everyone knows it's strong – comes from the sense of togetherness that runs right through the club."
This afternoon at Allianz Park, Saracens face one of the defining matches of what could be a vintage season. Defining? A match against lowly Connacht? Absolutely. The visitors are unquestionably the weakest of the four Irish provinces, and while they can be awkward cusses over there in the wild rugby post of Galway, they rarely put on a show away from home.
However, they certainly staged a command performance in beating Toulouse in France before Christmas and, as Saracens found to their acute discomfort last weekend, Toulouse are nobody's fools. Anything short of victory will end the Londoners' interest in the Heineken Cup – and as there will not be another under the current format, that will be that.
"As players, we're so bored with the politics: to be honest with you, we don't talk about it now," Wigglesworth says, referring to the vicious turf war over the future of cross-border club rugby in Europe that has been raging for 18 months. "What we know is that a top-quality tournament needs all the top teams to be involved, and that if we can find a way of making it happen, it will be a massively attractive proposition for everyone. My guess is that something will be sorted, but for now it's about winning this game and securing a quarter-final place.
"Do we feel we're good enough to push for the title? Definitely. You have to credit Toulouse for the way they played last week: one of our problems over there was the way the breakdown was refereed, but equally we have to accept that their defence was magnificent. There again, we felt we were unlucky not to beat them at Wembley back in October. If we reach the last eight we will challenge hard, so the pressure is on to make sure we get there. It's effectively a straight knockout game for us, so we know what we have to do."
On Sunday, Wigglesworth will head for the England training base in Surrey to begin preparations for the opening Six Nations contest with France in Paris in two weeks' time, and while his chances of being involved against Les Bleus are some way short of brilliant, his current level of performance suggests those odds will shorten as the championship unfolds.
The fact that he has not been included in the second-string Saxons squad for next Saturday's meeting with the Irish Wolfhounds at Kingsholm is significant: far from making up the numbers, Wigglesworth has a precious opportunity to make his own numbers stack up. With father Peter as his inspiration, who is to say he will not succeed?
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