Six Nations 2015: The making of Jonathan Joseph - England's new try-scoring sensation

He was apparently a shy boy with a gift for tennis and dancing. Tom Peck talks to those who know him best to find out the truth about Jonathan Joseph

In the days after England’s new outside centre sensation had announced his arrival in international rugby by dropping his shoulder and brushing off two challenges before sprinting over the line in Cardiff three weeks ago, unusual stories quickly emerged about this Jonathan Joseph fellow.

A prodigal tennis player, who once slid like Novak Djokovic and outpaced a young Andy Murray. He was also a shy boy, who kept his head down, staring at feet that would catch the eye of dance teachers in his Berkshire secondary school.

These were the feet that also twice turned the heads of the Italian defence at Twickenham a fortnight ago when, after a sudden jink and a swerve, all they could see was the No 13 on his back bearing down on the try line.

On all three tries, there was virtually no contact. Evading tackles, not crashing through them; how quaint a tactic. And one that brought great relief to England. Joseph had become the latest in a wearyingly long line of candidates to deputise for the injured Manu Tuilagi, who, at three stone heavier, suddenly looks three stone unsubtler.

“Yeah, I knew he had some talent at tennis,” says Marcus Watson, current star of the England Sevens set-up, and one of Joseph’s best mates, “but I’ve seen JJ dance many, many times and he is absolutely terrible, so I don’t know where that’s come from.”

 

Marcus – older brother of England’s new winger, Anthony – and JJ (everyone calls him JJ) shared a flat in their days at the London Irish Academy. “Let me make that clear,” he goes on. “There is absolutely no way he has any talent for dancing whatsoever.”

Still, the most surprising artefact to emerge from 23-year-old Joseph’s recent past has been a picture of him aged 16 at Millfield School, that fabled production line for the nation’s outstanding sports people, posing with the school second XV. England’s great new hope, not even in the school first team.

Even his closest family and friends will say that JJ wasn’t destined for greatness. “Oh, he’s surpassed everything I ever thought he would do,” says his godfather Roxy Fearon, who still coaches at Derby RFC, where JJ played as a young boy when his father transferred to the town for work. Fearon and Joseph Snr, Ivan, became best mates. “I wouldn’t say he was our outstanding player. We had many outstanding players.”

JJ’s is not the story, told so many times, of a young man who scored 20 tries or 10 goals or 500 runs a match, running rings round the bigger boys and dashing off to the guarantee of a glittering future.

“At Under-16 level, doubts came creeping in about whether he was good enough,” says Ivan Joseph, now a chemical engineer at BP, but once a fly-half for Northampton. “I don’t think he realised there would be so many good players around all of a sudden. JJ struggled a bit with that. But that changed when he went to Millfield.”

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Jonathan Joseph breaks through the Italian defence to score the first of his two tries for England on Saturday (Reuters)

The immediately obvious story of the last few weeks is of a young man who has finally done what so many have failed to do of late, and grab with both hands the chance that England’s endless injury list has provided them.

But the truth is more complicated, littered with setbacks and knock-downs, but coming back stronger.

“He took his time sizing up the opposition, finding his new friends at school,” says John Mallett, a former England prop forward and now director of rugby at Millfield. “He wasn’t the superstar at 16. He wasn’t the best kid out there. But what he did do is have a look around and think, ‘I can do this.’ And once he’d done that, it was jaw-dropping stuff.

“When he left, I was in touch with Mike Catt, who was coaching at London Irish. I was really interested in how things were unfolding for him in the academy. Similarly there, he wobbled. They were wondering, ‘Did he really have the application?’ But it seems, again, that he sized up the environment and it was only after a little bit [of time] that he came through, that he’d decided he was good enough.” And that story rings true for England, too. He had his chance once before, making his debut in the 22-17 defeat against the Springboks in Durban in 2012, but it is only injuries, really, that brought him back in to contention for this Six Nations.

“For some people, mental toughness comes with age. Some get it earlier, but others, who have a more relaxed attitude, can take longer to acquire it,” says Watson.

At the start of the 2013 season, he left London Irish for Bath and after some initial difficulties, has played brilliantly.

“In my opinion, he has been playing very well in the Premiership for quite a long time now, and it’s been incredibly frustrating for him to not be in the England squad, to be in and around it but not firmly in it. That’s been the case for around three years now. But every time he goes back to Bath and improves.”

“He knows he can play, now,” says father Ivan. “He’s stood up against the best teams. Now he knows he can do that, he’ll be OK.”

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Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell celebrates with Jonathan Joseph after he scores (Getty Images)

Now, a new type of pressure falls upon him. Not the pressure of seizing opportunity, but the weight of expectation. Of suddenly being the man everyone expects to glide past the defence and change the match.

“I don’t think that will bother him,” says Watson. “He is not going to be scoring two tries every game now. He is a smart enough person and rugby player to know that. If he doesn’t score for the next three games and has a solid performance, does his job, makes his tackle, then he should be absolutely fine.”

Unlike the Welsh, arguably, Ireland will be ready for him.

“If you score tries, you’re a threat and you need to be dealt with. Everybody knows that,” says Fearon. “I don’t suppose [the Wales coach] Warren Gatland worried about him too much. They were caught out. I don’t think Ireland will be caught out.

“From the discussions we’ve had, he’s taking all this in stride. He’s not getting carried away with it. This isn’t his first go at international rugby. He doesn’t want to be the next big thing, then be the next let-down, you know, the next Cipriani.” The instant comparisons have been with Jeremy Guscott, not least, says Fearon, who is black himself, “because they’re both mixed race, or whatever is the in vogue term now.”

That outside centre break, the opportunistic streak, the desire to use the space that’s there, not crash through the man in front, they’re all there. But Fearon’s preferred comparison is an interesting one.

“People say he’s like Jerry Guscott. I’d say he’s more like Brian O’Driscoll. The all-round game, the outside break. O’Driscoll wasn’t a big lad. He had to rely on playing rugby.”

The next O’Driscoll or the next Cipriani? That is quite a crossroads at which to be standing. He may, of course, be neither but, whichever direction he dances from here, those next electric steps will come on Sunday in Dublin.

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