Stuart Abbott

Making the England move

2008-09-05 05:46

Stuart Abbott

I was happy at Western Province and enjoyed every opportunity I was given to play for the Stormers. There are few cities in the world which offer the lifestyle afforded those who live in Cape Town. It's not an environment you leave easily.

When then Stormers head coach Gert Smal offered to renew my contract but without the promise of regular game-time, I had to make a professional decision - and that was to move to London Wasps. It's probably a similar decision that a lot of young guys from all over the southern hemisphere are making now.

Prior to my Wasps move, on a recommendation from Christian Stewart and Joel Stransky, I enjoyed a short spell with the Leicester Tigers during the 1999 Rugby World Cup when they needed cover for players lost to the event.

That small stint in the UK was enough to whet my appetite, so when Nigel Melville, director of rugby at Wasps, flew me over in 2001 I already had a good idea of what to expect. I was there for a weekend to see the Wasps set-up and to discuss a contract. I decided there and then that Wasps was where my future lay.


Through my Mancunian mum I qualified to play for England. When I arrived in England my ambition to represent the Springboks was immediately converted. I began to focus on doing my utmost to gain the recognition that would allow me to launch a real challenge for a spot in the England team.

Having committed myself to a career in the UK rather than in South Africa, I wanted to throw myself fully into my new rugby and social life in England - and not to have one foot in the southern hemisphere and one in the northern hemisphere.

The instant acceptance from my new Wasps teammates and my enjoyment of the England rugby environment confirmed my ambition to play for England.

On arriving at Wasps the players could not have been kinder to me. The welcome was immediate, warm and embracing. Lawrence Dallaglio's impact as both captain and player made a huge impression on me - and that's saying a lot because I had been playing under charismatic leaders like Bob Skinstad and Corne Krige.

Lawrence's contribution to Wasps and England has been extraordinary. Among the others who showed me special kindness were Fraser Waters - who'd been three years ahead of me in our prep school in Cape Town - Simon Shaw and Phil Greening.

More physical

The biggest adjustment I had to make concerned the playing conditions. The style of play in the UK is different to South Africa. The weather here dictates a less expansive, usually lower-scoring game where defence assumes even greater importance than I'd ever been used to. South African fields - often dry and hard - offer more opportunity to play wide than the wetter, muddier fields here.

I adapted my game to be more physical on attack as well as defence. I found skills were as important, but the skills had to be adapted to the different conditions in which we practiced and played.

I was fortunate to play in a strong Wasps team, guided by an excellent coaching and back-up staff. At that time the very astute and accomplished Warren Gatland was in charge. While I was there, we won two tremendously hard-fought Zurich Premiership titles, a highly memorable Heineken Cup final, and also the Parker Pen Challenge Cup and the Powergen Cup. These all provide very special memories, as did my next achievement.

In 2003 my goal of playing international rugby was realised when Clive Woodward selected me for the summer tour to New Zealand and Australia and then my first Test - the World Cup warm-up game against Wales. I played against France two weeks later and then - the stuff of dreams - Clive Woodward telephoned me to confirm that I'd been selected for the 2003 World Cup squad.

That experience is of course the subject of a separate article because the detail and emotion of that campaign was a life-changing experience which will remain indelibly imprinted on me forever.


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