From Taunton Titans to England starter in 18 months – the unique rise of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso

From Taunton Titans to England starter in 18 months – the unique rise of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has enjoyed a swift rise to prominence - Taunton Rugby Club

When a player has featured in only 26 games as a professional yet already has a blistering highlights reel like Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, you can bet they are some talent.

Around 18 months ago Feyi-Waboso was playing for Taunton in National One trying to help the Somerset club avoid relegation. Now it feels as though all English eyes are on a player who seems ultra-talented on and off the field to inject a spark into an underwhelming Six Nations campaign.

Eager viewers of Exeter Chiefs games this season will probably have a favourite moment from the 21-year-old winger, whose combination of rapid acceleration and power has stretched defences throughout the last few months. Personally, it’s the run from just inside Newcastle’s half 30 seconds into a game at Kingston Park when Feyi-Waboso skipped out of a Matias Moroni tackle, brushed off a challenge from Iwan Stephens with such force it left Stephens flat on the turf wondering ‘what on earth was that?’, before going up a gear and rounding Louis Johnson to finish one of the tries of the season.

When Feyi-Waboso was at Taunton each of his appearances for the club was an individual highlight reel, according to the club’s coach Tony Yapp.

“Honestly he was such a nice guy. He worked unbelievably hard. For me as a coach he was brilliant, very coachable. It was natural to him,” Yapp tells Telegraph Sport. “He got on with all the boys, would talk to the older and younger players. He never came in as anyone ‘big time’, he came in as Manny. He was a very popular member of the squad during the time he was with us.”

A tough start to the season with injuries and retirements left Taunton scraping to avoid the drop, with the arrival of Feyi-Waboso and other young players in George Worboys, Ewan Richards and Jordan Venter providing a timely boost. “We were very fortunate that Manny came to us. Those guys all played extremely well. It lifted the energy of the squad to have quality players like that knocking around and helped us stay up at the end of the season.”

Taunton face Bishops Stortford at three o’clock on Saturday, a crucial game at the bottom of the league, with attention afterwards quickly turning to Twickenham.

“He was only with us this time last year. Twelve months ago he was running around at Taunton – what I would give to have him back now!” laughs Yapp. “He mucked in and from the time he was with us he was one of the boys, and that was great. A lot of them knew at the time they were fortunate to be playing with Manny because he would go on to bigger and better things, which he clearly has. His professional attitude to training and playing certainly rubbed off on a number of players.

“We will definitely be trying to watch it if we can. It’s a credit to him and to Exeter for how hard they have worked to get him up to speed. I think deep down we all knew he was a special talent. We’re all over the moon that he is getting this opportunity.”

Feyi-Waboso has now scored seven tries in this campaign, the most recent coming at Murrayfield where Scotland quickly learned this about England’s new wing; switch off for a second in defence and he will cut through. His second cap, having come off the bench against Italy for his debut, naturally peaked with his first Test try but there were a string of promising touches, including a lively burst returning a Finn Russell kick.

Feyi-Waboso was not in York last week with England, having returned to Exeter University to sit an in-person exam as part of his first year studying medicine. Even with that time away from training, he is poised for a first start, which underlines his value.

It has been a young career so far packed full of intriguing ‘sliding doors’ moments. His father, Andrew, is half-Nigerian and half-English – Feyi-Waboso’s grandmother is from Gloucester – and works as a consultant ophthalmologist, therefore moving the family around the country with his profession. Feyi-Waboso’s mother, who died when he was young, was half-Nigerian and half-Jamaican.

Having been born in Cardiff and raised there until the age of 15, he joined the Cardiff Blues academy and played for Wales Under-18s. His first game as a professional was for the Blues, with 11 minutes off the bench against an Ospreys side which contained his now current Exeter and England team-mate, Ethan Roots.

Yet it was Cardiff University’s decision to not offer Feyi-Waboso a place to study medicine, despite achieving one A* and two As while studying at Clifton College in Bristol, which based on his recent comments effectively closed the door on Feyi-Waboso playing for Wales.

Feyi-Waboso determined to become a doctor

When it was announced that Feyi-Waboso had been named in the England squad, rather than Wales’, Warren Gatland wrote in his column for this paper that the Wales assistant Neil Jenkins had remarked: “He was born in Cardiff and if he doesn’t want to play for Wales, then he can b----r off’.” In reality, Feyi-Waboso playing for Wales has seemed like a long shot for some time.

Instead he enrolled at Aston University to study medicine and signed for Wasps. On the cusp of making his Premiership debut in a game against Northampton Saints, Wasps fell into administration and Feyi-Waboso was left without a club.

In another twist to the Anglo-Welsh tussle for his services, Telegraph Sport understands that Lee Blackett, the former Wasps coach who subsequently joined Scarlets as an assistant, was eager to try and bring Feyi-Waboso to Wales with him only for the region to dither. Instead Feyi-Waboso signed for Exeter; another move, another new university, another new club. Except this time things were different.

“I had a lot of stability at Exeter,” Feyi-Waboso noted recently, hence his decision to re-sit his first year of medicine again and to settle into life in Devon, with Exeter’s director of rugby Rob Baxter helping to secure Feyi-Waboso’s place at the university.

Then came his spell at Taunton last year, a time which Feyi-Waboso spoke about the other week with a wide smile. ‘There are good guys around the Taunton team. Tony Yapp is a really good coach. Good vibes, nice people as well,” he said. Exeter’s hard squad reboot this summer, following the departures of Sam Simmonds, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie et al, thrust talented youngsters into the spotlight, leading to strong results and Feyi-Waboso stealing the show.

A voracious appetite to learn, described by Feyi-Waboso as “my driving force”, has already served well off the field and no doubt helped on it. “If I wasn’t playing rugby, my ideal situation would be just to stay in Uni, keep learning, keep going. But obviously, I feel like being a doctor is a career of constant learning.

“You don’t really stop. You do five years in Uni, then you have two foundation years, then specialise … it’s not boring. Neither is rugby. It’s very interesting. It’s constantly learning, seeing new players, new systems and stuff like that. So it’s pretty cool. My driving force – I feel like it’s something that’s now habitual. It’s just something that I really want to do: become a doctor.”

There arguably is no harder rugby examination right now than facing Ireland. England putting Feyi-Waboso on the field is one thing, but they need to create situations for that explosiveness to shine through. Because in this intellectual, exciting 21-year-old, England might just have something.

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