Of all the surprises in Eddie Jones’ surprising World Cup squad, perhaps the biggest was Ruaridh McConnochie. McConnochie is the definition of a bolter. Whilst the rest of his England teammates were signed to Premiership academies, he was playing for Cranbrook, in sixth tier. Rather sign a professional contract, he went to university and represented Nuneaton in National Division Three on the weekends.
At 27 years old, uncapped, and after just fifteen games of professional fifteen a side rugby, McConnochie has made the squad. This is an incredible achievement and a story that illustrates that talent can slip through the net, and the academy system is maybe not quite as proficient at hovering up talent as we may think.
“People forget I was superfan until I was 24,” he laughed to the BBC.
“I wasn’t involved in any academies, and went to uni to do a teaching degree – or aimed to do a teaching degree by the end of it – but in my last six months I was offered a trial with the sevens and got a contract.”
His meteoric rise suggests that perhaps others too may follow his unconventional route, “I think there’s a lot of untapped talent in the uni system, McConnochie said, “you see Alex Dombrandt coming through this year and that’s just one name.”
“I think there are a lot of uni guys there who have slipped under the radar going through Under-18s and maybe developed later and I was definitely one of them.”
McConnochie’s career has seen him spend a spell teaching in New Zealand and win a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, having travelled initially as a reserve only to see himself thrust into action after an injury to a teammate. Such rich life experience is rare in a professional era in which the game can feel increasingly proscribed and robotic.
Having stressed the importance of a player’s character in justifying selection, and excluded players with a disruptive history like Cipriani and Te’o, this life experience clearly appealed to Eddie Jones.
“We delved into his background and character and had a few meetings with him. He’s a good character, a good team man, an ideal guy to be a potential utility back at the World Cup. He can play 11, 14, 15, maybe 13 at a pinch. He’s a handy player.”
Ultimately however, Jones has picked McConnochie primarily for his rugby playing abilities.
“I will tell you the game I saw him. It was a beautiful sunny day in Exeter. He played for Bath and did a lot of good things,” Jones said. “I remember driving back in the car and trying to find out more information about him.
“He is a big tall guy with feet and, again, with Exeter because you are close to the ground you can hear and see the communication of the players. He is a very good communicator. We found out more about him, did some background information, and he continued to play well.”
A guy with genuine life experience, a likeable demeanour and the game to match, McConnochie could yet prove a valuable member of England’s squad. He is also an example that there is talent throughout all levels of the rugby system, and that the academy system is not the only way to the top.
Written by Joe Ronan