England and Wasps protege Will Wilson has fond memories of learning the game of rugby growing up in Dubai
Most English kids brought up dreaming of playing rugby with the Red Rose emblazoned on their chests and running out at Twickenham will have fond memories, perhaps even nightmares, of forging their way to the top via rain-soaked pitches and kit caked in mud after matches.
But for Wasps-bound Will Wilson, the only thing he would have had to dust off his playing jerseys during his early days as a burgeoning rugby talent was perhaps a bit of sand.
The 21-year-old spent his formative rugby years in the UAE, where he honed his skills under the watchful eye of his Dubai Exiles coach Mike Wolff – the current club chairman.
Even though he was only here for a few years, the UAE formed the bedrock of his early introduction to a sport that becoming a professional in may have seemed as intangible as a desert mirage.
And the giant 6′ 2’, 15st 6lbs back-rower now with the world at his feet has credited the sun and sand, and moreover Dubai and Exiles, with providing a firm platform that allowed him to get his game off the ground.
“From what I can remember of living in Dubai, I loved it – a friendly place to grow up and great weather all the time,” said Wilson, whose career prospects definitely have a sunny outlook as he takes up a professional contract with English Premiership side Wasps this summer.
“My dad moved out for work when I was five, and I joined DESS (Dubai English Speaking School) and the Exiles almost as soon as we arrived. I lived in Dubai for four years but moved back to board in England for the last 18 months of living there.”
Wilson is just about to graduate from Oxford University’s Kebel campus, with hopes of a 2:1 grade in history.
And it is his history of living and beginning his love affair with rugby while living in the Emirates that Wilson knows started him on the path to what will hopefully be a long and successful playing career at the top. He has already made his international debut, featuring for England sevens at the Hong Kong leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series last month.
“I’m not sure about any long-term effects as it was a while ago, but I’ll give Mike and my dad the credit they’ve always craved, they set me on the way to where I am,” said Wilson, who moved with his family, including dad Stuart, to the UAE when he was five.
Despite more than a decade passing since he turned out for Exiles, Wilson recalls many happy memories of learning the game in the Middle East.
“I played for the Exiles at minis, from under-7 to under-12 I think,” he said.
“The highlight was a tour to Qatar where Mike had failed to organise any matches at all, so he put a call out to play anyone at anything for when we were there.
“I have an abiding memory of highly competitive football and cricket matches before a rugby ball was picked up.
“It was a while ago so I don’t have too many memories of actually playing, but what I love about the Exiles is how proud everyone is to be a part of the club. Even now we still have Exiles kit knocking around the house at home.”
And whereas games might have been marred by waterlogged and mud-filled pitches had his first steps on the field been in his native Richmond as opposed to Dubai, abandoned games or ruined kits were never an issue in the Middle East.
“I don’t really remember the heat being too much of a problem. I seem to recall sweatbands were all the rage back then,” added Wilson, who like most expats living in the desert, faced climate issues of a different sort.
“I certainly felt the heat as much as the next man in Hong Kong so clearly it didn’t help me too much in the long run.”
And having featured at the most famous sevens event on the circuit, Wilson hopes he might get to come to his second home and play at the Dubai Sevens in the future.
He said: “I remember the last time I went back to Dubai, the pride Mike took in showing us around The Sevens facility. The Dubai Sevens is definitely one for the bucket list if I ever return to sevens and get the chance.”
On the field in Hong Kong, it wasn’t a memorable tournament for Simon Amor’s England who underperformed at the seventh round of the 2017/18 Series.
They only finished 15th, alongside minnows South Korea to earn a solitary point, although a depleted squad featured emerging stars like Wilson as the majority of senior players prepared for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
The versatile forward capped his international bow with two tries, scoring in a 47–7 blitz of Korea in the pool stages, before also crossing in a 33-15 defeat to defending World Series champions South Africa in the knockouts.
He’s had a taste and Wilson admits he hopes it’s not the last time he gets to pull on the famous white jersey.
“The experience was unbelievable,” he said, knowing a full 15s debut is in the far distance, but something he is keeping an eye on.
“I’ve said to all my friends the one abiding memory will be the adrenaline rush from running out against Scotland under lights for my first game.
“If I could freeze those 10 seconds and relive them again and again I’d never get tired of it. I was absolutely over the moon to be called up and sincerely hope it’s not the last time I get to pull on an England jersey.
“I think the national 15s set-up is so far away as to be invisible. However, having got a taste of international sevens, it’d be a dream to experience that again.”
His focus for the foreseeable future, however, will be impressing and hopefully nailing down a spot at the Ricoh Arena next year and trying to catch the attention of Wasps head coach and former Wales international, Dai Young.
“I was delighted to sign for Wasps. The contract came completely out of the blue and I’m really excited to test myself against the very best in England and Europe day in, day out next year,” added Wilson.
“My focus is to impress for the Wasps academy side and hopefully get a little bit of game time in the Premiership when and if the opportunity arises.
“I want to impress with Wasps as much as possible. My overarching rugby goal is to win an Olympic medal in sevens, whatever the route I may take to get there, and to continue to enjoy playing for as long as possible.”