Rugby news: Four years ago Ruaridh McConnochie was playing for £20 bar tokens

Rugby news: Four years ago Ruaridh McConnochie was playing for £20 bar tokens

Rewind four years and Ruaridh McConnochie was playing social rugby in the ‘Beer Cup’ with a group of friends from university.

They arrived in Bournemouth with cheap plastic tents and a bag of jerseys – as well as ponchos, sombreros and tequila for a Mexican-themed social.

‘We did that every year for six or seven years,’ recalls McConnochie, who had just graduated from the University of Gloucestershire, where he shared a student house with seven friends.

Ruaridh McConnochie impressed for Bath and has been named in England’s World Cup squad

‘We didn’t play in the good competition. We played in the ‘Beer Cup’ because, by the second day, we struggled to find seven people who weren’t hungover! The WhatsApp group’s still going!’

For McConnochie, rugby was then just a hobby to enjoy with his mates.

He played for Nuneaton RFC in the fifth tier – earning £20 in beer tokens for a victory – and his career ambitions were to become a PE teacher.

That all changed, however, when he fell into the slipstream of professional rugby.

The versatile wing was also part of the Team GB squad that won Olympic silver at Rio 2016

Via the Olympic Games, where he won a silver medal in sevens, and one season in professional XVs, the 27-year-old has now been catapulted to the Rugby World Cup.

He was set to make his England debut last month, but injury struck and – third time lucky – he is now expected to win his first cap in the final Quilter Test against Italy on Friday.

‘I never dreamt that I’d be getting paid to play rugby and having a career out of it,’ says McConnochie, whose university friends have scrambled for tickets to see the gangly winger they know as ‘Limbs’.

‘However much you’re getting flogged these days, you stop and think, ‘Hang on, my life could be much different’. It makes you appreciate everything.

‘Back in the day, we trained at Nuneaton on cold and wet winter nights. Tuesdays and Thursdays. You’d drive an hour and a half to get there, do your backs skills, and drive back.

‘Saturday was game day and you’d leave home in Cheltenham at 7am, go up and play a match in the Midlands – somewhere like Scunthorpe – then drive back for 9pm and go to work in a bar called Fever ’till 6am! 

‘The student loan was a saviour. To be playing rugby now as a job is incredible. You kinda just roll with it…’

The wing and his University friends used to play in a social competition called the Beer Cup

McConnochie revealed that four years ago he used to play rugby in the ‘Beer Cup’ with friends

England coach Eddie Jones selected McConnochie despite a lack of experience at Test level

Dealt a backdrop of personal hardship, McConnochie’s rise through the ranks has been all the more impressive

Throughout, he has stood by the side of his girlfriend, Vicki, who has overcome her battle with cancer, bringing any rugby achievements into perspective.

His friends describe him as a grounded character who, when asked to bring his most-treasured rugby memento into England camp, picked a family photograph over his Olympic silverware.

It was an image from his dad’s fridge – both parents are Scottish – of McConnochie playing for Cranbrook with his two brothers, Jamie and Callum.

They were the first people McConnochie called when he received the message from Jones to break the news of his selection.

‘I was on a train platform with Zach Mercer and this text came through from Eddie Jones,’ he recalls. 

‘We were coming into Bristol for food. I wasn’t sure if it was a prank so I checked the name against Zach’s phone and it came up. I called Eddie back and had a two-minute conversation on the phone when he said I was in the camp. 

‘I thought it was too good to be true until I heard him talk. It was pretty cool. The next half an hour was kind of a blur.’

Back’s versatility and adaptability has impressed coach Eddie Jones and earned him a place

With Jack Nowell currently struggling with injury, there is added importance on McConnochie transitioning smoothly into the international arena on Friday night.

Despite a stalled start, Jones has reiterated his faith in the rookie and George Ford has described him as the most inquisitive player he has ever come across.

‘I’ve never had a fellow team-mate ask me as many questions,’ said Ford.

Elliot Daly has heaped praise on his breakdown ability in the wide channels, which was perfected on the sevens circuit.

McConnochie’s long stride gives him a turn of pace which, combined with a sharp change of direction, made him Bath’s standout attacker last season.

But Jones sees the newcomer as more than just a winger – comparing him to Australian Peter Hewat because of his movement and ability to play across the backline.

Jones drew comparisons between McConnochie and Australia wing Peter Hewat

‘I remember Peter Hewat from my rugby fan days,’ chuckles McConnochie. ‘To be fair, I haven’t really been compared to many people. I guess we attack in similar ways. He was a good broken-field runner. 

‘He was pretty versatile and I back myself to be able to play in a number of positions: 13, full back and either wing. Hewat had 10 in the repertoire, too, but I might need a few more years of training for that!’

For now, McConnochie’s focus is simply finding his way onto the pitch at St James’ Park. It will be some step up from the Beer Cup, just like everything else in his whirlwind year, he is taking it all in his stride.

‘Throughout my career, I’ve just tried to enjoy what’s in front of me,’ he says. 

Overwhelming? ‘At the end of the day you’re just on a pitch playing rugby, aren’t you?’

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