A year ago, Ruaridh McConnochie had not played a single top-flight match of rugby union.
Today, despite still never having played competitively for England, he was named in Eddie Jones’s 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup next month.
It was a momentous day in McConnochie’s career and one entirely in keeping with a whirlwind 12 months which have seen him go from willing apprentice at Bath to the Test arena with England. It is a position which suits him just fine.
McConnochie may have played just 15 times for Bath after joining the club last summer, but he was already a decorated international upon arrival, having won a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics in Sevens.
After making a switch back to the form of the game he played at Rangataua when in New Zealand as a teaching assistant, while studying at the University of Gloucestershire and with Nuneaton RFC, McConnochie jumped at the opportunity to join Bath.
Beginning the 2018-19 season with the aim of simply “learning the game” he was instead thrust into the Premiership spotlight, playing at full-back in place of the injured Anthony Watson and on the wing when Joe Cokanasiga and Semesa Rokoduguni were unavailable.
“It was lucky I got my shot when they got injured,” he admitted at the end of the campaign. Lucky or not, by the end of his debut season the 27-year-old had impressed so much that an unexpected phone call from England head coach Jones followed.
“Whenever a chance is put before him he grabs it,” former Great Britain Sevens international and ex-Nuneaton director of rugby Phil Llewellyn told the Coventry Telegraph. “He constantly wants to learn more and take things on board. He’s never satisfied or complacent.”
“My pathway was completely different,” McConnochie told the Guardian. “In terms of skills, more young people should be doing it [playing Sevens]. It helped my game massively, whether it be aerially or running to beat people one on one and backing yourself.”
Having not yet made his England debut – a late hip injury ruled him out of Sunday’s win over Wales – McConnochie has become the first uncapped member of an England World Cup squad since Joe Simpson in 2011.
It is a remarkable story and one which owes a lot to his background – both academic and in Sevens – but also to Jones’s methodology.
“He’s a good character, good team man, [an] ideal guy to fit in as a utility back for the World Cup,” Jones said earlier this summer. “He is a handy player.”
When you consider the axing of former favourite Ben Te’o following a fight with Mike Brown while on England’s training camp in Italy and McConnochie’s surprise call-up, it is clear where Jones’s priorities for Japan lie.
Personalities are important. With three more warm-up games to come and just under six weeks until the World Cup opener against Tonga, squad harmony is paramount.
Although inexperienced, McConnochie’s selection ticks a lot of boxes and is emblematic of Jones’s approach. And he’s not the only one; the Australian has been unafraid of casting aside the big names, the former superstars and anyone who doesn’t fit the mould in favour of the next generation.
Te’o, Brown, Danny Cipriani, Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Nathan Hughes and Danny Care and their 465 combined caps are gone. McConnochie, Cokanasiga, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Piers Francis and Jack Singleton and their 13 caps are in.
“A lot of good players have missed out, we feel for them, I feel for them personally,” Jones said. “We have taken the decision to go early because of what we learned from previous campaigns.”
He has made the calls. Now Jones needs to shape his fresher, less experienced squad into one capable of winning the World Cup.
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