DUBAI // A former Dubai Exiles youth player took another step towards the elite game after playing in England's victory over Scotland in the Under 18 Six Nations at the weekend.
Having initially been spotted while at a rugby training camp in the UK during his holidays from Jumeirah College, Jordan Onojaife has played for England's age-group sides for the past two seasons.
The second-row forward has already appeared for the second XV of Northampton Saints, the English Premiership club whose academy he is part of, despite being only 17.
His rise in the sport has been a remarkable one considering he had never picked up the oval ball before a teacher at Jumeirah College persuaded him to take a brief break from his preferred sport, basketball, to give rugby union a try at the age of 13.
Playing alongside some of the most promising talent in England in a win over their nearest rivals as he did on Sunday is a far cry from his first encounter with the sport.
"The school rugby team was struggling to get a squad together for the first game of the year against JESS Ranches," Onojaife said.
"Knowing I was a keen and competitive sportsman my PE teacher, Mr Riordan, asked me to play. I was a pupil who would do anything for my school so I said I'd play.
"For quite a confident sportsman on the bus on the way to the game I found myself getting extremely nervous because I'd never even watched a game of rugby before let alone played a full contact game."
It was an immediate love match given that, for the first time, being able to knock other youngsters over was regarded as a good thing.
"The main thing I can remember from that game is the first play when I was given the ball from the base off a ruck and I just put my head down and ran," he said. "I just went flying into a defender, they fell backwards and I basically fell on top of them and this got some cheers from my mates.
"Then I just remember standing up with a smile on my face laughing. Being a bigger kid you're always told to go steady.
"I had always felt that I had to be careful to make sure that I didn't hurt other kids when playing sport so the concept of it being a good thing to run into someone just made me laugh; it went against everything that I had been taught before."
His heroes in sport have since morphed from footballers such as David Beckham, to the powerhouse second-row forwards Courtney Lawes and Brad Thorn.
"A lot of it happened by chance," said his father Kingsley, who moved with his family from London to work as a manager in the oil and gas industry in Dubai in December 2006.
"They [Jordan's brother Devante is also a promising player as part of the Under 15 side at the Exiles] were playing rugby at their school, then through one of their friends or teachers were invited down to the Exiles. From that point, he never looked back."
Having been introduced to the game at school, Onojaife excelled during three years as an Exiles youth player.
Although a late starter in the sport, his physical attributes were immediately striking: he now stands 6ft 6in, while his 14-year-old brother Devante is already 6ft 2in.
"With a bit of coercion from his JC teammates and myself we persuaded him to come along to the Exiles and get more involved in rugby," said Tim Boyle, the coach who first encountered Onojaife as a raw Under 14 player.
"At that time his core skills were lagging behind the others - who'd had the benefit of a number of years playing rugby - but he made up for that with determination and putting everything he had into both training and competition games."
He left the UAE after being invited to attend the Saints academy and study for his A levels at Stowe School, and within months had been elevated into England's national academy, too. Onojaife is dovetailing his rugby with studying maths, chemistry and physics. He has an offer to study engineering at university - but that may have to wait.
"Playing my first game for England Under 17 against Scotland last March was incredible, the pride you feel in being chosen to represent your country cannot be put into words," he said.
"It makes every hour you've spent in the gym or training outside in all conditions worth it. Being selected for England Under 18 is another stepping stone and makes me determined to continue to work as hard as I can to pursue my rugby career even further."
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