First, a confession: I’ll firmly hold my hand up and say that when Luke Wallace’s name came over the PA at the stoop saying that he was to replace openside Will Skinner (injured in the warm-up), I remember not being particularly filled with confidence. By the end of the 80 minutes though, myself and those who I was with were incredibly surprised at how well a then 20 year old debutant had acquitted himself against a Saints unit containing what is now surely 2/3rds of the England back row elect in Tom Wood and Phil Dowson.
Luke Wallace, initially a product of Tonbridge School (a renowned rugby school in its own right) in Kent, is the latest “product” to roll off the end of the Harlequins’ academy conveyor belt of talent. That says a great deal in itself when you consider the fact that Quins have produced a star a year since hitting the big time again six years ago. Last year, it was the much maligned Joe Marler’s turn and prior to that, names such as Jordan Turner Hall, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and George Lowe have all made a name for themselves for both Quins and country after graduating through the ranks.
What’ makes Wallace’s ascension more impressive though is that he’s made his breakthrough in the most competitive area in the multi-coloured one’s team: the back row. Quins’ back row currently consists of an England veteran of 47 caps and two world cups, an absolute wrecking ball of an openside flanker voted into the writers’ team of the tournament at RWC 2011 and the current England captain. Despite such illustrious company, Wallace has been able to stand out for reasons beyond his flowing blonde locks. An out and out openside flanker by trade, his work ethic and keen support play compliment Harlequins’ desire to play with expanse.
It’s not just a question of Wallace being a good fit for the side. He offers more than that. If we’re going on individual efforts then Wallace more than matches his illustrious colleagues hit for hit and stat for stat. He has amassed close to 100 tackles in a number of Aviva Premiership starts you can count solely using your hands. He’s also scored four tries, more than any other Quins forward this season, including one on debut against Saints and an excellent cross kick reception away at Wasps. What’s all the more impressive is that seemingly out of nothing, he’s developed the nous that you need to go toe to toe with the best in the game. Club colleague Nick Easter may have received the plaudits and the man of the match award against London Irish at the weekend but there was one man who was involved in everything good that Quins did. Wallace was at the bottom of every ruck, at the heart of every off the ball dust-up, on the shoulder of every line break and the first to cover the Quins’ outside backs’ unusually suspect first up tackling. He may be in his debut season, but Wallace has been playing like a veteran well beyond his years.
So while I was at first nonplussed by Wallace’s selection and subsequent sudden emergence (and you’d surely be forgiven for doubting a debutant), he’s seized his chance well and seemingly out of nothing is a serious player in Quins’ title charge. If England’s back row balance does fail again and they find themselves back on the seemingly perennial search for a genuine openside worthy of wearing the red rose, they could do a lot worse. Remember the name, ladies and gentlemen….