Aaron Wainwright Exclusive: ‘University rugby is probably what got me where I am’

Aaron Wainwright starred for Cardiff Met before making his professional debut for Dragons in 2017
©Barbarian FC via Getty Images

For much of the past 12 months, Cardiff Met has been heralded as a breeding ground for English talent as the likes of Alex Dombrandt, Tom Pearson and Luke Northmore have set the Gallagher Premiership alight.

While the university has been instrumental in those players’ development, it is almost forgotten how many stars for Wales that Cyncoed has had walk its grounds over the years.

One of the more recent Wales internationals to have attended Met is Aaron Wainwright. Now 25, the back-row forward is with the Barbarians and preparing to take on the All Blacks XV at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Studying at Cyncoed between 2016 and 2017, Wainwright quickly became a star at university level and was quickly called up to play for the Dragons thanks to his involvement with the Academy. As such he has been unable to complete his studies in sports science as rugby became the forward’s career.

Making his Wales debut in Argentina in 2018, Wainwright represented his country at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan under Warren Gatland.

“I know it sounds cliché,” Wainwright said, “but university was probably what got me where I am today. Going to Cardiff Met and the setup they had, it was the closest thing to a professional setup I had seen.

“The S&C stuff, catering around your studies and the level of rugby you are playing on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s, in BUCS and the WRU Championship, the setup is incredible. It paved the way for me.

“I really enjoyed my time down there. I made some incredible friends; some amazing memories and it is something I will always look back on fondly.”

Having only picked up rugby properly as a 17-year-old after spending much of his teens playing football in the academies of Cardiff City and Newport County, Wainwright says that he was just “tagging along” with his schoolfriends at Whitehead RFC before finding he was fairly adept on the rugby field.

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There was perhaps some natural talent kicking around thanks to Wainwright’s father, Adrian, having played for Wales U21 as a prop and back-row, but it was playing at Cyncoed in the midweek and Saturday squads that certainly taught Wainwright some lessons. 

In the past, England No.8 Alex Dombrandt has discussed his own experiences of playing for Met’s weekend team. Having his jaw broken twice while playing Welsh Championship rugby, it is certainly not a competition for the faint of heart.

“A memory that is maybe not looked back on so fondly is the Championship games,” Wainwright said. “Playing against some big, big blokes from the Valleys that rock up and, I guess, get annoyed by how good the younger university team are playing and having a few encounters with those boys. That is a memory I am never going to forget.”

But while those weekends looked back upon less fondly, it is BUCS games on the Wednesday that hold happier memories for Wainwright. Playing the rest of the United Kingdom’s top university sides in open and attacking rugby it allowed the back-row and his teammates to flourish on the pitch.

“There is a big buy-in from the universities and the standard of rugby, especially on a Wednesday in the BUCS games, you get so many people down watching, those are the games you want to be playing in,” Wainwright said.

“Having so many people in a rugby setup, where you are fighting for your position, pushing each other in training and in the games, to be able to play in those games, that is what you want on a Wednesday.”

Add to that the Met Ultras, who will generally follow the first team wherever they go, it is a memory that stands strongly in the 25-year-old's mind.

“I don’t know how long they had been going for before I joined Cardiff Met but having those boys on the side lines at home, making a load of noise, those games are amazing,” Wainwright said.

“Very fond memories of playing at Rugby 1 at Cyncoed. Just running out; the changing rooms are quite far away from the pitch, so every time you come down, they make a long tunnel for you to come down.

“When the away team come through, it is dead, dead silent. They have to walk all the way down this tunnel of mad Cardiff Met fans and when we’d walk through, we’d find them going absolutely nuts, which is perfect for what you want before a game to get the blood going.”

In the years since his Dragons debut against Cardiff Rugby in October 2017, Wainwright’s rise has been not far short of meteoric. Touring with Wales the summer after making his first professional appearance, the Newport-born flanker currently has 38 caps to his name.

Starting four of Wales’s five games at the 2019 World Cup, for the current Autumn Nations Series the 25-year-old found himself out of Wayne Pivac’s plans to take on the All Blacks, Argentina, Georgia and Australia.

So when the Barbarians called, going down to London for a week certainly made sense. There are, in some ways, parallels to something that Zach Mercer said this week while in camp when asked about his international ambitions:

“It is an international shop window to prove to England coaches that I am still here, and I want to play for England again,” Mercer said.

Much of the same can be said for Wainwright, who was given direction about where his game needs to improve by Pivac following his omission from the Wales squad just several weeks ago.

“There is a side of it where the Barbarians have asked you play and it is about enjoying it and enjoying the occasion on its own in that sense,” Wainwright said. “A bit like the case with Zach, it is a chance to play in something as close to an international game as possible.

“The emotion was probably frustration at not being selected for the Welsh squad. But I have had a chat with Pivac and he said the areas I need to work on and what I need to do. It was nice to have a bit of communication from their side, just so I knew where I stood and what I needed to do.”

With a strong French influence brought in thanks to Ronan O’Gara’s involvement, as well as a few New Zealanders for Scott Robertson, it is set up to be a mammoth fixture on Sunday afternoon.

As an Arsenal fan, stepping out onto the field at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium won’t be sitting easily with Wainwright, who will be wearing the socks of Whitehead RFC, the 25-year-old coaching the club where he started his career on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he can.

Joking that he might even don an Arsenal sock on the field, Wainwright caught the train to London on Tuesday with Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb, the pair incidentally bumping into one of their physios on their travels before getting meeting their temporary teammates.

Initially asked by Dai Flanagan [Dragons’ head coach] if he was keen to join the play in the game, it was a call on Thursday night when at Whitehead from Robertson that sealed the deal.

“I had an unknown number come up, I answered it and I knew it was going to be him,” Wainwright said. “Hearing him then asking me to some and play was quite surreal and a good conversation to have. It put me at ease a little bit and the excitement then started kicking in.

“It’s obviously a massive honour and privilege to be asked to play. You watch the games over the years, and they are so entertaining and free-flowing. That’s what I love for my game; that attacking style of rugby. That side of things really excited me, and I am looking forward to it.”