Exclusive – Sale Sharks and England flanker Tristan Woodman ahead of first U20s start

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On Friday night in Colwyn Bay, Tristan Woodman will make his first start for England U20s against Wales in the third round of the U20 Six Nations.

At only 19, Woodman is one of the youngest players in Alan Dickens’ England squad and he is in his first season of professional rugby with Sale Sharks. 

After making his debut for England U18s last season, Woodman quickly made an impact and was named among NextGen’s top young players following a series of impressive performances at the Six Nations Festival.

Raised in Lytham St Annes, the teenager learnt the ropes at Fylde Rugby Club before making his way into Sale’s DPP side and after completing his studies at AKS Lytham, he is now making strides for both his club and in age-grade rugby.

An openside flanker, Woodman grew up idolising the likes of Richie McCaw and Tom Curry. Tracking the latter's career from promising youngster to established England international and British and Irish Lion, there are plenty of similarities between Curry and Woodman.

Both are classic opensides with the natural ability of getting over the ball to try and win possession back, while also being an effective carrier in the loose and game changers.

Even so, you can ask Woodman and he will tell you that he is always looking to develop his game. The 19-year-old is always asking his teammates and coaches for advice and analysing everything to see how he can improve.

Speaking on Wednesday night, it was that evening that his starting slot for a trip to Wales was confirmed. Based in Chester, it has been a far shorter drive than usual to prepare for a Six Nations fixture, the side making the trip to Colwyn Bay on matchday after a week’s hard graft at Chester RUFC.

“Debut, it’s massive, isn’t it?” Woodman said. “Nervous, but excited. I would say more on the excited part. It is such a big game for us after coming off two massive wins.

“Me personally, I am just excited to get out there. Lots of family are coming down. Lots of friends coming down. 

“Excited to put on a performance, put on a bit of a show, show what I can do and hopefully that will lead to more starts and better performances against France and Ireland in the future.

“It is a massive week for me. Nervous and excited. That’s the two words.”

Coming off the bench in their 41-36 win over Scotland which kick-started their U20 Six Nations campaign, England currently sit at the top of the pile after two games played. Woodman was also due to be a replacement in the round two fixture against Italy, although the plan did change.

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Preparing with the U20s squad across the week, Woodman was focusing on an outing at Kingsholm before a conversation with his head coach saw him packing his bags in order to make his debut for his club side on the day of his 19th birthday.

“It was mixed emotions at first,” Woodman recalled. “I didn’t know I was going back. I got told I was on the bench for the Italy game, then Dicko spoke to me and he was like ‘Sale want you back’.

“At first, I was thinking ‘don’t bring me back’. I thought I was going to be travelling reserve. Then Dicko said ‘no, they want you to start’. I was a bit taken aback. I was speechless. People’s debuts are very rarely a start.

“I was in such a fortunate position that my debut was a start against such a big club. To go down to Sandy Park, it was surreal really. I didn’t really know how to react. Then Alex Sanderson called me, and my academy manager and I had a really great conversation about how they saw it as a massive opportunity for me.

“They saw it as an opportunity for me to show them what I am about and what I have learnt coming from the academy set-up to the senior set-up. It was just so positive, and I was a bit nervous.”

Calls to his parents soon followed, although there was some confusion when the England team release still listed him among the replacements. Woodman’s father, Anthony, brother, Tim, and grandad, Michael, would make their way down to Devon to watch the clash.

His mother, Jordanna, would watch on from afar due to prior commitments, although her tears of joy at her son’s debut also caused the teenager to wipe his own eyes.

Just months into his first season as a professional, Woodman played just over three-quarters of the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final defeat to Exeter. Hugging his family at the full-time whistle before stepping back into the away changing room, he would only then begin to reflect on the “best birthday present”.

A box ticked as he continues to take those first steps into the professional game, this term has been one of immense education. Highly thought of throughout his formative years, Woodman has been a non-playing reserve on multiple occasions in this campaign and has trained regularly with the seasoned pros. He feels as though he has thrived thanks to the environment created in Greater Manchester.

“I am very young,” Woodman said. “But that’s the blessing of it. I get to learn. It’s not loads of pressure on me. It is all about learning this year. This is a year where I can develop physically because that is massive.

“I think I was a bit naïve. I didn’t realise how massive the jump would be into men’s rugby. I think that the physical development this year is massive, and the way Sale is run, I am confident that coming into next year I can really start pushing and make the coaches have a real good look at me.

“Sale is massive on giving youngsters an opportunity, and Alex Sanderson always speaks about how happy he is with the Academy set-up. Hopefully I can be the next Tom or Ben Curry and be playing in the Prem week in and week out. Living the dream. Imagine that.”

As part of his introduction to senior rugby, Woodman has been dual registered with a National League Rugby club in order to get some regular minutes under his belt. It was not just any club, though. It was where his whole journey started.

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“The mighty Fylde,” he said. “I don’t know who was happier, them or me! Or my mum. Mum was like ‘oh my god, are you going to be coming back home? Are you moving back home?’. She was the happiest person.

“Fylde has been massive for me. The style of rugby that they play, very free-flowing, offloading game, quick and that’s the rugby that I like to play. That’s the rugby I enjoy playing.

“The boys there are really welcoming. I’d never been involved in the senior stuff at Fylde. I never got to do colts rugby, which was a bit of a shame because my mates were loving the colts style of things. I was only watching from the sidelines.

“I’d never met any of the senior boys before. I didn’t really know how it was running or what type of rugby they actually played. I’d just watched, but you never really know if it is meant to be like that or if a player has just done it themselves.

“I turned up and I was thinking ‘I haven’t been in this changing room for a while’. It took me back to my first game of rugby. We played at half-time. We had a little half-time match and that was one of my first games for Fylde.

“I just remember falling in love with rugby. Tag rugby, I was so good at tag rugby. I wish I could still play it now. I just fell in love with rugby through Fylde. It’s so strange to be continuing my journey through there, but I love it.”

Plenty of the current Sale Sharks squad have had their own regular dose of rugby at Woodlands, the likes of Sam Dugdale, Tom Roebuck, Bevan Rodd and Gus Warr all doing their time on the north-west coast before establishing themselves as Gallagher Premiership regulars.

In the early stages of his professional journey, regular trips back home to represent the National Two North club have been hugely beneficial to the 19-year-old so far.

“It’s very easy to underestimate what you are about to go into,” Woodman said. “I think National League Rugby is so important. I don’t think I would be confident going into a Sale game if I didn’t have my minutes that I had played at Fylde.

“The minutes do provide that confidence because my first few games I was pretty bad. I wasn’t the best, to be honest but then over time, you learn the tricks of the trade. That’s exactly what you do over time.

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“Playing men’s rugby is so different, the speed of it, the pure physicality compared to schoolboy rugby. You can’t just run straight anymore and go over them unless you are like some Ellis Genge mutant.

“Fylde has taught me loads. It is definitely needed. Without it, I don’t think I would have any confidence in my game.”

Among his favourite memories of turning out for his childhood club is bagging two tries at Woodlands against Blaydon in his team’s 42-7 win back in October.

The experiences have continued to come for Woodman, who in the week following his Sale Sharks debut, made his way to London to be involved in a training camp alongside Steve Borthwick’s senior England squad.

Unable to take part in training due to a knock he picked up, the teenager was able to watch the likes of Ben Earl and Jack Willis up close. The first person he interacted with was Owen Farrell, before sitting on the touchline and speaking to the senior players also out injured.

“I did speak to Courtney [Lawes] for a while,” Woodman said. “Courtney has had an injury to his calf, and he was coming back from that. He was on the sideline with me, and he was speaking, and I was getting his view on the game.

“We are a bit different. He is a bit taller, bit of a bigger set and just smashes everyone. He was explaining to me why people did things and why people were in the position they were in and just explaining the training session while it was going on, rather than me getting lost in it.

“It was really helpful. Then Sincks [Kyle Sinckler] as well. He was another one that just explained to me why people do things and didn’t let me get lost. I was just watching and asking them about their careers and just getting loads of advice from them.

“Special. Not many people get to do that.”

A win in North Wales this weekend will go a long way to helping England U20 to a Six Nations title. With France and Ireland still to come, it will be a stern task, although Woodman will be there and hoping to impress more and more with every performance.

With the return of the World Rugby U20 Championship later this year in South Africa, the 19-year-old has ample motivation to be on that flight and tick off even more boxes as his professional rugby journey continues to get off the mark.