Rugby star Craig Willis made the difficult decision to leave his childhood club Newcastle Falcons for Ealing Trailfinders in 2018, but it is a move that is reaping rewards as the fly-half has been flourishing as a first-team regular in London.
Craig will be coming up against his old team this season after Newcastle were relegated to the RFU Championship and as part of a wide-ranging interview we took the opportunity to speak to the 24-year-old about life as a professional rugby player...
Hi Craig! First up, how big a change was it for you to make the move from the North East with Newcastle to Ealing Trailfinders, especially as Newcastle were in the top division in England - The Premiership - at the time?
Hi PH! It was a big change from a lifestyle point of view more than anything. I'd been at Newcastle since I joined the Academy when I was 14 and I didn't really know anything different, so I was intrigued to see what it was like elsewhere.
I grew up in the North East and lived in Newcastle for a long time, but it was nice to branch out and I’ve not really looked back because there’s so much to do in London; you can just keep yourself engaged with other things away from rugby, which helps me switch off.
With the rugby side of things, the way we practice at Ealing and the detail that goes into every session is very similar to Newcastle, but from a personal point of view I’ve enjoyed having a lot more responsibility and a lot more game time to develop myself.
You had a good first season with Ealing on a personal level and the club missed out on promotion when finishing 2nd to London Irish in the RFU Championship last season - is finishing top and going up to The Premiership the main goal this time?
We’ve identified a strong start to the season as a big target for us because we know to get promoted from this difficult league, you've got to win about 90-97% of your games and you can't slip up.
Last year there was quite high turnover at Ealing, I think there was something like 25 new players, but I think this year we're in a really good position.
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We’ve got a really good squad and we’re backing ourselves to get promoted - we've not hidden from that fact during our pre-season, we've mentioned it a few times and we're driving the standards forward.
The club have spent a lot of money on our training ground at the Ealing Trailfinders Club and the facilities are right up there with what I’ve seen at some Premiership clubs. So, we're looking good for the future and we’re slowly building.
It sounds like exciting times. Are you able to give us a bit of an insight into how a professional rugby player uses those training facilities during a typical week?
We'll have two meals a day cooked for us, so we'll have breakfast when we get to the training ground at about 7.30am, and then we have one-to-one meetings.
Monday is generally a bit more low-key as we 'park' the previous weekend's match by analysing it, before looking ahead to our next match.
We’ll have three gym sessions a week usually, so if we've got a Saturday game, we train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then we'll have Thursday off. On Friday we’ll have a 25-minute ‘Captain’s Run’ which is a bit more intense in order to get the body moving again as we’ll effectively have had 48 hours off.
We’re ‘front-loading’ the week so that you get all your intense efforts in during the Tuesday and Wednesday, and on those days we'll do weight sessions straight into rugby drills, followed by units - which will involve separate sessions for the backs and forwards - and we basically lump it all into hour-and-a-half sessions so you’re not sitting around and stiffening up. Then from about 2.30pm we’ll have various skills blocks and I'll spend some time practicing my kicking with a coach.
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Obviously the challenge for the coaches is to find ways to mix it up as you get into the season, it can become a bit boring if you're doing the same thing every week, so they’re quite good at mixing it up and giving us different timings or different locations to train.
Is there much of a focus on the nutrition side of the game from within the club or is that something you look after yourself?
We've got a nutritionist employed by the club who comes in three days a week and she takes care of our body testing and nutrition plans, as well as guiding our pre- and post-match protocols.
That’s one area in which the club have taken a step to employ someone who's going to be around the club more often in order to really take care of our nutrition needs and to make sure that we're all recovering and preparing well for games.
And tell us a bit about how you came to hear about Precision Hydration, I understand you've had issues with cramping in the past?
I had a problem with my calves cramping at around the 60-65 minute mark of games, regardless of what physical condition I was in.
It became really frustrating because it was getting it my head head as soon as it happened and I'm thinking, 'am I going to be able to carry on or kick in this game?'
I found myself trying loads of different things at half-time, then in the game I find that once it started happening, I’d be spending a lot of time stretching my calf off and being a bit concerned about when it was next going to happen.
I looked far and wide on the internet to see if I could fix it and I came across Precision Hydration and the Online Sweat Test.
I had taken hydration supplements around training, the ones that were provided by the club, but I felt like I needed something a little bit stronger.
Taking the Sweat Test has made a difference in terms of being more conscious about my hydration habits and using the products around matches and every training session
It's improved my physical conditioning but it's also made a difference knowing I'm fully prepared in that there's one less thing for me to worry about when I'm on the pitch, which is an important thing for me to be able to mentally 'tick off'.
Is the mental side of the game something you spend a lot of time focusing on?
I think the mental aspect is a massive part of sport and I've worked with quite a few sports psychologists in the past, particularly with a focus on my kicking. I quite like to visualise games in advance and I like to tick off mental cues beforehand so I feel comfortable about things, including my hydration.
I think everyone's different though so some people don't even think about the game until they get to the ground. I've played with players who are sat in the changing room, literally half an hour before going out to a match, and they've been playing Candy Crush on their phone. I just couldn’t do that - I’d love to be able to have that mind-set where you can switch off and on, but I like to make sure I'm in a 'good place' and my position [fly-half] is one where you've got to make sure you're mentally switched on for the game.
In fact, rugby is a weird sport because the positional requirements are different - in some positions you just need to make sure you’re psyched up and ready to run into brick walls. My position is perhaps a little bit more intricate, there's the decision-making aspect, and I've got to be able to think on the spot.
Looking at this season, how realistic do you think gaining promotion is going to be? I guess your old club Newcastle are going to be the favourites to win the division...
I think from the owner down to the coaching staff, Ealing have made it pretty clear what the ambition of the club is and you can see that both on and off the pitch as well, which is really exciting.
For me at my age, I'm still quite relatively young in my position, so it's really nice for me to grow with the club in that sense, it gives me a really good opportunity to be in an environment where I can be a leader and it's done wonders for me as a player. I'm really looking forward to this and next season to see where we can take it.
Newcastle are obviously the team to beat for us, but I think it's all about focusing on ourselves, you can't look elsewhere and try to make excuses. It's all on us to win those games.
Will you have a bit of a point to prove when you come up against your old teammates?
Facing my former club in December at home is going to be a really interesting one for me personally as I'll be going up against my old mates, but also for us as a group because it's a big target for us to go into that Christmas period top of the table and I think we've definitely got the capability.
I know I've definitely come on a fair bit since I left Newcastle, particularly with the amount of concentrated coaching I've had and the increased game time I've enjoyed with Ealing. It's why I made the move in the first place, it's been really good for me and it was exactly what I needed.
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And we can't talk to you at this point of the year without discussing the Rugby World Cup...
It was quite difficult to fit in watching the morning World Cup games around training, but we got the chance to watch the 11 o'clock kick-offs as it’s our break in the day, and I was then obviously pigging out and catching up on recorded matches when I got home!
It was nice to have so much rugby on TV and it was obviously good from England's point of view, who are in a really a good place going forward.
Do you think England had a chance of lifting the World Cup for the first time since 2003 then?
New Zealand and South Africa were always going to be the ones to beat, particularly New Zealand, as they can carve you up from anywhere on the pitch.
I think when you play against teams like that, there's a tendency to feel like you need to kick everything and play this power game, but I think it's a good opportunity to open up, carry the ball and play good rugby with ball in hand.
As they've shown, England have got the players and personnel to turn anyone over.
We’re capable of playing a bit more expansively against better teams like South Africa but they’re a team that can ‘strangle’ you, so it should be interesting!