The name on the back of your shirt

I spoke to Jonathan Joseph, he said some beautiful things, so I wrote them down.

Me for the Rugby Blog

A year ago, Jonathan Joseph was getting dressed up and heading out to the Rugby Players’ Association awards. He would be proclaimed. He’d pick up a prestigious double, the England Player of the Year and the main award, the much lauded RPA Player of the Year. As the cameras snapped, JJ was being regarded as one of the most attractive centres in world rugby, capable of gliding through defences like a seasoned maitre d’ across a busy restaurant floor. He played instinctively, there was little thought as to who was where and when, Joseph knew rugby’s crowded seating plan like the back of his hand. But things have changed.

“Are you going to the RPA awards tonight?” I proffer.

“No,” he says, with a moment’s beat, long enough to make me to regret ever asking such a question. “Nobody’s asked me along.”

Jonathan Joseph - Bath Rugby v Harlequins

Joseph has, however, been invited into the England squad for the forthcoming game against Wales, ahead of the summer tour to Australia. And he’s keen, seeing it as an opportunity to impress. “I’m looking forward to getting out there. It’s always nice to be involved with England, it’s a huge honour to play at Twickenham; you are never going to turn that down. The game gives Eddie (Jones) an opportunity to look at new combinations. I think everyone wants to carry on the momentum we built up during the Six Nations and then take that to Australia. I’m very excited.”

Even over the phone, Joseph speaks well. He sounds like a man you’d spend money with. He has a voice tinged with youth but the eloquence of a man used to inquisition. You can hear repeated phrases in his answers but there is the politeness and professionalism of an experienced front of house operative. His responses flow, much like his good self through a gap; he doesn’t hurry or fluster. There is a rhythm to his replies that has you nodding away. He doesn’t so much bat away my awkward questions on Sam Burgess or the forthcoming tour to Australia being one of righting wrongs, but neatly folds them up into tight evasive answers, and gently hands them back to me.

But it is when we talk about Bath that his mask begins to slip. The frustration he has held onto over the last few months rises in his voice like grief. The 2015/16 season at the Recreation Ground has been troublesome. After last year’s RPA festivities, JJ and friends skipped all the way to Twickenham and a Premiership Final. A year on, they lie ninth in a league table that would confound anyone who witnessed their rugby last year. Is he yet to find any clarity in why things happened like they did?

“No, not really. It’s difficult; sport is about small margins. For us, it was a case of little things adding up; tiny mistakes on top of others; games being lost here and there; discipline. It’s hard to put your finger on it. We’ve got together at the end and spoke honestly. We all agreed to use the break to look at our own game and making this disappointing season work for us. We’ve got a great squad, able to do some incredible things, and it’s peculiar to be finishing so early but we have to learn something from it.”

“The whole year has shaped me. There have been some low points. I remember the home game against ‘Quins. I was injured at the time but I remember thinking that I had never seen us play as badly. That sticks out for me. And then a game I was involved with, Newcastle away. I couldn’t understand what was going wrong. I remember sitting down at home and questioning just how good we were at that time. Other teams were carving up and we just seemed to be slipping further and further adrift.”

You can hear him exhaling between sentences, hopeful that as he explains it this time, it’ll all make sense. Add to Bath’s unfathomable misfortunes, an early exit from a home World Cup, an experience Joseph terms as the worst of his career, and there is little doubt that he is just trying to make it through to the other side. This end of season cannot come fast enough.

It is at this point in the conversation, I feel a presence by my side. My young ten year old has snuck into the room and his face is alive as he realises who is on the phone. I have JJ on speaker so I can record the conversation for accuracy and outside the room, my son has been listening. Over the last few years, as an enthusiastic fan, he has studied Joseph as well as anyone. Traced his arcing runs across the TV screen, marvelled at his ability to find space and how he made it look so easy. My boy has a piece of paper in his hand and, written in pencil, a few questions of his own. He knows I might let him ask one. As the end of my allotted time approaches, I point at one and gesture that he should pose it himself. I introduce him to JJ and as he starts to speak, I smile and realise just how much he’s turning into me. He stumbles, like I would, not sure whether to say Jonathan or Joseph, but eventually the question comes out. It’s a good one, serving as a timely distraction to our sombre discussion. “What’s the best thing about being a professional rugby player?”

And for the first time our interviewee pauses. Perhaps the young voice travelling down the phone line has knocked him off centre. He repeats the question out loud, buying himself more time. My son’s forehead furrows, worried he has caused a problem for his hero. But of course, maybe it’s a long time since Joseph has asked himself this. During a season where things have seldom gone right, working out the best thing about your job is rarely front of mind. There is a good ten seconds of consideration but when JJ speaks next, it is with an answer better than any I’ve heard in a while.

“The best thing is running out on to the pitch with your name on the back of your shirt. Because you are representing your family. That’s where it’s at. They are the ones who have given you everything, growing up as a kid, they provided you with the opportunities. I feel every time is my chance to repay them, to make them proud. That’s the name you wear, in front of all those people. I try and leave nothing out there. I try and work my socks off. I don’t want to come off disappointed; not about my performance, I don’t want to be disappointed in my effort. Obviously there will be games where you make mistakes, where things don’t go your way, but you can always control your effort. My commitment has to be right up there, every time. My family deserve it. That’s the biggest motivation. And it’s also the best thing.”

Sport, at times, will hand you complex puzzles. Rugby, with its multiplayer elements and chaotic, frenzied processes, has more ways than most to bewilder and confuse. And Jonathan Joseph must feel like he’s travelled so far and yet got nowhere over the last twelve months. In talking to him, despite his erudite and polished responses, you can hear a man who is trying to work it all out. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the answer lies in not trying to unpick the lock. What he needs to do is stop thinking about it; over analysis will only weigh down the boat. At his best, ghosting through defences, it seemed he played without thought. That is what he needs to get back. Rediscover the form that made him one of the best in the world by relying on his instincts. Perhaps JJ needs to forget everything that has happened since he was handed that award and just spend the summer carefree but committed. Just playing for the name on the back of his shirt.

 Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved
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3 Responses to The name on the back of your shirt

  1. Jim says:

    Sam, I’m part of a rugby community that used to read the Daily Telegraph and were very active on the forum. Since the DT did away with their comments section, we set up a group on I’ve posted your last two pieces to the group. I hope you don’t mind. I thought you might like to see the interest generated.


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