The man you want on your side

As Tom Varndell crossed for his third and decisive try on Boxing Day in front of a particularly festive Ashton Gate crowd, one Bristol back row forward pumped his fist a little harder than most. Nick Fenton-Wells, the boy who left South Africa five years ago with one particular aim in mind, has endured an interesting year. One he will struggle to forget. To fully understand the journey, we have to go back to late April and the players’ car park at Goldington Road in Bedford.

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“It was very painful. I was gutted. I was in the car having arrived at training and I had a phone call from my agent. He told me that I couldn’t play. I was angry, upset, I couldn’t understand how it was happening. It was the worst possible situation… I was gutted; I still find it difficult to talk about.”

Nick Fenton-Wells is as robust as they come. His chiselled features and square shoulders look like they could cope with anything. If you’ve watched him play, you’d agree there’s little he wouldn’t throw himself in front of. Some players bump and bruise, years of physical battle creates lumps and scars across the face that tell their own story; Fenton-Wells’ visage remains unblemished. However, as he discusses his acrimonious move from Bedford Blues to Bristol, there is movement beneath the surface. The clipped accent starts to crack. His eyes rove the room looking for somewhere to settle. He repeats phrases over again as if trying to keep his emotions in check.

“There had been a miscommunication. I’m not sure really what happened. All I knew was that the two clubs had agreed I couldn’t play in the play offs. Getting promoted meant so much to Bristol and maybe Robbo (Andy Robinson) saw it as an opportunity. I don’t know, maybe Bristol feared Bedford because of their unpredictability. There’s things I can’t really say… But I know the situation hurt people. I felt like I’d let Mike (Rayer) and Geoff (Irvine) down. And after all they’d done for me, that was the last thing I wanted. My time at Bedford means a lot to me. I am a better player because of them. The fact that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to the wonderful people at that club hurts. I want to go back one day. I hope I can. It’s a wonderful place to play rugby.”

Fenton-Wells arrived in England as a Brendan Venter inspired medical joker. An initial six-month contract with Saracens quickly turned into two years. Jacques Burger’s twisted knee knocked open a door and despite leaving Super Rugby possibilities behind him, the former Western Province man has little regrets.

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“I agreed to come to Saracens at exactly the same time I got my first cap for the Stormers but my mind was made up. Former Province boys Schalk Brits and Neil de Kock had come over, so I knew there was something worth travelling for. My aim was to give professional rugby in the UK as good a go as possible. As soon as I arrived, I knew I’d made the right decision. One of my first games was against Treviso in a preseason friendly and I made 25 tackles and I remember the coaches highlighting it in review. My initial contract was extended and I played about a dozen games in a pretty formidable back row for Sarries that first year. I got asked if I’d go on loan to Bedford, a club I knew little about. I agreed and I found myself involved in a set-up that I loved. I was involved week in, week out; we made the final against Newcastle that year. They were the natural underdog, a club that punched above their weight, and I enjoy surprising people.”

He was asked to captain the Bedford side after joining them on a permanent basis in 2014 and played in the Championship Select XV against Canada in November of that year. He was one of the league’s standout players and yet, there was always that deep-seated desire to play in the Premiership. When Bristol came knocking, Fenton-Wells felt it was the right fit.

“I arrived and felt very much at home. Bedford had played Bristol five times that previous season and I knew a fair amount of the squad. I was pushing for a spot preseason and then the news came that I’d been banned for a tackle in my last but one game for Bedford (ironically on Will Hurrell); it meant I had to sit out the first few games and that set me back. I hope I’ve taken my chances though. I can’t tell you what a good a club this is; everyone is working so hard to turn our season around. You should see training. Every player is always ready to go – no one sits out anything. We’ve got an incredibly strong work ethic in the group. And the belief is here now too. The win against Worcester was just the start of things; we know there’s a long way to go.”

Although new to the club, Fenton-Wells was present during the change of regimes. I ask what the difference is between the Robinson and Tainton tenures.

“If I’m honest, not a lot; small things perhaps. We are on our feet less in training. In fact, we train a little less. The sessions are shorter but more intense. That has freshened things up. He’s tweaked but a lot feels very similar to before. So much of the ground work was done by Andy Robinson. You have to understand that… I was surprised when Andy got the push. I think many players were. You don’t really find that happening in rugby too much and it sobers you up. Makes you realise it could happen to you. Mark has come in and with that change, there’s always a new chance to impress. Maybe that’s been the biggest thing. A few of us have been given a chance. That keeps everyone on their toes.”

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“It’s been coming for a while. The Challenge Cup game against Bath, the last few Prem games. Obviously the back to back wins against Pau gave us real confidence. Before we played Worcester, there was a bit of chat about the situation they (Worcester) found themselves in. We knew things weren’t good and during the warm up you could just sense it. When Tusi (Pisi) upended their flyhalf (and got sent off) it tightened things up, made it a dogfight; turned it into a question of who wanted it more. That was always going to be us. Our set piece excelled, especially the lineouts and our half backs kept creating holes. And jeez, Tom Varndell is in real form; give him some space and he’ll score.”

And you can sense the renewed purpose in Fenton-Wells. A man desperate to do the right thing by those around him. 2017 will see him marry his girlfriend Skye and his plan is to settle down in the UK. He has recently completed an MBA and when he talks about life after rugby you get the impression that plans are already in place. His warmth and generosity flows; he is painstakingly polite, remembering my wife and children’s names, and as the interview draws to a close, he offers me his email address should I need anything else.

Bristol play Sale and Northampton Saints in the first week of January. Two games that you might view as eminently winnable. If the victory against Worcester is to mean anything, more will have to follow. The war to win a seat at the top table has been long and hard but nothing will be as tough as staying there. Fenton-Wells is the type of man you want on your side in such a situation. As painful as it was for him, his move to Bristol shows that his new club know that more than most. There’s a big part of you that hopes they can make it work.

Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved

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