From National League to Premiership: Rob Cook, Andrew Fenby and more rapid rises
There’s something romantic about a player working his way up from the lower leagues to the very top of the game.
In an age when rugby players increasingly take the sanitised route to Premiership rugby by joining an elite club academy in their teens and experiencing little else, however, these five men’s path to the top has certainly been different.
London Irish’s Andrew Fenby and Sale’s Neville Edwards, who have both played in National League one, were both in scintillating form in the European Challenge Cup last weekend with them running in four tries between them.
Here are five current Aviva Premiership stars uphill rise to the top…
1. Andrew Fenby: Blaydon – London Irish
Fenby went to Newcastle University, joining National League side Blaydon in the process. The winger had some fantastic years there, scoring 390 points in 82 matches before earning a move to Newcastle Falcons, starting his professional career at the age of 23.
After a brief cameo for the Falcons at the end of the 2008–09 season, he returned to Wales to sign for the Scarlets. The emergence of fellow wing George North on the international scene gave Fenby the opportunity to play regularly for the Scarlets during the Autumn internationals and the Six Nations.
He then finally nailed down the left wing position during the 2012–13 season and went to score a record of 14 tries in 28 appearances that season resulted in a transfer to London Irish in 2013.
The 30-year-old has since made over 50 appearances for the Exiles and scored a hat-trick of tries against Edinburgh as the London-based side romped to a dominant victory in the European Challenge Cup last weekend.
2. Neville Ewards: Rosslyn Park – Sale Sharks
The 27-year-old former Rosslyn Park player had been at Sale Sharks on trial over the summer before signing on after making a favourable impression in the Singha Premiership 7s tournament.
Edwards is a former classmate of Danny Cipriani and has made a big impression on the England number 10 since arriving at the AJ Bell Stadium.
It was Cipriani who encouraged the former Bedford Blues winger to take a trial in the summer, and head coach Steve Diamond saw enough to hand him his first professional contract at the age of 27!
And the England fly-half believes Edwards has what it takes to make a significant impact in the game, despite making a late start to his professional career.
“He’s brilliant, one-on-one he’s a different customer, he’s been training really well and is really focused,” added Cipriani.
“In sport, I think people are too quick to cast people off or say ‘this guy’s not ready’ rather than look into the mindset of the character.
“Rather than being superficial and brushing people off, really test the character and have a look and see what they want.
“I know he’s started late, but there’s no reason why he can’t go on to have a six or seven-year great career. You can see that, he wants it, he’s hungry. I think that’s what’s setting him apart in his training.”
3. Tom Johnson: Chinnor R.F.C. – Exeter Chiefs
Exeter Chiefs star Johnson started playing rugby with the Oxfordshire based amateur club Chinnor, who were then plying their trade in South West Division 1 before outstanding form earned him a move to read Reading in 2004, who had just gained promotion to National Division Three South.
The back-row joined Coventry a year later before signing for Exeter Chiefs in 2007. He was as a part of the Exeter team that gained promotion from the RFU Championship to the Aviva Premiership.
Johnson then became an essential component in Exeter’s success and in 2011 was rewarded with an international call-up and has since won eight caps for England.
4. Rob Cook: Nuneaton – Gloucester
Gloucester’s Rob Cook played for Nuneaton for two seasons before making the leap to full-time rugby with Cornish Pirates, and then signing for Premiership giants in 2012.
Cook finished his studies at Worcester University and joined his former fellow student Tom Pickard in signing for Nuns, commuting from his hometown of Lincoln for training and games.
Relegation from National League Two was followed by an immediate promotion from National League Three North, into the newly formed National One with Cook at the forefront of Nuns’ fantastic season scoring 12 tries and seven conversions in 29 starts, adding to the 60 points he registered during his first season.
Cook then signed for RFU Championship side Cornish Pirates. Initially on the wing, he quickly moved to fly-half, before switching to fullback where he remained for the rest of his Pirates tenure. He was a prolific points scorer in each of his three seasons with the Club, accumulating over 1,000 points.
The utility back then after years of tough graft joined Gloucester in 2012 and has gone on to become an essential cog in the Cherry and Whites starting XV until this day.
5. Semesa Rokoduguni: Army RU – Bath Rugby
This is slightly different but just as amazing of a rise.
Rokoduguni, a Lance Corporal and reconnaissance tank soldier of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in the British Army, signed for Bath in 2012 before becoming a breakthrough star of the 2013/14 season, scoring several crowd-pleasing tries in his first full season of professional rugby.
He then became the first serving soldier since Tim Rodber to play for England but missed the Rugby World Cup due to injury. A fantastic story and deserved rise.