A rapid rise to the summit, 2020 was a unique year and a bizarre stretch from normality, but for Bath Rugby’s Will Stuart it saw a great sum of success for the 24-year-old in what was his first season with the Blue, Black and White.
The tighthead has acquired a Gallagher Premiership semi-final with Bath Rugby and a Guinness Six Nations, and the Autumn Nations Cup title with England, whilst also winning eight caps for Eddie Jones’ side since arriving at the Club in June 2019.
On reflection of his successes to date in 2020, Stuart briefly summarised the highs and lows experienced, for both Club and country, throughout a turbulent 12 months.
Stuart said: “2020 was a pretty crazy year in general. I haven’t had too much time to look back on it as it has been never ending with the season and with the pandemic and everything that has brought up. I’m sure I will have a chance to at some point but personally it has been great for me rugby-wise.”
“The Club have been brilliant in helping me. My successes have all happened whilst being in the fray with Bath Rugby and without the opportunities I have had here and the amount of game time then I wouldn’t have been able to kick on into international rugby.
“The Club is massively supportive of all its players trying to push on and achieve that honour and for me it has been a massively steep learning and development curve whilst I’ve been here.
“Going back to the first lockdown, that was the first chance I’ve had to have a few weeks off from the setup and training environment for five or six years. It was quite welcome in terms of getting the body right and that was my main focus through that period.
“I was really just trying to get to a point where I felt good coming back in and that was the big focus. It was a great unique opportunity at the end of last year to play midweek and having that quick blast at trying to make it into the play-offs, which we did. It was tough but a really positive experience for me as it took me back to my school days where you played midweek.”
The 24-year-old was one of a number of uncapped players called up for the 2020 Guinness Six Nations squad and made his debut in the loss in France. Stuart admitted his debut was made a special occasion, not only with their being a crowd present, but the fact his mother was able to share the moment with him as he was presented his cap.
He also came off the bench for wins against Ireland and Wales as the tighthead prop began to make his way into Test rugby.
He said: “The Six Nations was my first involvement in the England camp, so I wasn’t holding out for a chance to jump straight into the team so to be able to get capped in the France game was really special for my family and me.
“It was cool because my mum got to come down to the tunnel and see my cap being presented to me, which was great, and given how 2020 had turned out with COVID-19, I was pretty lucky to share that special moment. At the time I didn’t really think about what was going on.
“In a way being able to have that break when the pandemic first hit, I was able to stay at my mum’s house during the first lockdown and I was there the whole time and it was only really then when we sat down together and spoke about it and shared the odd Zoom call with family members that it sunk in a little bit more. For me personally, at the time it was more of a motivational thing to push on and be able to play again and not just be happy to play five minutes off the bench and really kick on.
“From then into the Autumn, it has been a strange experience of playing in an empty 80,000 capacity stadium, obviously we are well accustomed to playing in front of no crowds now during the Premiership but it’s very different from playing in front of 15,000 empty seats compared to 80,000. It was a strange atmosphere, and it was a different challenge, but they are still international games, and the intensity is still as you would expect so it was great to be a part of.”
On Winning the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup, Stuart announced his feeling of pride of his achievements and explained his experience of camp, and how spending nine weeks in a bubble with his teammates helped the side win silverware.
He continued: “It was a great achievement and to be able to be in camp for nine weeks, spending 24 hours a day with the same people is a very unique experience. It has exhilarated the squad into making bonds and friendships, which is important. It was a really cool experience.
“I am really proud to have won eight caps to date and to win the silverware I have already, and my family are always massively behind me, but for me it is about kicking on and not being comfortable with what I have got. It’s about going on and trying to achieve more.
“It was strange as the Six Nations was just the conclusion of the tournament. It didn’t feel too different in terms of our preparation as that stayed the same. We were in camp for nine weeks and we had aimed to win all nine of our games, if we did then we would win two trophies. It was almost as if it was one big campaign.
Stuart had been fortunate enough to spend nine weeks with a number of familiar faces of the Blue, Black and White contingent, including Head Chef Mike Bache.
Stuart added: “It has been great to have them around, especially having the lads in from the forward pack. It has been really beneficial to have those who I work with day-in-day-out at Bath Rugby.
“It was good to have Mike in camp, it was really good to just have another familiar face around. He was great, it was the first time he was in camp too so it was a first for him managing that environment as I can imagine it’s pretty stressful. He’s worked in the restaurant business before, so I’m sure he’s used to that intensity, but I’m sure it was quite an eye-opening experience for him as well.”