Marland Yarde: New England wing unfazed by growing hype
By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
The new England home kit, if you haven't seen it, is much like many others. The same cannot be said of the man chosen to model it in Leeds on Tuesday afternoon.
Marland Yarde has only been playing rugby for seven years. He made his professional debut only three years ago, and watched the last round of autumn internationals high in the stands at Twickenham. Eleven months on, he is the insiders' tip to be picked on the wing when England meet Australia on the first weekend in November.
Yarde's journey so far
Born in Castries, St Lucia on 20 April 1992
Made London Irish competitive debut in November 2010 LV= Cup game against Sale Sharks, scoring a try on his first appearance
First Premiership appearance came against Harlequins in September 2011
Made full Test debut against Argentina in June, scoring two tries
Is the 21-year-old intimidated by the hype that has grown around him, dizzied by his rapid rise through the ranks? On the surface at least, not a bit of it.
"No-one puts more pressure on me than myself," he says. "I'm by no means the finished article, and I still feel like I've got a lot to learn in my game. But I'm trying to learn as quickly as I can."
Six foot tall, weighing just a steak or two under 15 stone, Yarde is a wrecking-ball of a wing, delighting in smashing through tackles as much as stepping and dipping. In five starts for London Irish this season he has four tries, a marked upturn on his strike rate of five from his previous 22 Premiership matches prior to this campaign.
There is pace, for sure, but there is also explosive power, and both a strength at the breakdown and appetite for destruction in the tackle.
His coach at the Exiles, former England backs coach Brian Smith, reckons he can improve by more than 25%. In which case, national head coach Stuart Lancaster has even greater reason to be grateful that Yarde's mother opted to leave her native St Lucia to study law in London in 2001 and bring her nine-year-old son with her.
Yarde's father may make more headlines - his first name, remarkably, is Scotland - but it was Marina who first encouraged his sporting ambitions and then, on a fateful November morning in 2003, allowed her son to sit in front of the television and watch his first game of rugby.
Spectators have endured less edifying debuts. Yarde may not have had a clue who Jonny Wilkinson was, but the
sight of him winning the World Cup
for England that morning had an immediate and lasting impact.
Sarah Hunter, Marland Yarde and Brad Barritt model England's new kits on Tuesday
"I loved the passion there was for that match, and how it affected the mood of the whole nation," he remembers. "For the first time I thought, this is a sport I could take up."
A 14-year-old at Gunnersbury School in west London, Yarde was a midfielder with sufficient promise to train with Queens Park Rangers and a triple jumper good enough to compete at the English Schools Championships in Gateshead.
Even now, Smith compares him to a 60m sprinter. But rugby, despite that late start, had taken a firm hold.
"I got picked for England Under-16s, and then I was offered a scholarship at Whitgift, which is a really good school," he says. "From then on I was playing rugby almost daily, and I loved it. I took it on into England Under-18s and then the London Irish academy.
"My mum struggled with it at first. She couldn't understand at the start why people were hitting me so hard. But she's OK with it now - she comes to watch all our home games, and she's probably my biggest fan."
Yarde credits several coaches as being critical to his rapid rise: John Flynn, head of youth rugby development at London Irish; Chris Wilkins, his coach at Whitgift; Justin Bishop, the former Exiles wing who was then assistant academy director at the club; and Mike Catt, Exiles player-coach and now part of Lancaster's coaching team with the national side.
Then there is the inspiration.
"Someone I try to emulate in terms of his style of play is Joe Rokocoko," says Yarde with relish. "His physical, abrasive style of play, and his love of contact - the man's a legend."
Rokocoko famously began his All Blacks career with a
barrage of tries
- 17 in his first season, 25 in his first 20 Tests. On his full debut against Argentina this summer, his young acolyte bagged two.
Argentina 26-51 England: Marland Yarde scores two tries on debut
It is a lofty comparison, and one which England supporters should be happy to play down. For all Yarde's youthful brio and his coach's faith in young guns and fresh faces, this autumn's contests against the Wallabies, Pumas and All Blacks represent a significant step up in both atmosphere and expectation.
England ended the last Six Nations on a nosedive. Australia are rebuilding at pace under new head coach Ewen McKenzie; Argentina have previous in dampening autumnal English expectations, while the All Blacks' displays in the Rugby Championship suggest a side far less likely to be upset as they were at
Twickenham last time out.
But with the next World Cup less than two years away, there is an opportunity too over the next six months for new talent to establish itself. Not every player who starts that tournament is likely to have the prerequisite 40 or 50 caps. And Yarde, even in his stunted career, has a happy history at HQ: as a schoolboy, he scored three tries there for Whitgift to help them win the Daily Mail Cup final and then, two days later, ran in four more for England Under-18s against Scotland.
"I had been there before to watch the Middlesex Sevens, but actually playing at Twickenham was weird," he says. "Scoring was a real turning point for me. From there I really wanted to kick on."
Has he imagined himself running out there for England in the autumn of 2015, bringing his own rugby education full circle?
"It's something I'd love to achieve, and Stuart Lancaster has said it doesn't matter about age - if you're performing, you're going to get picked. So it's there at the back of my mind.
"But every part of my game I want to get better at. At international level, everything is under scrutiny, and you have to make sure every aspect of your game is as good as it can be.
"Every time I step out onto the field I want to improve. And every time I play a game of rugby, I'm learning all the time. I need to keep bettering myself."
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