Ireland are forewarned - Immanuel Feyi-Waboso doesn’t need time or space

21-year-old wing was born in Wales but opted to declare for England and continue to pursue his medical degree at Exeter University

Less than a year after helping the Taunton Titans escape relegation from National League One, English rugby’s third tier behind the Premiership and the Championship, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso made his Six Nations debut for England, a late cameo as a replacement in the victory over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

On one level, it represented a good news story for a promising, talented 21-year-old wing made good, but in the background was a rancorous, tug of love tale, with Wales playing the role of the jilted suitor. The abridged backstory goes as follows: Feyi-Waboso was born in Cardiff, played for Rumney, and was taken into the Cardiff rugby academy as a teenager.

He applied to Cardiff University to study medicine but, despite having the academic requirements, did not get in and instead accepted a place in Birmingham. His rugby interests took him to Wasps but in October 2022 the club went into administration and the young player was snapped up by the Exeter Chiefs.

He transferred to the University of Exeter to continue his medical studies and this season started to catch the eye in the Premiership; rapid, agile, and powerful, he scored six tries in 15 appearances, which alerted both England – he qualifies through his grandmother Margaret Spence-Taylor – and Wales, the land of his birth.


England head coach Steve Borthwick contacted the young wing after a game against the Northampton Saints. Wales were handicapped by the 25-cap rule which precludes a player with less than that number playing outside of the Principality from lining out for the national team unless he agrees to sign for a Welsh club when his contract expires.

Feyi-Waboso has made a life on and off the pitch in Exeter, so returning to play in Wales was understandably less attractive and instead he opted to throw in his lot with England. On learning the news Gatland borrowed a sentiment, if not the actual catchphrase, from one of comedienne Catherine Tate’s characters, suggesting, ‘Am I bovvered?’

Writing in a newspaper column, the New Zealander highlighted a response from one of his backroom team: “The best reaction I had was when I told [kicking coach] Neil Jenkins about Feyi-Waboso’s decision, and he was, shall we say, very vociferous in terms of his response. I can’t use the language that he used but it was basically along the lines of: ‘He was born in Cardiff and if he doesn’t want to play for Wales, then he can b***** off’.”

That was the backdrop to round two of the Six Nations when England hosted Wales at Twickenham, but as it transpired Feyi-Waboso was an unused replacement. Last weekend when Borthwick’s side were chasing an unlikely redemption against Scotland at Murrayfield, he summoned the 21-year-old from the bench for the final quarter of the game.

Feyi-Waboso showed his vision as well as physical qualities that relied on both with a well taken try, swinging late to the blindside of a ruck, and accelerating through a gap. There is a clamour for the young wing to start against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday week as a panacea to his team’s misfiring or clunky attack that has been adjudged a little linear and at times over-reliant on brawn.

In doing so there is potential for the young wing to link up with his clubmate outside Henry Slade, although the latter’s place may be in jeopardy. The suggestion is that the two are used to playing alongside one another and that Exeter employ a similar style defence to the one that Felix Jones has brought to the England set-up.

While it would be unfair and unrealistic to pin all attacking hope on Feyi-Waboso, there is a groundswell of opinion that with outhalf Marcus Smith potentially fit again, Borthwick may plump for the Harlequins pivot and a more ball-in-hand rather than kick orientated game plan.

That could see Smith replace George Ford, while Manu Tuilagi, fit again, has had his name thrown into the hopper as a midfield option. Fullback George Furbank scored a cracking try at Murrayfield but when England defaulted to the kicking game it made leaving out the peerless aerialist, Freddie Steward, a little puzzling.

Despite missing England camp in York this week to study and take a first-year medical exam – England doctor Katy Hornby has been very helpful in helping with his studies – Feyi-Waboso is expected to play against Ireland on Saturday; many pundits are hoping as a starter.

The England coaching team knew of his exam and study commitment prior to the tournament, so to pick him in three match day squads and then leave him out wouldn’t tally.

Borthwick has already been vocal in his admiration of how well the wing has coped and adjusted to the Test match environment. “Regarding Manny, three things: he trains really hard, he enjoys being with the players and in the remaining time he is studying for his medicine degree. He is pretty busy. My experience right now is that he has his head focused on where it needs to be.”

There are admirers outside the camp too. Lions and England winger Anthony Watson was impressed by Feyi-Waboso’s Scotland cameo. He said: “It’s really hard because you don’t want to force yourself into the game. I think that’s where, as a winger particularly, you start forcing it, getting your hands on the ball. And that’s where errors start happening and it looks clunky.

“So, to come on and seamlessly fit in and also score a try and look explosive I think is testament to him. Ball in hand he looked strong, didn’t get caught behind the gain-line once, always making yards. He looked really good.”

Most teams would have a straight-line speed advantage on Ireland in the wide channels but as of yet, none have managed to damage Andy Farrell’s side in that capacity. France prioritised bulk over speed, Italy tried - and failed - to get the ball wide, Wales opted for a frontal assault.

Borthwick may elect to spring the jet-heeled Feyi-Waboso from the bench once again, given his exam consideration this week, in a gradual acclimatisation to Test rugby. Ireland are forewarned Feyi-Waboso doesn’t need much time or space to make an impact.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer