By Duncan Bech
World Cup-bound Lewis Ludlam was considering his options outside of rugby a year ago as he reflected on a career that was in danger of fading away.
Ludlam is among the surprise inclusions in England’s squad for Japan 2019 after an accomplished Test debut against Wales on Sunday propelled him into the final 31 ahead of Brad Shields.
A June camp was his first recognition by Eddie Jones, yet after expecting to be jettisoned each time a new training group was announced, the openside flanker is instead heading to the Far East as one of five back-row options.
At the last World Cup, he was even picking several of his new England team-mates in his fantasy team.
But after starring at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2015 when he was named his team’s most valuable player, his progress stalled back at his club Northampton due to a combination of injury and competition from seasoned internationals.
“It has been a bizarre seven weeks. This time last year was like almost one last shot at it for me,” Ludlam said.
“There were a lot of back-rows, and (director of rugby) Chris Boyd said to me when he came in that he could give me an opportunity, but he didn’t really see where I fitted into his plans. I didn’t even know if I would get a contract renewal. I had one year left. I hadn’t played more than a handful of games since the junior World Cup.
“You see a lot of stuff on social media — ‘Where’s Ludlam? What’s he doing? Hasn’t played since the junior World Cup.’ Chris Boyd said the same when he came in.
“Part of last year was about trying to play my way into a good highlights reel to get a gig at a smaller club than Northampton, or potentially abroad. I was always thinking about other options.
“But reading the stuff about me on social media made me want to prove people wrong, and I’m just happy I got the opportunity to do that.”
Meanwhile, Tomas Francis says Wales will target improvements in every area as they prepare for a quickfire return Test match against England. Wales’ opening World Cup warm-up clash ended in a 33-19 defeat at Twickenham.
To make matters far worse, fly-half Gareth Anscombe suffered a serious knee ligament injury, meaning he joins No. 8 Taulupe Faletau (broken collarbone) in being sidelined from the competition, dealing Wales a second major injury blow in the space of 11 days.
But World Cup preparations continue apace, with England arriving in Cardiff on Saturday and looking to inflict a first home defeat on Wales since their loss to New Zealand in November 2017.
“In the past 18 months, we’ve made very few unforced errors in this team and stuck to our processes,” Wales and Exeter prop Francis said.
“(On Sunday), we either scored or dropped the ball, and we will go back and work on that. It’s stuff we can work on and fix.”