Most English kids brought up dreaming of playing rugby with the Red Rose emblazoned on their chests and running out at Twickenham will have fond memories, perhaps even nightmares, of forging their way to the top via rain-soaked pitches and kit caked in mud after matches.
But for Wasps-bound Will Wilson, the only thing he would have had to dust off his playing jerseys during his early days as a burgeoning rugby talent was perhaps a bit of sand.
The 21-year-old spent his formative rugby years in the UAE, where he honed his skills under the watchful eye of his Dubai Exiles coach Mike Wolff – the current club chairman.
Even though he was only here for a few years, the UAE formed the bedrock of his early introduction to a sport that becoming a professional in may have seemed as intangible as a desert mirage.
And the giant 6′ 2’, 15st 6lbs back-rower now with the world at his feet has credited the sun and sand, and moreover Dubai and Exiles, with providing a firm platform that allowed him to get his game off the ground.
“From what I can remember of living in Dubai, I loved it – a friendly place to grow up and great weather all the time,” said Wilson, whose career prospects definitely have a sunny outlook as he takes up a professional contract with English Premiership side Wasps this summer.
“My dad moved out for work when I was five, and I joined DESS (Dubai English Speaking School) and the Exiles almost as soon as we arrived. I lived in Dubai for four years but moved back to board in England for the last 18 months of living there.”
Wilson is just about to graduate from Oxford University’s Kebel campus, with hopes of a 2:1 grade in history.
And it is his history of living and beginning his love affair with rugby while living in the Emirates that Wilson knows started him on the path to what will hopefully be a long and successful playing career at the top. He has already made his international debut, featuring for England sevens at the Hong Kong leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series last month.
“I’m not sure about any long-term effects as it was a while ago, but I’ll give Mike and my dad the credit they’ve always craved, they set me on the way to where I am,” said Wilson, who moved with his family, including dad Stuart, to the UAE when he was five.
Despite more than a decade passing since he turned out for Exiles, Wilson recalls many happy memories of learning the game in the Middle East.
“I played for the Exiles at minis, from under-7 to under-12 I think,” he said.
“The highlight was a tour to Qatar where Mike had failed to organise any matches at all, so he put a call out to play anyone at anything for when we were there.
“I have an abiding memory of highly competitive football and cricket matches before a rugby ball was picked up.
“It was a while ago so I don’t have too many memories of actually playing, but what I love about the Exiles is how proud everyone is to be a part of the club. Even now we still have Exiles kit knocking around the house at home.”
And whereas games might have been marred by waterlogged and mud-filled pitches had his first steps on the field been in his native Richmond as opposed to Dubai, abandoned games or ruined kits were never an issue in the Middle East.
“I don’t really remember the heat being too much of a problem. I seem to recall sweatbands were all the rage back then,” added Wilson, who like most expats living in the desert, faced climate issues of a different sort.
“I certainly felt the heat as much as the next man in Hong Kong so clearly it didn’t help me too much in the long run.”
And having featured at the most famous sevens event on the circuit, Wilson hopes he might get to come to his second home and play at the Dubai Sevens in the future.
He said: “I remember the last time I went back to Dubai, the pride Mike took in showing us around The Sevens facility. The Dubai Sevens is definitely one for the bucket list if I ever return to sevens and get the chance.”
On the field in Hong Kong, it wasn’t a memorable tournament for Simon Amor’s England who underperformed at the seventh round of the 2017/18 Series.
They only finished 15th, alongside minnows South Korea to earn a solitary point, although a depleted squad featured emerging stars like Wilson as the majority of senior players prepared for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
The versatile forward capped his international bow with two tries, scoring in a 47–7 blitz of Korea in the pool stages, before also crossing in a 33-15 defeat to defending World Series champions South Africa in the knockouts.
He’s had a taste and Wilson admits he hopes it’s not the last time he gets to pull on the famous white jersey.
“The experience was unbelievable,” he said, knowing a full 15s debut is in the far distance, but something he is keeping an eye on.
“I’ve said to all my friends the one abiding memory will be the adrenaline rush from running out against Scotland under lights for my first game.
“If I could freeze those 10 seconds and relive them again and again I’d never get tired of it. I was absolutely over the moon to be called up and sincerely hope it’s not the last time I get to pull on an England jersey.
“I think the national 15s set-up is so far away as to be invisible. However, having got a taste of international sevens, it’d be a dream to experience that again.”
His focus for the foreseeable future, however, will be impressing and hopefully nailing down a spot at the Ricoh Arena next year and trying to catch the attention of Wasps head coach and former Wales international, Dai Young.
“I was delighted to sign for Wasps. The contract came completely out of the blue and I’m really excited to test myself against the very best in England and Europe day in, day out next year,” added Wilson.
“My focus is to impress for the Wasps academy side and hopefully get a little bit of game time in the Premiership when and if the opportunity arises.
“I want to impress with Wasps as much as possible. My overarching rugby goal is to win an Olympic medal in sevens, whatever the route I may take to get there, and to continue to enjoy playing for as long as possible.”
The Champions Cup final may yet to be played, but Leinster can already claim to be Europe’s best, such was the different as well as clinical styles they displayed to brush aside every opposition en route to the showpiece.
Their passage to Saturday’s decider in Bilbao included two victories against Aviva Premiership winners Exeter, a couple of wins over Top 14 leaders Montpellier, a resounding triumph to knock out reigning Champions Cup champions Saracens and then a thrilling success to blow away PRO14 winners Scarlets.
Such is the ruthlessness of their performances, it looks difficult for any team to even come remotely close to challenging Leo Cullen’s menacing side, let alone toppling them.
But, it should be said, a fourth European title is still not a given in any year. Standing in their way are a Racing side who are also brimming with confidence after their semi-final success over Munster.
Although they tired out in the final quarter and looked frail in defence, the French giants have an organised game plan and effective attacking line out to cause Leinster problems.
The only worry for them is they will battle for the European crown without their star man Maxime Macheaneau. The French scrum-half ruptured his knee ligaments two weeks ago and has been ruled out for rest of the season. It’s a bitter blow for a player of his calibre – the man who makes the back line tick and boasts a 88.89% place-kicking accuracy in the competition this year.
Still with Macheaneau ruled out, Teddy Iribaren will step in – potentially with Dan Carter offered a start in his Racing swansong. The three-time World Player of the Year will leave the U Arena this summer after three fruitful years in the French capital. Although he has been reduced to game time from the bench this season, the Kiwi still has the sense of calmness and purpose to inspire his side to a maiden European crown.
Leinster may go into this contest as overwhelming favourites, but a final can go either way, especially when Racing have players with the level of talent and class as Carter, Leone Nakarawa, Juan Imhoff, Patrick Lambie and Teddy Thomas.
They have may have had a more comfortable route to the final with pool wins over Munster, Castre and Leicester. But, as facile as it may seem, Les Ciel et Blanc still overcame a ferocious foe in Clermont in the last eight and Munster in the semis – both of whom have the potential to beat any opposition on their day.
The French side can hold on to possession and spread the ball wide at the right time, with their biggest weakness coming from a lack of fitness in the final stage of matches. Still, it was from 12 to 15 channels where they did most of their damage against Munster in the semi-final, with Thomas scoring a brace of early tries to put them on the frontfoot.
But Leinster have multiple plays to win as proven over the course of their campaign, in which they have showed time again they can do it all. Winning ugly, succeeding with creativity or just clinching wins with hard rugby are all part of their tactical make-up.
Their squad purrs with flair and quality with Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Dan Leavy all playing out of their skin in recent fixtures.
The instrumental Wallaby Scott Fardy produced a man-of-the-match display in the semi-final win, and his voracious work-rate at the breakdown and effective carrying ability makes him the heart of the Leinster pack.
Racing coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will have to accept there is few weaknesses in this well-oiled Leinster machine, and need to rely on an exceptional performance from their own group to outsmart them.
They play with emotion, and the defeat to Saracens in 2016 final, may well inspire them in a year where they have looked sharp across European and domestic competitions.
As it stands, Racing are into another Top 14 semi-final, but nothing would mean more to Carter et al than becoming Champions Cup winners – especially without the services of ace talisman Machenaud.
Leinster though have been the most prominent team in the competition and possess the pace and power to outsmart any opposition.
It will require an almighty effort from Racing, but on a sunny day in northern Spain, the final could go either way.
And such is 73 times-capped North’s game-breaking prowess, it makes sense for Wales to reap full advantage.
“I have spoken to him about potentially covering the midfield, as I know we’ve used him in the past there,” said Gatland, who has named North in a 31-man squad for next month’s encounters against South Africa and Argentina.
“I would like to see him get some game-time there with the Ospreys as well because we still think he is potentially a midfield option for us.
“I’ve spoken to him about following other players like Ma’a Nonu and Tana Umaga, who ended up moving into midfield. He gives us a different option.”
North has started three times for Wales in the centre, and he links up with the Ospreys this summer on a national dual contract following a five-year stint at Aviva Premiership club Northampton.
Gatland added: “Come the World Cup, he could end up on the wing, but it gives us another option.
“When he has moved in the past he has done exceptionally well. He originally was a midfielder, but has played most of his rugby on the wing.
“I think it will be great for him to be adept at both positions – being strong on the wing and being able to come in.
“The key to when he plays well is having lots of touches. He causes opposition teams so many problems, not from a try-scoring perspective, but getting over the gain-line.
“We will definitely give him the licence to operate that way, and give him as many touches of the ball as he can. George will benefit from that.”
Gatland is relishing the prospect of 26-year-old North being back in Wales, having agreed terms with the Welsh Rugby Union and Ospreys.
“George has found the last year or so frustrating,” Gatland said. “He’s had a few injuries and pulled out of the (2017) Lions tour, which was disappointing.
“He is excited about coming back to Wales and the fact he’s going to be looked after with the number of games he has for his club. He is looking forward to having a good break after this tour.
“He said he can’t remember the last time he had a decent off-season, so he is excited about being looked after and hopefully we can get him back into the sort of world-class form we know he is capable of.
“He has been desperate to get back to being fit, sharp and the player he is capable of being.”