Home where heart as Wilson returns to Ulster
It's the business end of the rugby season in England, and Northampton No 8 Roger Wilson is completing his hand-over period before his return home to Ulster.
An Aviva Premiership semi-final meeting with Harlequins on Saturday afternoon at The Stoop is next up.
Sitting in an awkward corner of the coffee shop we’ve elected to meet in Bath, I continually crane my neck around the wall to see if Wilson has arrived.
A kindly waitress comes over.
“Has she stood you up dear? Let me know what she looks like and I’ll send her over,” she offers. Wilson arrives shortly after and laughs when I tell him about the waitress’ concern. At 6ft 3ins and 16st 9lbs, dressed in a Northampton tracksuit, he is not inconspicuous.
After four years in Northampton, Wilson is in a reflective mood. He nurses a bitter-sweet feeling, pleased to be returning home, yet sad to leave a club that has improved him as a player and given him countless lifelong friends.
“Life in Northampton has been really kind to me,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of friends over here, and I know I’ve improved as a rugby player.
“The club have been brilliant with me leaving, it’s all been very amicable, they’ve given me their full backing and have thanked me for my efforts. I just thought the time was right to go back home.”
The Ulster set-up that Wilson left four years ago is far removed from the stability and success that envelops Ravenhill today. There were dark days and defeats that left Wilson and his then team mates frustrated.
“It’s incomparable now to what we had then, the set-up that’s been put in place now by David Humphreys and others is great.
“For me I’m at my best when I’m enjoying my rugby, and I’m enjoying my rugby when I’m winning. I genuinely believe Ulster can go all the way in Europe which is exciting for me.”
Wilson’s choice to return to Ulster wasn’t as simple as many made it out to be. He could have finished his career in France or England and thought long and hard about the former option in particular.
However, after playing professional rugby for over a decade, he also believes playing for Ulster will give him his last opportunity to add to his solitary Ireland cap.
“I was never told I was out of the picture internationally by being over in England, but I personally felt I was giving myself the best possible opportunity to play internationally by coming back home to Ulster,” he admits.
“I didn’t want to finish my career with regrets, and a big regret would have been wondering could I have given myself one last chance to play for Ireland.”
In the unrelenting schedule of the Aviva Premiership, Wilson has stayed mercifully injury free, but he realises that he has to listen to his body far more than he did as a younger man.
“When I was in my early 20s, it was carefree, you could go out late and turn up for training early with a smile on your face. Those days are gone for me now, I know I have to look after myself, whether that’s doing extra recovery work or whatever.
“At Northampton there’s a group of older players who like to do contact together in training; it’s just about being that bit smarter to stay healthy.”
Entering the twilight of his career, for the first time Wilson has had to think about what he will do after finishing rugby. “It’s bit scary to be honest,” he concedes. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do after rugby.
“I have been doing this for so long that you can get a bit tunnel-visioned in terms of your focus. But the time has come — unfortunately — to think of what will happen after my rugby career and being back at home hopefully will give me the time and space to think about it.”
Wilson is articulate and intelligent, which befits a man who studied at both Trinity and Queens. And he is candid when he admits that his return to Belfast is not a lifestyle choice.
“Belfast is where I grew up, so I feel I’ve been and done most things. It can feel slightly restricted, but I’m getting older and maybe that’s a good thing. I am here principally for rugby and Ulster are now one of the strongest teams in Europe, so it made sense for me,” he reasons.
As a pupil at RBAI, Wilson was one of the stars in a Brian McLaughlin-coached team that won the Schools’ Cup in 2000. Wilson would have liked to have played under his old coach, but it wasn’t to be. Now he is looking forward to being coached by Mark Anscombe next year.
“We have a fair few Kiwis here (at Northampton), who worked with him in under-age rugby. I’ve done my research and they all rate him really highly. He certainly knows his stuff and it will be good to work with him,” is Wilson’s take on the new man.
After attending Ben Foden’s wedding and holidaying in Brazil, his focus will be on Ulster.
“I realise I’m very lucky to do what I do — every morning I wake up and going to work isn’t a problem,” he smiles. “I still get a huge amount of pleasure playing rugby, and I am looking forward to pushing for the highest honours at Ulster.”