The rise of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been appropriately swift. The 21-year-old began this season with a single Premiership rugby start to his name; by December, he was one of the most talked about players in rugby.
His rapid rise to prominence has been symbiotic with a remarkable revival for Exeter. The Chiefs began this season in rebuilding mode, re-tooling after the summer departures of a host of key figures who played vital roles in establishing the club as a Premiership powerhouse. It was thought that they might face a season of struggle having elected not, largely, to pursue direct replacements for their departed stars, instead electing to promote from within.
It’s proved a shrewd move. While old stagers like Henry Slade and Jacques Vermeulen have provided the steady heads required in a rapid refit, a crop of emergent young Englishmen have equally led the way. Rusi Tuima and Greg Fisilau are very much on Steve Borthwick’s radar; Ethan Roots, born in New Zealand, made his international debut in Rome having filled Dave Ewers’s boots most impressively for the Devon club.
But it is the wiry wing Feyi-Waboso who perhaps has been the most eye-catching of Exeter’s brekathrough crop. For so long the 14 shirt at Sandy Park was filled by Jack Nowell, but the England wing’s move to La Rochelle opened the door through which Feyi-Waboso has burst through. An impressive Premiership Cup campaign saw Feyi-Waboso retain the starting shirt in the Premiership proper, where the youngster has starred with his speed, contact balance and intelligence.
Exeter’s hard outside blitz system aligns nicely with England’s revamped defensive structure under Felix Jones, with Feyi-Waboso combining effectively with Slade as a shooting edge defender this season. A first cap off the bench arrived in Rome on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, with Feyi-Waboso likely to press for a start at some point in the remainder of the tournament.
“Manny’s really impressed us, not just on the pitch,” England head coach Steve Borthwick said after naming the wing in his squad for the championship. “We can all see the power he brings, the speed he brings. He finds a way through contact when there doesn’t appear to be a way through there. He’s a real mature guy.”
The attention on Feyi-Waboso has extended beyond his exploits on the pitch. Born in Cardiff, it was thought that the 21-year-old’s international future may well lie with Wales, having first been on the rugby radar while coming through the capital club’s academy after being schooled at Bristol’s Clifton College.
But the situation is more complex than the typical tales of those who qualify for more than one country. Feyi-Waboso is committed to his medical studies, enrolling at the University of Exeter after leaving Aston University following the demise of Wasps, who he joined in February 2022. His move to the Midlands had come after he failed to gain a place on the medicine course at Cardiff University.
Remaining with the Chiefs, where he has already agreed a long-term deal, during his studies obviously makes sense, and this partly explains Feyi-Waboso’s decision to accept an England call-up. Had he chosen to represent Wales, the current Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) rules regarding player eligibility mean that Feyi-Waboso would have been compelled to sign his next contract across the border, or become unavailable to continue representing Warren Gatland’s side.
The financial issues that the Welsh game is facing are well known — any potential offer from the four Welsh United Rugby Championship clubs could both have been disruptive and not commensurate with the money that might be on offer from Exeter.
Gatland may reflect that he could have done more to convince him, too. The Wales head coach admitted after naming his Six Nations squad that he had not spoken directly to Feyi-Waboso, leaving the job to his assistant Mike Forshaw. The New Zealander also suggested that some of his coaching staff had questioned Feyi-Waboso’s decision to join up with England’s squad.
Gatland further explained in his column for The Telegraph: “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’.”
A similar sentiment has been shared by some Welsh supporters on social media, which feels somewhat troubling. National identity is complicated and often down to individual, lived experiences; questioning the decision made by a young man who has already endured the hardship of having his employer go into administration and been forced to restart his education elsewhere is not necessarily a good look. Feyi-Waboso is eligible for England through his grandmother, and perfectly entitled to decide which country he wishes to play for.
But the arrival of Wales at Twickenham on Saturday may only heighten the noise around him as he bids to make his way in Test rugby. Borthwick has been strong in criticising the social media abuse directed at players like Tom Curry and Owen Farrell during England’s World Cup campaign in the autumn, and suggested after the win over Italy that his management team recognise a need to protect Feyi-Waboso.
“We are really cognisant of that and rightly so given the World Cup experience. There is a heightened awareness now of those external noises and external factors,” Borthwick explained. “We will give all the players all the support they need.
“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.”