News, Culture & Society

Jack Willis opens up on his beloved Wasps going bankrupt and joining Toulouse

‘If you had told me two months ago that I’d be here in France, doing an interview in Toulouse kit, then I would’ve thought you were genuinely crazy,’ says Jack Willis, with a laugh, as he takes a seat to do exactly that.

Three weeks ago, he was living in a quiet village in Warwickshire, just down the road from the vacant Wasps training ground. Life has moved on quickly since his beloved club went bankrupt. He is still getting his bearings around the Stade Ernest-Wallon, his new home, but he finds a quiet corner to reflect on his life-changing journey.

‘I was in England camp and I was told on the Tuesday morning that I wasn’t going to play in the South Africa Test,’ he explains. ‘I text Ugo Mola, the coach here, saying, “I’m not in the squad… do you want me to come and play?” He replied and I flew out that night, landed at midnight, did my medical on Wednesday, got my visa on Thursday and played that weekend.

England’s Jack Willis found himself without a club after his beloved Wasps went bankrupt

In a surprise to Willis, he has found his feet in France and now plays his rugby at Toulouse

In a surprise to Willis, he has found his feet in France and now plays his rugby at Toulouse

‘Contract wise, everything had been lined up for the following week so we just pushed it forward. I was desperate to get back playing. I didn’t get loads of minutes through the autumn and building up to that I hadn’t played for a couple of weeks because of everything at Wasps. We just thought, “Right, let’s get out here, let’s do this”. Me and my partner Megan spent the first few nights in a little AirBnB. It’s been an absolute whirlwind but I’ve absolutely loved it.’

Willis has barely had a chance to process the grief of what happened at Wasps. Last week he moved out of the AirBnB and found a place in the suburbs, away from the traffic but close enough to take his 11-month-old son Enzo to visit the city’s quaint Christmas markets. His younger brother, Tom, also found himself out of work and has ended up living a few hours away in Bordeaux.

‘I haven’t had a chance to take a breath since the Wasps stuff happened, to be honest,’ says Willis, who scored on his first start against Perpignan last week. ‘In a lot of ways, that’s probably a good thing. My brother came down for the day on Wednesday, our day off, and it just felt really strange. His partner is having to serve a notice period at work so he’s out there on his own, which is tough. I would have seen Tom every single day back home. He would be coming around to see Enzo before or after training, before training. He’s a good uncle. Not seeing him for five weeks, then seeing him in his Bordeaux kit while I’m in my Toulouse kit, you think, “How has this happened in the space of eight weeks?” it’s mental. Bonkers.

Willis said he 'hasn't had a chance to take a breath' since the drama that unfolded at Wasps

Willis said he ‘hasn’t had a chance to take a breath’ since the drama that unfolded at Wasps

‘On the flip side, would I have ever been brave or lucky enough to make a change in my career and end up at a place like this? I came off the pitch after the game against Perpignan last week grinning from ear to ear. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a game of rugby that much. To end up at Toulouse, a club you dream of playing for, I feel very lucky.’

Unprompted, Willis looks into the foggy distance for a moment of reflection.

‘I also feel lucky because a lot of guys still haven’t found a club,’ he says, with a stern gaze. ‘They deserve to. The room was stunned when it happened. It was really strange. Thinking back to it, the owner or the board didn’t stand up to tell us. They let the administrator tell us, a guy called Andrew who I’d never seen before. He just said, “As of today, I am officially made the legal administrator and you’ve all lost your jobs”. We were like, “What?” He spoke in facts, which is guess is his job, no blurred lines. It looked like the board members and the owners had seen a ghost when we came in for that meeting, and we all thought meant we were going to be told we were going into administration. But it all happened in one big clean sweep. Just like that, 167 people made redundant.’

His younger brother Tom was also out of work and like Jack has moved to France at Bordeaux

His younger brother Tom was also out of work and like Jack has moved to France at Bordeaux

Willis finds himself at one of Europe's most prestigious clubs who take on Munster on Sunday

Willis finds himself at one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs who take on Munster on Sunday

There are two very different sides to Willis’s story. The ashes and the phoenix. He finds himself at one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, taking on Munster today, alongside the likes of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. He speaks in awe of their ability to pass the ball half the width of the pitch, and strike the ball sweetly off both feet. Does he think more players will join him across the channel?

‘The reality is there’s a lot going on in the Premiership and there’s not enough money in the game,’ he says. ‘There are players who should be getting paid more but they’re not because of the salary cap. They’re staying out of loyalty to England or their club. Some of the offers the Wasps guys were getting to stay in England were appalling. Maybe clubs were taking advantage of the situation but equally they were looking at their books and they honestly couldn’t do any better. No one has a magic answer for it. If you try to make the salary cap bigger you’ll end up with more clubs like Wasps and Worcester but if you don’t allow the game to grow then it won’t grow. There’s lots of things that need to be figured out.

‘The thing that’s tough for me to get my head around is where things sit with the salary cap situation in English rugby. The cap wasn’t designed for the remaining teams to suddenly squeeze in another 60 or 70 players from Wasps and Worcester. It’s an exceptional circumstance and I hope there’s a review so the guys from Wasps or Worcester can play for England from wherever they end up. A lot of countries pick players based abroad but whether it heads that way in England, I just don’t know. I definitely think there should be more flexibility on it. With the money in the game back home, you can see the guys from Exeter that are having to leave. It’s got to a point now where there’s been such a squeeze. Guys playing in the best competitions, having new experiences, is only going to help the national team.’

The RFU have temporarily loosened their stance on selecting overseas-based players, meaning Willis will be eligible to play at next year’s World Cup in France. He watched Eddie Jones’s sacking as head coach happen from afar, before sending a heartfelt text message to the coach who handed him his England debut back in 2020.

‘It’s been a crazy week,’ he says. ‘It was all being teed up in the news but I only properly found out when the RFU announced it. That’s when I heard. Eddie wouldn’t really have had the chance to tell us because he had a lot going on.

‘I dropped him a message after I saw the news and said, “Thank you for all your hard work and help over the years, hopefully stay in touch, all the best for the future”.

‘Eddie gave me my first opportunity in an England shirt and I’ll always be grateful for that. He without a doubt pushed me to become a better player. I know a lot of other players will say the same.’

Willis says there's 'not enough money' in the Premiership and players should be getting more

Willis says there’s ‘not enough money’ in the Premiership and players should be getting more

Asked if any particular memories stand out, he grins: ‘The first week of camp he definitely put an arm around me, with the Wasps situation, looked out for me and gave me a bit of advice. Once he knew I had something sorted he made the odd gag here or there. In one meeting, with me and Charlie Atkinson, he said, “If you’ve got any spare change lads chuck it in the hat on the way out!” You’ve got to laugh about it. He has a good sense of humour.

‘It was funny seeing the team sheet and seeing “unattached” next to my name. It was another one of those moments where you think, “How is all this happening?” you can’t really get your head around it. I love the England stuff and I’m hungry for more of it. The way it stands, I’m able to play for England up until the World Cup, which is brilliant. Hopefully if I perform well here then I can be involved in those squads.’

In the meantime, Willis is ready to make his mark in his new colours. His family will travel over to watch the local derby against Castres later this month, with instructions to bring an English turkey over for the Christmas dinner. They may also stay for New Year’s Eve, toasting 2023 as a year of opportunity.

‘I’ve not signed anything for next season yet,’ he reveals. ‘I’ve got some thoughts on what I want to do but I’ll just do the best I can and see where it ends up. I’ve genuinely loved it so far. For my son, it could be a really cool thing to spend a couple of year out here. Who knows what the future holds? You just don’t know where the next step will be.’