The Wales rugby regime change today gave WillGriff John , the Sale Sharks 20st uncapped prop, the chance to prove he can be a major force at international level after he was named in Wayne Pivac’s first Six Nations squad.
Pivac, who has replaced Warren Gatland as head coach of the World Cup semi-finalists, was unable to pick Exeter Chiefs tight head Tomas Francis who still recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered in Japan which created a vacancy for a heavy-weight tight head prop in the squad.
John,27, failed to convince Gatland that he was ready for test rugby, but Pivac has been a regular visitor to the Sale Sharks training ground outside Manchester to keep updated on the prop’s form and Jonathan Humphreys, the new Wales forwards coach, has also been taking a close interest in the 6ft 2ins former Cardiff Blues prop.
John told RugbyPass he never knew where he stood when Gatland was in charge of Wales and while Pivac had been taking a close interest in his form in European and Gallagher Premiership matches, the prop was still uncertain about making the Six Nations squad. He said: “I knew the Welsh management were watching me and I was told at the start of the season it was a whole new coaching staff and set-up and they were going to look at everyone and leave no stone unturned.
“The most frustrating thing (under Gatland) was that I had never been told why I wasn’t a part of the squad. The advantage of a whole new set up is that they will pick whoever they think is best.”
Born in Plymouth but raised in the Rhondda, the former Wales Under-20s player began his career with Pontypridd before playing for Cardiff Blues and then headed to New Zealand where he appeared for Northland. He returned to England and joined Doncaster Knights where his form caught the attention of Steve Diamond, the Sale director of rugby, and a former hooker. John moved up to the Gallagher Premiership in 2017 and currently shares the No3 jersey with 30 cap Coenie Oosthuizen, who arrived at the club this season from the Sharks, joining a large contingent of Springboks in the squad.
His unusual Christian name is an amalgamation of his two grandfathers which does cause confusion as he explained: “ When you go to the doctors you get called John and it does cause some confusion for a lot of people and I am used to it now. My Dad came up with the name and his Dad was Griffith and my Mum’s father was William and he just thought it would be good to put them together. I was born in Plymouth, went to Australia when I was quite young, came back at five and grew up in the Rhondda and played at Pontypridd.“
John appeared in all of Sale’s 22 Premiership fixtures last season and has benefitted from the experience of Rob Webber, the former England hooker and goes into the Wales set knowing he faces stiff competition from Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues) and Leon Brown (Dragons). He added: “I went out to play in New Zealand and it was really helpful for my career because the rugby was so much quicker than I had experienced before. I played in a New Zealand Barbarians game against the Auckland Blues and when I got my head out of the scrum, the ball was on the far side of the pitch! I came back and joined Doncaster and the hope was that I could then join a Welsh region but that didn’t work out.
“At Doncaster it took a while to get used to they way teams scrummaged and how they went for penalties but in the last 18 months it kind of clicked and things were going well and I got the chance to join Sale. The move up to the Premiership was hard in that the ball is in play for much longer – it can be upwards of 40 minutes. When you play against the best teams the speed of the game is the big difference and that was h hardest thing to adapt to. ”
John’s large frame was developed in his teenage years weight training in Wales and it helped him get at a taste of international rugby although one match was particularly difficult. He played for the Wales U20s team alongside current internationals Liam Williams (Saracens) and Cory Hill, of the Dragons, when they lost 92-0 to New Zealand in 2011. The “baby” Blacks had a formidable line up which read; Beauden Barret; Waisake Naholo, Rhys Llewellyn, Lima Sopoaga, Charles Piutau; Gareth Anscombe, TJ Perenara; Ben Tameifuna, Codie Taylor, Solomona Sakalia, Brodie Retallick, Steven Luatua,, Brad Shields, Sam Cane and Luke Whitelock (capt).
He added: “That U20s team is close to the current All Blacks team and it is amazing how many of them went onto test rugby. I can’t explain why we lost so heavily in that match and going into the game we didn’t know too much about them. When you look back at it now you realise exactly who they were how well drilled they were as a team. “