When Jack Willis finally made it home after a day that he will never forget, he was hesitant to go through the front door. Willis and 166 other Wasps employees had been made redundant hours earlier and there were no more tears left to cry.
After the shock, Willis had dragged himself through a training session – and the day had begun brightly enough after he was named in the England squad for the autumn internationals – but he knew that returning home to his partner, Megan, and young child, Enzo, would set him off again. “I was reluctant to go back through the door because I didn’t really want to cry for the 20th time that afternoon,” he recalls.
It was the same when a few days later Willis took to social media to post a heartfelt message about the plight of a club at which he had been since boyhood, making his way to the first team with his brother, Tom. The realisation that he and Tom are likely to go their separate ways was another teary moment for the 25-year-old openside and if he smiles at the “romantic” prospect of one day playing again for Wasps, the fact is that Willis is among dozens of players – those from Worcester who remain unemployed included – who are urgently looking for new clubs.
“Seeing some pictures of Tom and I over the years when I was scrolling back through photos was incredibly difficult,” says Willis. “It took me a couple of days to put together a post. It was entertaining waking Megan up at 7am blubbering looking at my phone! I look back on some of the photos, at the memories we’ve created – they’ll last for ever.
“Some of the pictures of us with a bit more puppy fat on us, slightly chubbier cheeks, going from playing an academy game together, I played in the under-18s with Tom, we played in the A League together, played in the Premiership Cup, played in the Premiership together, played in a Premiership final together … Incredible journey. We didn’t end it how we’d have liked to. I think we were building something which over the coming years could have achieved real success.”
While the writing was on the wall for Wasps given their mountain of debt, it was nonetheless a surprise to Willis and the squad that entering administration was followed immediately by the loss of jobs. Willis is acutely aware that he is one of the lucky ones and, though the market is stacked in favour of clubs with players facing hefty pay cuts, his services will be sought after. For now Willis can throw himself into England’s autumn campaign – even if another long-term injury on international duty is an unthinkable prospect – and though Brad Shields, Paolo Odogwu and Vincent Koch are among those to find employment already, there will be plenty who are forced to call time on their careers.
“I have to focus on the incredible opportunity I have got,” says Willis. “I look at some of my teammates and wonder how they must be feeling. I know how I am feeling and I am lucky enough to be here and still training with incredible players and incredible coaches. You have to put things in perspective. It is a tough situation but I am grateful I am here at the moment.
“I feel incredibly grateful to be involved in the England setup regardless, but in this scenario it’s given me such an incredible positive focus. I want to play for England more than anything. I’ve got the opportunity to learn around these fantastic players, fantastic coaches, otherwise I’d be just running around a field on my own at the moment until I find a club. So I feel very lucky to be here. While I’m here I’m focused on what’s going on in England camp.”