Saints farewell interview: Ethan Waller
Had it not been for an injury to Jamie Elliott, Ethan Waller's involvement at Saints may have been confined to supporting his boyhood club from the Franklin's Gardens stands.
But what has the absence of a diminutive wing got to do with the progress of a powerhouse prop, we hear you ask?
“I grew up watching the club as a kid and really developed my love of rugby,” Waller explains.
“In my last year of school, I started playing some decent rugby for the East Midlands and got picked up by the Junior Academy before the days of proper, organised matches.
“I actually owe much of my career to Jamie Elliott for getting injured before the national academy sevens tournaments.
“I got called up as a replacement, like for like, and then I ended up playing in a couple of tournaments, they offered me to come on trial and do pre-season. The rest is history.
“I was on trial for a year, then they offered me a contract at the end of that year and I’ve been at the club ever since, head down grafting away.”
Not only has Waller ‘grafted away’, he has achieved quite a few things, too.
Off the field, he has become a key part of the club, helping to set up numerous fundraising events, including the hugely popular Saints Christmas nativity plays.
But for the early part of this interview, the focus is on Waller’s progression from Elliott replacement to fully fledged first-team squad member.
“I’ve always been a prop,” says Waller, quashing thoughts that he ever fancied winging it like Elliott.
“At school I had a little dabble at No.8 and at 12 but they were never positions where I knew what I was doing.
“I’ve always been a prop through and through.”
As well as learning his trade with the Saints Academy, Waller also spent time with local side Old Northamptonians.
And those hours on the field stood him in good stead for what was to come.
“Originally it was Alan Dickens, Mark Hopley and Dusty Hare in the Academy setup who helped me along,” Waller said.
“We didn’t have many games then so what I had to do was keep my head down, work hard and when I did get the opportunity to play, I had to play to the best of my ability.
“They sent me to ONs to play some men’s rugby in the front row, week in, week out.
“That went really well and come March time, they were happy enough with what they saw.”
Waller had done enough during his year on trial to earn a place in the Academy.
And he was then fully immersed in life at Franklin’s Gardens, where he joined older brother Alex in trying to secure the No.1 shirt.
“When Al was on his year on trial, he went away and played with Rugby Lions, but when I was on trial, they kept me around, kept me training every day with the squad and then I would go away and play at the weekends, similar to how they do it now,” Waller junior said.
“It was great for me because it meant I got to really see what professional rugby was about.
“WIthout my brother, I don’t think they would have asked me to go on trial anyway.
“I would never tell him, but I suppose I owe a lot of my Saints career to him as well.”
But while Waller credits Elliott and his brother for helping him make the cut at the club, it is clear that the prop didn’t just have things go his way.
Like any youngster, he had to work hard, day in, day out to prove that he was worthy of wearing the green, black and gold.
With his brother and the likes of Soane Tonga’uiha and Alex Corbisiero hogging the loosehead spot at Saints, there was no clear pathway to regular first-team rugby.
So when chances came, Waller knew they simply had to be seized.
And he couldn’t have asked for the door to open at a better time than during a season that will live long in the memory of all Saints supporters.
Waller said: “My breakthrough season was that year of the double (Saints won the Aviva Premiership and Amlin Challenge Cup in 2013/14).
“I remember thinking Corbisiero had signed and he was going to go away with England for 12 games a year.
“At the start of that year, my aim was to show myself during those 12 games.
“Unfortunately for him, he got injured at the start of that year and I ended up playing something like 30 games.
“I got the taste of Premiership rugby week in, week out and I was thrown in at the deep end.
“It was an awesome feeling for me in terms of learning and getting better and acquainted with how the Premiership worked.
“If I hadn’t played that much that season, I don’t think my ambitions would be as high as they are now.”
Waller played 27 times during the double-winning season and was named young player of the year.
Only six of those appearances came in the starting 15, but on one of the occasions he did get a go from the off, the prop was able to play a key part in shaping the final few weeks of the incredible campaign.
Saints headed to the AJ Bell Stadium to take on Sale Sharks in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
It was a far from glamorous Thursday night fixture, but such a key one in the context of the campaign.
Saints had lost their past three matches, including the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Exeter Chiefs, and needed a pick-me-up.
Jim Mallinder shuffled his pack, giving many of his fringe players a go.
And they responded in style, securing a convincing 28-14 success that not only kept them on track for glory in Europe, but provided the shot in the arm they needed to earn their first Premiership title.
“That was a massive game for us,” said Waller, who was named man of the match in the win at Sale.
“We lost to Leicester the week before (Waller scored in that 22-16 defeat at the Gardens), we were on a three-game losing streak and we shuffled the squad around a bit.
“We had a few injuries and we started a few boys who were on the fringes.
“I remember the vibe going up there was something else.
“We wanted to keep the run going in Europe because the boys had done so well throughout the season.
“We wanted to get us back on track and we did that.
“I think that was my first ever man of the match in professional rugby so I was pretty chuffed with that and it’s a memory that will stay with me for a long time.”
And if that memory is indelibly etched in Waller’s mind, you can only imagine how he felt about the final few weeks of the campaign.
He may not have been given the chance to play in the Challenge Cup or Premiership final, but, as a Saints fan, he watched on with glee as his team-mates got the job done.
“After the disappointment of the year before, losing to Leicester in the Premiership final, we felt like we had a point to prove,” Waller said.
“We were possibly the nearly men.
“I remember Dows (Phil Dowson) and Dyls (Dylan Hartley) coming up with the ‘Why not us?’ and when it got to that stage and we actually won it, I can’t even explain the feeling.
“I was gutted not to have a chance to be involved because Corbs got fit again, but I’ll never forget the feeling of us all standing on the sidelines waiting for that TMO decision.
“All of us stormed the pitch and went absolutely mental.
“We had the parade around Northampton and it’s my best rugby memory to date.”
And Waller will certainly never forget how that season ended, especially as his brother was the one who scored the dramatic extra-time try that helped Saints see off Saracens in the Premiership final at Twickenham.
“For him, it was incredible,” Waller said.
“I remember I was absolutely buzzing for him, bouncing off the walls, but you rethink it all a couple of days later and think ‘I’m never going to hear the end of this now’.
“Every family get-together was going to be him bragging about it, but that was an incredible way to cap off a fantastic season for him.
“He ended up going away on England tour after that and I personally think he’s been painfully unlucky not to get more England honours.”
And had Alex got those England honours, Ethan may still have been a Saints player next season and for years to come.
“You can’t take it away from him - he holds the record of the most durable player in the Premiership and that’s full credit to him and the way he handles himself around the club week in, week out and his professionalism,” Waller said.
“It did block my pathway as such and it was a factor in me moving because I think about what he’d done by 24. He’d scored the Premiership-winning try, been on tour with England.
“We’re very different players in the way we do things and I would like to think there’s something we both could have offered at Saints but for some reason I was only playing for a short amount time every week and that was a frustration for me through and through.
“At this point in my career, I felt like I had stalled and I needed to move on, play some rugby and get better and better.
“Hopefully one day I can get England honours myself.”
But first, Waller knows he will have to break into the Worcester team.
“I’ll be back in pre-season with Worcester at the end of this month,” he said.
“I want to hit the ground running when I get there.
“It will be a short turnaround before the start of the new season and I really want to go head on into this new challenge.
“I’ll have to do some graft during the off-season, which I’m looking forward to doing.”
Waller’s desperation to play as many minutes as possible is admirable.
He could have had a far easier job, propping up his brother and getting game time here and there for Saints.
But he is driven to be better, so much so that he had to make the tough decision to turn down his boyhood club’s attempts to keep him.
“The club did want to keep me,” he said.
“We did have a long chat and it was a long process, talking about staying or going, but I needed to make progress and I needed to ply my trade somewhere I could play a bit more regularly.
“I’m going to Worcester now and I know I’m not going to be the outstanding first choice, I’m going to have to graft like hell but I don’t have a player who never breaks with me there so hopefully my opportunities will come and hopefully I will take it with both hands to show I can perform week in, week out in the Premiership like I feel I can.”
Saints have signed South African prop Francois van Wyk as a replacement for Waller, meaning it will be a battle between the new man, Alex Waller and Campese Ma’afu for the loosehead prop starting spot next season.
“It was a massively tough decision for me,” Waller said.
“I’ve got a lot of close friends at Saints who I’ve grown up with.
“It’s really helped me as a player around the club and it was massively tough to leave.
“My family are all round there and my friends from school, but I could have stayed in my comfort zone and been happy with being No.2 or I could push myself and go somewhere I could be No.1 and that’s what I want.
“I want to be able to look back on my career to know I tried to be the best I could be.”
After Waller’s departure was revealed, Saints fans flooded to Twitter to wish the prop well.
Many were disappointed that he was exiting, with supporters having seen the potential he possesses.
“I was massively overwhelmed when the news came out with the amount of support I got,” he said.
“The Saints fans have been absolutely incredible and right up until the last game I left I had people say ‘good luck next year’ and telling me I’d be missed.
“That was nice and really humbling to know you’re in the thoughts of the fans.”
Waller will now look to endear himself to the Worcester fans, just as many former Saints players have done.
Phil Dowson was one who managed to make a big impact at Sixways after exiting the Gardens and, interestingly, the former flanker will be swapping places with Waller this summer. Dowson will join the Saints coaching team.
“I did speak about doing a house swap with Phil, but he’s a bit out of my price range,” Waller said, laughing.
“He’s a bit too high class for me.
“I’ve got a house sorted now and I moved in there after the last game of the season.
“I’m officially out of Northampton.”