Saints farewell interview: Jordan Onojaife
Jordan Onojaife may have spent five years at Saints, but even if you regularly watched the first team play during that time, the likelihood of you having seen him in action is slim.
That is because Onojaife never really got his big break at Franklin’s Gardens, eventually being dual-registered at Bedford Blues before leaving Northampton on a more permanent basis this summer.
The 22-year-old has found himself on what is now a well-trodden path to the Championship, signing for ambitious Ealing Trailfinders, where he will reunite with the likes of Campese Ma’afu and Howard Packman. Ealing are assembling a cast of former Northampton prospects and should they consider renaming themselves the Ealing Wanderers, it would not be too inaccurate a tag.
Onojaife, like many other Saints Academy graduates, will hope to make his mark in England’s second tier this season.
And the lock certainly has some pedigree, having featured six times for the Saints first team as well as playing for England at Under-18 and Under-20 level.
“I recently started pre-season training with Ealing and it was all a bit weird, having been at a club for five years and then you see them doing their pre-season training and you’re doing it elsewhere,” said Onojaife, who made his Premiership debut for Saints against Sale Sharks during the table-topping 2014/15 season.
“We have got a bit of a Wanderers team here. I signed before knowing a lot of the other lads had, but it was just about the ambition for me.
“I’m someone who believes he’s good enough to play at a higher level and the ambition of Ealing attracted me.
“I’m only 22 so that’s what pushed me towards the move.
“I’m really looking forward to a fresh start, new players, new coaches and showing people what I have to offer.
“Going on loan to Bedford was a really good experience for me and it will be weird turning up at Goldington Road and playing there for Ealing.
“It was very nice on my first day knowing so many people at Ealing so it didn’t have that first day at school feeling.”
Ealing’s desire to reach the top of the English game is certainly mirrored by Onojaife.
He has learned a lot from some of his established former Saints team-mates, especially during the 2013/14 season, when he watched on as the club claimed a sensational Premiership and Challenge Cup double.
“Me and nine or 10 others were part of my Academy intake that year and we were just in awe of people like Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes,” Onojaife said.
“They put in worldy performances every week and you knew the club was building something special.
“As young guys, we thought ‘wow, they’re going all the way this year’, and they did. It was awesome to have the tiniest part of that in training with those guys and then they finished top the next year.
“It’s been a complete contrast since then. You look at the young players throughout that squad, like Tom Collins and Lewis Ludlam, age-grade stars, who are not doing half as much as they should be, and that’s probably down to the pressure the coaches have been under.”
The likes of Collins and Ludlam will hope to get far more opportunities to strut their stuff under new management at Saints this season.
But Onojaife will be attempting to get his game time elsewhere as he seeks more first-team exposure.
“My ambition as a rugby player is to be able to look back at my career and be like people such as Phil Dowson and Dylan Hartley, who have got 200 to 300 appearances,” Onojaife said.
“I’d love to have that many caps for a Premiership team because it’s something no one can take away from you.
“It’s what I’m looking to achieve.”
Onojaife has harboured those ambitions since he started playing rugby while living in Dubai.
He explained: “At the age of 13, I moved to Dubai with my family.
“From year eight to 11 school years I was out there and that’s where I started playing rugby.
“It was pretty cool.
“There’s a bigger rugby community over there than people think because there’s a large ex-pat community over there.
“Rugby is popular and there’s the Dubai Rugby 7s, which is a good weekend.
“I started playing for my school and then joined the Dubai Exiles, which was very fun.
“I first came to be at Saints when one summer I went to a Stowe School summer camp just for fun.
“After that, I ended up on trial at the Academy and went to Stowe School, joined the Academy and signed a professional contract at the age of 17.
“I had five seasons at the club, progressing to the senior squad and I was fortunate enough to make a few appearances.
“It was really difficult because you start each season with the right mindset and you put your best foot forward.
“You feel you deserve chances because you get feedback from the coaches that you’re doing well, but the chances never come.
“It is difficult because we had such a talented squad but I just would have liked to have been given more opportunities.
“I only made six appearances, which isn’t a lot, but I’ve got to be proud, coming from the Academy, that I got a chance to make my Premiership debut and those things will stay with me for ever.”
And Onojaife is now hoping that his younger brother, Devante, gets to make happy memories at Saints, too.
Devante is a young player with huge potential, having switched from prop to No.8, where he has recently been starring for Scotland Under-20s in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
The 20-year-old actually started playing rugby before his elder brother and flew to England with Jordan, taking part in that Stowe School camp.
“Devante came to that first camp with me but he was a bit younger at the time so my parents wouldn’t have wanted him to move back,” Jordan said.
“He stayed in Dubai with them for a few years and then eventually moved and did the same thing as me, went to Stowe and into the Saints Academy.
“He’s good. He’s still dealing with the transition of starting as a No.8, moving to prop and then going back to No.8.
“He’s still honing his skills and it’s obviously good exposure for him playing in the Junior World Cup and I hope he’ll go on to big things.
“I reckon he could have been a good prop as well but his body shape has changed a bit since then!
“We’re competitive, but we keep it under wraps because mum wouldn’t like it getting too serious but we are pretty competitive with each other.
“It’s good to have that brotherly rivalry.”
So what kind of advice has Jordan passed on to Devante to ensure the younger Onojaife sibling makes it in rugby?
“I give him advice to make sure he’s playing,” said Jordan, who has helped the Wanderers to claim back-to-back Prem Rugby A League titles.
“If you’re not getting your chances at the weekend with the first team, you need to be going out and getting as much experience as you can on loan.
“The main thing for your development as a player is getting minutes on the pitch.
“It’s good playing for the Wanderers but it’s nowhere near as competitive as getting minutes in the Premiership and Championship.
“Saints usually thrash teams 50-0 in the A League!”