Road To The Premiership
Who could have thought that one day a Catalan would be English rugby Champion? No one... Except Oriol Ripol himself. The little Spanish kid who played rugby for the first time at age 6 has come a long way to become a veteran professional rugby player in the English Premiership. "From the age of 19, rugby has always been a kind of obsession, he says today. I really believed I could do it if I worked hard enough." That he did. He's never stopped since.
The origins. Thanks to a father who played rugby at university, Oriol started to play rugby very young, when Spanish kids usually discover soccer. "It was different, fun, challenging, everybody was curious and thought it was American football", he remembers. Although his father played prop, Oriol played at number 9 until he was 16, admiring the French scrum-half Pierre Berbizier during the Five Nations broadcast, then moved for a year at outside centre before expressing all his talent at winger at 18, which is his current position.
Birth of a goal. After having played all his junior rugby for the Barcelona Union Club, Oriol moved to New Zealand for a one year abroad experience. There, on the other side of the earth at Auckland University, he realizes what rugby really means to him. "I wanted to take it seriously." He came back home with his new dream, his obsession and found his family very supportive. "My parents were happy that I found something I was dedicated about."
First contract... in Wales. It was 1999. The European Cup was still a very new tournament and the B competition, the European Challenge, included a Spanish selection. Oriol was part of the team that travelled to Wales to play against Bridgend. Bingo! That day he brought out a great performance on the pitch and was offered a contract for the rest of the season. It was a shock, a discovery too. "It was at the same time very exciting and really hard, he tells. I was a young amateur player who left Barcelona and my family to live in a small and dark town. I had to adapt to professional training. I remember the speed sessions on the track very early in the morning, the weight and fitness sessions... I understood how hard I had to work to develop my body. Regarding the game, I had to improve myself in every way, to become quicker, stronger, just better if I wanted to match the other guys." He played in the Celtic League for the first XV but the contract was not renewed. What did it matter? He'd already learnt so much.
Rotherham: the recognition. After one more year in Spain, in Madrid, where he played with his two brothers Daniel (centre/wing) and Roger (hooker), and an experience in the French club Mont-de-Marsan which was cut short when they ran out of money before the start of the season, Oriol signed a contract with Rotherham after a two week trial. The previous summer he had impressed the coaches of this English National One club at a Seven's tournament in... Las Vegas. Although he arrived in the middle of the season, he finished top try scorer, Rotherham won the Championship and only due to bureaucracy they weren't promoted to the Premiership.
Northampton: the take off. Having ended the season with Rotherham on a high, Northampton Saints, the European Champions two years previous, coached at this time by Wayne Smith, former All Blacks' player and coach, offered him a two year contract... "To reach the Premiership was my main goal, remembers Oriol. Coming from where I came from, ending up in Northampton, and being wanted by such a club and a coach like Wayne... It was a great reward. A huge joy and a personal achievement... It's one of the best things that have ever happened to me."
May 2006, Twickenham: the highlight. At the end of his contract with Northampton, Oriol had strong hopes to play for Perpignan, the French Catalan club. "It could have been a kind of return to my roots but the deal fell through", he explains. Only focused on this opportunity he oversaw other proposals coming from England and... found himself without a team. "It was a scary time, he confesses today. I've never been lucky enough to have thousand offers at the same time..." Once again, the "little Catalan" did his best to find a way to express himself on a rugby field. Three months in Parma, Italy, two months in Rotherham where he had left some very good memories. And, as it already had happened in Bridgend and Vegas, the chance offered him a new opportunity which he once again caught. It was March 2005. Due to too many injured players, Sale Sharks needed a winger. Oriol was there, ready to pack and move wherever he could play at the highest level. He reached the club of the suburbs of Manchester. One year later, he was part of the starting XV who won 45-20 in the final of the Premiership against Leicester in Twickenham and scored a try during what he calls "the highlight" of his career.
At this stage, Oriol was close to 31. In seven years he had gone, according to himself, "from nothing to a champion". That's an amazing destiny, at least an unexpected one. He achieved what he did thanks to a very strong self-belief and an uncommon determination that made him overcome the difficulties he met on his way, in particular the major one: the need to prove all the time and everywhere outside of Spain, that a little kid from Catalonia who had never been immersed in a rugby culture could play at the same level as his British partners and opponents... "It's been hard but rewarding", he concludes in a smile, although he's still playing for Sale Sharks. The massive support of his parents, brothers and friends, and then of his wife was obviously crucial. Today, you can see pride in his eyes. And he can be proud of having played for his country (11 caps between 1998 and 2002), of having been once selected to play with the Barbarians, of having been able to become a professional rugby player in the English Premiership, and at last of having showed the way for his younger brother Roger, professional player in Chalon-sur-Saone in France... He can simply be proud of having made his dream come true.
Ludovic Ninet, April 2009.
Ludovic Ninet has worked for ten years in the French press, including five years for the highly acclaimed daily sports newspaper L'Equipe and its magazine Rugby Hebdo, now runs the rugby website Rugby Connection. (www.rugbyconnection.com)
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