Chris Tshiunza thought someone was “pranking me” when he answered his phone last Wednesday and heard he had been selected for the Wales squad for the upcoming autumn tests.
The 19-year-old student was preparing to make his debut for Exeter University in the BUCS Super Rugby tournament against Cardiff University when his career took an incredible change in direction.
“I was in my pre-game prep on Wednesday, getting my trainers on and getting ready to leave, when I got a call from Wayne Pivac himself. I had to double check it was him because I thought someone might have been pranking me,” said the 6ft 6in tall, 17st 7lbs Tshiunza.
“He told me the news and I was very happy. He didn’t go into a lot of detail on what he wants from me, but I think this camp is going to be a big learning block for me and anything on top of that in terms of game time will be a bonus.
“I’m grateful to be in the squad regardless of whether I get any game time or not. I’m just excited to learn. I’ve heard a lot from the other internationals in the Exeter squad about how much a better player they feel when they come back into the club from international camps.”
That’s certainly what Pivac has in mind for the talented teenager when he finally gets him into camp the Monday after the game against the All Blacks. He wants to give him a taste of the levels he will have to reach if he is to fulfil his dream of playing at the 2023 World Cup.
After only 61 minutes of Premiership action with Exeter Chiefs this season, and one start for his university side, it is difficult to see him getting into the action in the games against the world champion Springboks, Fijians and Wallabies. But Tshiunza is OK with that.
“I’ve learned that the game gets a lot, lot faster the higher up you go. Just being involved in the matchday squad at Exeter has helped me to learn a lot and playing at the weekends is just a bonus,” he said.
“It is also very physical, but I think I have coped with that side of it alright. I’m not sure how I’d cope with the facing the Springboks or Wallabies, but I’m just taking everything day by day at the moment.
“Every rugby player would love to play in a World Cup and I was just going along with that when I mentioned 2023 when I was young - it wasn’t really the right time to say it then, but now it might be.
“As we go into this camp it is a free-for-all really. Everyone has an opportunity to play and I’ve got to grab the opportunity with both hands.”
England and British & Irish Lions lock Jonny Hill has already told him to embrace his opportunity and to ensure he returns to the Chiefs a better player for the experience. There are a number of senior players for him to lean on at Sandy Park, but he also has some world class expertise to call on closer to home.
Former Wales and double Lions skipper Sam Warburton has been exactly where Tshiunza is now and has been a constant source of encouragement to the latest cab off the sporting rank at Whitchurch High School.
“Sam and I are in close contact and text each other quite frequently. He’s been in the background helping me out,” said Tshiunza.
“Even before my first Premiership game we talked about matchday nerves, coming off the bench and what to do and what not to do. He also texted me after my Wales call-up.
“He has been a great help and even before I got to the Chiefs he came into school and gave me advice. Mr Williams (rugby master Steve Williams) called him in and introduced him to me.
“I’ve never done this before, so I don’t really know what to expect when I go into the Welsh camp. Jonny Hill has given me some advice and he said just go there and get involved.
“I’m not going to worry about what’s to come.”
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His next rugby action is likely to be another BUCS Super Rugby game with his university on Wednesday, packing down in the second row with his Wales U20 team mate Dafydd Jenkins. Two more U20 caps, hooker Ollie Burrows and centre Dan John, are also in the same side and on the Chiefs books.
They are due to travel to face Leeds Beckett University on Wednesday, with a trip to Cardiff Met next up after that on 27 October – three days before Wales meet the All Blacks.
“They are really good boys at the university club and we celebrated my call-up accordingly. I will leave it at that,” he added.
“It was a home game, so we had plenty of time to celebrate. We all enjoyed ourselves and had a good time.
“I’m studying Sports Science and the coaches at the Chiefs have good links with the university and so the balance between the club and the university are great. I am here at the club most of the time and they arrange for lectures and seminars to be moved to the afternoon for me.
“I’m planning on sitting my exams in January, so it’s not going to be easy. I’m prepared to put the work in after training.
“I have a few lab reports coming up in the next few weeks, but other than that the main focus in the second year is on the January exams. When the Welsh camp ends at the end of November, I’m going to have to put in some serious work in December.”
Hard work is nothing new to the young giant, who graduated thorugh the Cardiff Schools and Cardiff Blues age-grade teams to become a Welsh international at U18 and U20 level before earning a four year deal with the Chiefs that started while he was still in the sixth form studying his A levels at Whitchurch HS.
“All the foundations are in place for him to go on to become a great player and he is working under a great coach at Exeter Chiefs in Rob Baxter. I’m sure he can bring out the best in him,” said his Whitchurch HS rugby coach, Mr Williams.
“Barring injury we always thought he had what it takes to go all the way in the game. As well as having all the necessary physical attributes, he has huge athletic ability, great attitude and a tremendous work ethic.”
The physical attributes that he possesses have put him on the fast-track into the professional game with the Chiefs and have now got him to the verge of senior international honours. No wonder Baxter feels the sky is the limit for his young charge.
“There is a real physical presence there, he is going to be a big, athletic man. He has got very good speed, he is big, strong and quick, quick off the ground lineout-wise and he likes to bump into people,” said Baxter.
“The core fundamentals of what it takes to be a rugby player are there. And now, really, it’s just about how far he can get.
“It is about playing plenty of rugby and training as well as he can. He is probably one of those where, right here and now, the sky’s the limit.”
That’s why the Chiefs paid the big bucks to entice him out of the clutches of a host of other Premiership clubs and Cardiff Rugby, who offered the biggest deal they had ever put on the table for an academy player yet lost out.
For Pivac, there was also the consideration of England sniffing around his new asset. He played in an England U20 trial game during lockdown, but was never seriously considering switching nations. He has lived in Cardiff for most of his life after arriving there with his family from DR Congo at the age of six.
“I’ve been getting a bit of chat here from the boys about playing for England, but it has always been Wales for me. A few boys have joked with me about coming over to their side, but I’ve held my ground,” said Tshiunza.
“England showed interest, just as much as they would for any other person. They go through the club manager and then he talks to you about it.
“It took me by surprise, but all I have to do is train well and play well. My heart is set on Wales and I’m OK with that.”
So is Pivac and the rest of Wales!