Young English forward eager to make mark

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Could a former football goalkeeper who was a “little fat kid” be one of the surprise packages of the Citizens Shield and North Otago rugby seasons?Kennet O’Neill has certainly made an impressive start to what he hopes will be a career-defining season on the other side of the world.
The 21-year-old Englishman is playing blindside flanker or lock for Old Boys, and the rangy forward has taken to New Zealand rugby like a duck to water.
“I’ve settled in well. The Old Boys guys have taken me in as one of their own, which is quite nice. They’ve offered to take me out and invited me round to their place, which has made it easier.
“New Zealand rugby is a lot more open and faster than in England. I was expecting that, but you still get shocked some weeks at what the boys pull out of the bag. There’s a lot of tap and run.”O’Neill, already named in a preliminary North Otago squad, is well aware of the most famous case of a young Englishman who came to play rugby in Oamaru and turned into a superstar.
Tom Wood set the standard for all who followed when he played for Valley and went on to captain England.
“Yeah, he’s been mentioned plenty of times,” O’Neill smiled.
“Tom is obviously an inspiration for me, and a motivation to try my best and take the opportunities that arise.”O’Neill hails from Hemel Hempstead, 40 minutes’ drive northwest of London, where he lives with his parents and his 17-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister.
He played football from the age of 7 before following a friend into rugby at 15.
“I was a goalkeeper. I was a little fat kid at school. But it got to the point where I was getting a bit bored with football so I gave rugby a go and haven’t looked back.”He still follows football and is, like his father, a Manchester City fan.
Even at his tender age, O’Neill has experienced plenty of rugby environments.
He was in the Saracens and Bedford academies, made his senior debut for Cambridge, and signed for London club Esher. He did a month of training for the Royal Air Force but missed rugby too much, so returned to play for Saracens at a level just below the premiership before joining the Ampthill club.
“Then I get a call from Colin Jackson at 9.30pm one night. Two weeks later, I am on a plane and heading to Oamaru.
“I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like this. I’m still young, and it’s a chance to see rugby in another country.”O’Neill, who is doing some labouring around his rugby commitments, hopes to stake a claim for an Old Golds jersey on the tour to Canada, and is keeping his options open beyond this year.om20kennet