Rugby Union

'I won't give up': Nathan Hughes is determined to win over Eddie Jones

‘I won’t give up on England’: Being axed for the World Cup was like a ‘kick in the b*****ks’ for Bristol’s Nathan Hughes but he’s determined to win over Eddie Jones

  • Nathan Hughes says he was ‘gutted’ after not being selected for the World Cup
  • However, he hasn’t given up hope and is determined to get back in England side
  • Hughes said: ‘I always want to make a statement and prove people wrong’
  • He says all his family in his native Fiji have now become England supporters 

It was not a summer full of sweetness and light for the man from sugar cane town. Nathan Hughes, the hulking No8, went ‘home’ to Fiji for a few weeks of chilling, visiting family and drinking kava until midnight knowing he had sealed a big-money move to Bristol for when he returned to England. But it turned into a longer holiday than he had wanted.

Now sitting in the wooden stands of Clifton RFC, looking out on to a sodden, muddy pitch after Bristol Bears training, he can reflect on missing out on England’s World Cup squad. Eddie Jones’s call came in June.

‘When I was in Fiji, I got told they weren’t going with me,’ says Hughes, who hails from Lautoka, half an hour from Nadi on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. ‘I felt gutted. It was a kick in the b*****ks. But I brushed it off pretty quickly and moved on.’

Nathan Hughes was ‘gutted’ after finding out he wouldn’t play for England at the World Cup

The Bristol No8 is not deterred, and has definitely not turned his back on England

Jones’s decision not to invite Hughes to any of England’s pre-tournament camps, or the competition itself, could have hit the 28-year-old hard. Since making his debut in November 2016, Hughes filled in whenever Billy Vunipola was injured and to date has won 22 caps, but he was discarded in favour of flankers.

More than that though, the exclusion meant his decision to turn down representing his homeland at the 2015 World Cup — as he targeted England knowing he would qualify on residency the following year — had not borne fruit in the way he had hoped.

But Hughes is not bitter. ‘Missing out on the World Cup is no big regret for me choosing to play for England,’ he says. ‘I’ve backed my decision and will keep going. I didn’t think about it by myself, I spoke to my wife, mum, dad and family. I said to them: “This is the decision I’ve made. What do you think?” They said they’d back me 100 per cent.

‘All my family are England supporters now. There’s a lot of England flags and jerseys in Lautoka — when I go back home they all talk about England.

Now Hughes’ target is to get back into the lineup, and his move to Bristol looks inspired

The 28-year-old pictured playing for England in the Six Nations against Italy earlier this year

‘Family is very close to me. They feel it’s part of their blood now as well. The 22 times I’ve put on the England jersey I’ve gone out and given it all my heart.’

Hughes has a few places he can call home. A decade ago he was brought to Kelston Boys’ High School — a prestigious institution in Auckland, New Zealand — on a rugby scholarship when spotted in Fiji. After three seasons with Auckland, where Bristol boss Pat Lam coached, he moved to Wasps.

Having lived in England for three years, he was able to swap the Flying Fijian palm tree for the Red Rose. When he did there was the usual abuse. His friend Willis Halaholo, the Cardiff Blues centre who would have played for Wales yesterday if he had not ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, is going through it now. Halaholo this week called out the ‘haters’ who feel he should not play for Wales. Hughes has his sympathies.

‘I know deep inside that this my home, this is where I pay my taxes,’ he says. ‘I get paid by an English club, why shouldn’t I call this home? Fiji is still home in my heart — but England is where I’ve played my rugby for the last seven years now, so I can say this is my home for my short rugby career.’

Hughes will not turn his back on England. He was offered an extra week off by Lam to get over the disappointment but chose to train back at Bristol and watch his countrymen. ‘I was behind England all the way,’ he says of the World Cup. ‘It was good to see them beat New Zealand but then they fell short at the last. All that hard work throughout the whole year and the nine weeks of prep, I just felt for them.

‘My target is to try and get back in. I’m going in the right direction. You always want to make a statement and prove things to people.’ 

Bristol go into the match against London Irish third in the Premiership with a game in hand

He hasn’t been invite to pre-tournament camps but is determined to win over Eddie Jones

His move to Bristol has looked inspired already. Swapping Wasps for Westbury-on-Trym he is often found on Whiteladies Road supping coffees with his new team-mates.

Hughes is landlord to two of them, back Piers O’Conor and lock Joe Batley, as he settles in here while his wife and kids are in New Zealand. But while a long way from family, he has plenty of ‘brothers’ and father figures around. Talking on the day it was announced Bristol will have a new Bear next year in Fiji superstar Semi Radradra, Hughes talks glowingly about the way Lam helps the Polynesians boys settle.

‘Pat is like a dad to all of us,’ he says. ‘He has a lot of time outside of rugby for you, can sit down for a chat and talk as a dad to you. For us Polynesian boys far away from home, having someone like that is very good.

‘Among the Polynesian guys we tend to have something once or twice a year. If you want to come, eat some Island food, drink kava, we make it an Island day and the other boys are invited too.

‘We’ve got the Piutau brothers here, Stevie Luatua, the old man John Afoa — he keeps us going! Johnny is the biggest influence in the team. Everyone respects him because of where he has been. All Black, more than 100 games for the Blues, 100 for Gloucester and spent time at Ulster. We call him ‘Koro’ — the grandfather of the team — he’ll hate that!’

Bristol go into Sunday’s match against London Irish third in the Premiership with a game in hand. ‘Our goal is to hit top six and make the Champions Cup next year,’ says Hughes. ‘At the moment we’re at No1 [before yesterday’s results] and people are going to come for us.’ 

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