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Jonathan Joseph set to make a racket for England

 Jonathan JosephJonathan Joseph could have been donning whites at Wimbledon instead of the white shirt of England had he chosen to follow a different sporting path.

As a ten-year-old tennis player, Joseph was once ranked Derbyshire’s No.1, and a bright future in the sport loomed.

At the same time, though, he was also playing football – at a good enough level to be offered trials by Derby County – and rugby, the sport that was in his genes through father, Ivan, who played 11 times for Northampton Saints from 1982-86.

After moving to Newbury in his mid-teens rugby took over, ruining any chance he had of following Wales legend and 1966 Junior Wimbledon champion, JPR Williams, on the road to SW19.

“Jonathan was a promising junior tennis player at that time and I’ve never forgotten his name,” says John Briggs, his former county tennis team manager.

“It’s sad we lost him to another county and it’s sad that he was ultimately lost to tennis, but obviously it has all turned out very well for him.”

Pip Joseph, Jonathan’s mother, says the nimble footwork associated with her son’s performances on the rugby pitch – a trait that has seen him labelled ‘the new Jeremy Guscott’ – stems from his time on court.

She said: “Ashley Broomhead, who was Jonathan’s county performance coach, used to spend hours and hours of his own time working on his movement and mobility and developing him as an athlete.

“When he went to Bisham Abbey for national fitness screening I think I’m right in saying that JJ’s results were better than Tim Henman’s at the same age.

“Derbyshire put him on a scholarship, which meant he received extensive coaching after school.  A lot of time and energy was put into his tennis.”

Clearly there are no regrets over the path Joseph has chosen, although the brutality of professional rugby did come as something of a shock to his mother.

“We’re a sporty family, my daughter Hannah also plays for England – at netball – so I’d like to think we’re pretty hardy,” she said.

“But it never really occurred to me how dangerous a game rugby was until I saw the first Test v South Africa. I realised then that it was like warfare, with bodies lying all over the pitch. I’m fine with it, though.”

Even at the tender age of 21, Joseph has had his fair share of knocks. Failure to shake off an ankle injury forced him to miss out on England’s 54-12 win over Fiji.

But a successful run out for his club London Irish in the LV= Cup at Leicester today should put him back in the frame for selection to face the Springboks for the fourth time in five months.

After playing in all three summer Tests in South Africa, a first capped appearance at Twickenham would provide further vindication that he was right in his career choice of rugby over a racket sport.

“Tennis was my main sport growing up but then we moved to Newbury and I didn’t really enjoy it as much and rugby took off,” says the centre, a former Millfield class mate of fellow England squad member Mako Vunipola.

“I played at school and at my local club, Newbury, and it was good for me to have my father’s backing throughout.

“I’ve always preferred rugby because it’s a team game and you get to do things that I think are more suited to me, like running around with the ball in hand and beating players.”

Just like Guscott…? “He was a great of the game and it is nice when people make the comparison. That’s happened quite a few times now and I’m obviously humbled by it,” Joseph said.

“But my focus is on what I’m trying to achieve and what my goals are.

“I’m still young and I’m still learning. From club rugby to international rugby is a big step up – the attention to detail is so much greater. You need that because it is so hard to breakdown international defences.”

JON NEWCOMBE

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