Modern rugby demands pace as well as power from its props so when Tarek Haffar scattered a bunch of Leicester defenders on his way to the try-line in last month’s Premiership U18s final, comparisons with Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola were obvious.
Which is just as well because those are the players Haffar, already capped by England at U18s level, with whom he toured South Africa last year, most admires as he makes his way through the academy ranks at London Irish with ambitious goals in mind.
“Props like Mako and Ellis are really my inspiration,” says Haffar, Brentford-born and raised but whose parents hail from Ghana and Lebanon. “When I moved to prop, I thought I was just going to have to be a big lad, but I’ve always appreciated fast, exciting play and I’ve seen a lot of that in those two, who are both great ball-carriers and can really shift.
“I started as a No.8, but as I got more powerful and heavier, the coaches in our academy, led by Jon Fisher, decided it was time to change. I still feel like I’ve got the ability to play at No.8 but I’m not as tall as other guys, so I switched and I’m quite fast for someone in that position.
“Hopefully, I can make the kind of progress Mako and Ellis have.
“I’ve just come out of the U18s, so I’m hoping to get a new contract to continue my journey at Irish and one day play for England, maybe even the Lions.”
Football generally rules the roost in ethnically diverse West London, but Haffar had no interest in pursuing the round ball game. He explained: “I was never a football person, never got into it, but I didn’t know much about rugby either until I left primary school, went to Gunnersbury Catholic School and then started playing at Grasshoppers RFC.
“I was 12 and a bit of a late starter, but I loved it and, unlike football, I didn’t have to hold back because of my size. At 14, I was invited to London Irish for a trial and managed to get accepted. That was in 2016 so I’ve made pretty decent progress since then and getting on that England U18s tour of South Africa last year was a great experience.
“Five of us from London Irish were involved so that was a good achievement and to be able to do a tour like that with England was something else.”
Whilst rugby is still seen in many quarters as a middle-class white sport, Haffar is proof that opportunities exist for those from different backgrounds.
He added: “I’ve been involved in the Premiership’s Project Rugby scheme and they’ve reached about 45,000 people now. Rugby’s not just a middle-class sport, it’s open to anyone and there’s a really big ethnic mix round where I’m from now. There are opportunities, especially in my area, and people just need to be drawn to it and see the culture.”
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