LEWIS Ludlam’s story is a beacon of hope as Rugby Union in England wrestles with its conscience over its race relations record, and providing equal opportunity and access to this sport for people from ethnic minorities, following the Black Lives Matter protests.
The mixed-race Northampton and England flanker comes from an immigrant family and was born and bred in Ipswich, a Suffolk town which is hardly a byword for multiculturalism.
Ludlam’s father Arron has Palestinian and Egyptian heritage, and his mother, Dorinda, has Guyanese heritage, but when the 24-year-old pulls on the England shirt and sings the national anthem at the top of his lungs his pride in representing the country of his birth is palpable.
His swirl of emotions is reflected in a social media post in which there are the three flags of his family origin alongside the Cross of Saint George, as well as the words: “Northampton Saint. Trying to figure it all out. Ipswich born.”
It has been a whirlwind of a year for Ludlam, in which he was teleported from being in the Saints second team, the Wanderers, to an England debut cap against Wales in the World Cup warm-ups, and then on to Japan as part of Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.
His ‘Wanderers to World Cup’ odyssey saw him play in England’s tournament victories over Tonga, the USA – scoring his first Test try – Argentina and Australia. Since then he has played in his first Six Nations campaign, taking his England appearances to eight before going into lockdown with the rest of the country.
Figuring it all out has been made even more difficult for Ludlam by the febrile atmosphere following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the revulsion and anger that sparked a wave of BLM protests on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ludlam says the protests resonated with him. “I’ve always been interested in politics, especially race and gender – and there is a real interest in those issues among young people now. I think it can only be positive that more people are educating themselves about these subjects.”
However, he has first-hand experience of just how quixotic and instantly judgemental social media can be. This was evident in the negative reaction recently to two separate posts.
One involved his Saints and England team-mate Courtney Lawes commenting on the free school meals campaign of footballer Marcus Rashford, right, congratulating him but also provoking a backlash by suggesting being married and financially secure before having kids would help.
The other related to a case of a wrong photo caption in which Ludlam was mistaken for England team-mate Ellis Genge, with both players flagging up the error.
Ludlam says: “It’s such a difficult thing, because you can say one thing and it is taken a very different way – which is what happened with Courtney. He’s very politically aware, but everyone has a voice, and not everyone will agree. I guess that if you’re out there, you expect to get a response.
“Me and Gengey are close, and it’s happened a few times. I wasn’t seeing the photo as a strictly racist issue, but suddenly lots of people were telling me I’d said it was a racist thing. Social media is a minefield…”
However, Ludlam says that there are times when you have to stand up and be counted: “You’ve got to speak your mind and express your opinions, because if no one speaks up about police brutality it will remain an ongoing thing.
“It’s this one side against the other situation that’s a problem, but no one wants to see the world burn. Life is not black-and-white, it’s all shades of grey, and if you look at it that way you can keep a sense of balance.”
Ludlam says that he experienced racism growing up in Ipswich, but that he never let it grind him down.
“My dad is an Arab and my mum is from the Caribbean, so I’d be called a ‘Paki’ at times and a ‘gollywog’ at other times, but I never felt I would allow it to stop me achieving what I wanted to.
“Then, when we went along to join Ipswich rugby club 95 per cent of the people welcomed my mum and dad in, and after that I didn’t come across racism very often. Occasionally you had things said to mixed-race guys in the team, but usually it concerned an individual saying it, rather than being a group thing.
“Growing up as a person of colour is very much about how you see yourself. I was the only mixed-race black kid at my primary school, although there were a couple of Asian kids. You sometimes felt a bit different and a bit alienated, but sometimes that might be about you. Looking back on it, when I was with my mates 99 per cent of the time I felt part of it, and race was not an issue.”
The notion of Ludlam having the gift of seeing positives before negatives is reinforced by the way he honoured a pledge to a teacher who had a life-changing influence on him at Gorseland Primary School.
At the age of 11, Ludlam promised Sandra Taylor that he would get her tickets to see his first match when he played for England. He remained true to his word, and with help from his mother in tracking her down, 12 years later Mrs Taylor, by then retired, received tickets for her and her husband to watch her former pupil make his England debut against Wales at Twickenham.
After meeting Ludlam again at the post match reception Taylor said she was “full of pride” and “privileged” to be invited.
Ludlam fills in the background. “I wasn’t the best pupil or learner, and I was getting into a bit of trouble because not a lot of teachers could get the best out of me – but she did. Sandra Taylor had a way of being able to communicate, and when she discovered that I had a real passion for rugby she used it to help educate me. So, before I left I told her I owed her, and that if I ever played for England I would get her tickets.”
Ludlam went on to Kesgrave High School, but his precocious rugby ability, then as a centre, had already put him on Northampton’s radar, and they had given him a junior academy place.
However, his confidence got a jolt when he was released by Saints –only to get a major boost when he won a sports scholarship to Saint Joseph’s, Ipswich, an independent school with a strong rugby tradition.
Ludlam takes up the story: “I thought my dream had gone down the pan, and when that happens and you get a bit anxious you don’t play as well as you can, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I was lucky to have three very good rugby coaches at Saint Joseph’s all of whom helped my game.
“Mark Patterson (director of sport) scouted me and helped pull the strings for me go to a school we wouldn’t have been able to afford, Graham Richards was my first coach, and later I was coached by Peter Engledow, who is now coaching the Griquas in South Africa.
“I remember Graham Richards giving us a chat and then a piece of paper and asked us to put down what we wanted to achieve. I remember writing down, ‘I want to play rugby for England’, so they saw my commitment.”
Ludlam’s determination not to give up on that long-nurtured dream paid off when he was asked to rejoin the Saints Academy after making his mark at St Joseph’s.
It is not surprising that he says a refusal to stay down is one of the traits he admires most, and it is something that his father taught him.
“You’ve always got a chance to bounce back. As a kid I saw my dad get hit in the face in amateur boxing bouts and come back to win, so I knew not to give up.”
Ludlam says he is not the only one who showed commitment to rugby, because it was mirrored by a father who had not even played the game. “We would miss lessons every Wednesday afternoon, and we would go on a five hour round-trip to train with Saints and play matches. My dad often drove us. He had been my football coach, and I boxed at the same gym as him. I used to turn up to football in a pair of golden boots, which always got me a bit of stick. I was a centre-back, an enforcer, always giving away lots of free kicks, and I couldn’t hit a barn door – so I guess rugby was always on the cards.”
Ludlam’s tenacity was challenged again, when, despite winning a place in the England U20 side in the 2015 Junior World Championships after switching to flanker, and being voted as England’s best player of a tournament in which they lost narrowly to New Zealand in the final, his Northampton career stalled.
A combination of injuries and an overstaffed back row saw Ludlam languishing, and wondering from the Wanderers ranks if his England dream was slipping away fast – and then it all changed with the arrival of Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens last year.
“Not to be involved was very disappointing, but I used social media messages asking ‘what’s happened to Lewis Ludlam?’ to motivate me. The first meeting I had with Chris he said to me that if I was prepared to work hard there were opportunities for me here.”
Ludlam says Boyd has had such a positive impact because he is straight down the line.
“It’s been especially the case with the young lads, because he gave us confidence. Before playing my first game for him he said to us, ‘the pressure’s off, so just go out there, rip-in, and enjoy yourself’. His coaching suits a lot of us because it allows us to express ourselves.
“The DNA of the way he coaches is focused on skills and running at people, and he has laid out hard principles, such as how you catch the ball, and footwork. He wants us to take it early, and on the move, so that you are handling under pressure – and if you are in space, use it. Having a chance to get your hands on the ball and play an expressive game is awesome. It’s been perfect for me.”
Ludlam’s rugged aggression in contact is matched by his linking in attack, but he says his appetite for improvement is insatiable. “There’s loads I want to work on, whether it’s tackle, compete, or carry. I’m not happy where I am, and I want perfection in all those areas.”
That ambition is matched by his desire to see England and Northampton claim any big prizes that the post-Covid season relaunch presents – whether it’s a 2020 Six Nations championship with England, or Premiership and/or European Cup titles with his club.
“At the end of the day we want to win things. I want to win everything I can, whether it’s with Saints or England. I’m greedy – I won’t be happy with anything less.”
What Lewis Ludlam has achieved so far through resilience, hard work and talent means that he is living his dream – and it is one that he will not let go of lightly. It should also send a message to youngsters in mixed-race and ethnic minority communities in this country that Rugby Union is not just a game for all shapes and sizes, but all races.