From regional rugby rejection by the Scarlets to reaching the heights of the international game with Wales, via stints at Cinderford and Worcester, the rise of Josh Adams has been an uplifting tale of hard work, self-belief and a steadfast desire for improvement.
Now one of the world’s deadliest finishers with 14 tries in 24 Tests, enhancing a top-flight career average of a try every other game, Adams ended the last World Cup as the competition’s seven-try top scorer and is viewed in some quarters as a nailed-on pick for the Lions.
However, it is easy to forget that five years ago the man now acknowledged as a regular at the top table of Test rugby was staring deep into a barrel of obscurity before Worcester offered him a lifeline and he came under the influence of attack coach Sam Vesty.
Adams, 25, recalls: “It’s mind-blowing when you think about where I was in 2015 to where I am now, but I always 100 per cent believed I could at least be a member of a professional squad. I was confident in myself that I was able to play and compete with the boys at regional level, but I was also probably a bit naïve and I’m glad I didn’t take being let go by Scarlets too hard.
“I took it as the kick up the backside I probably needed and didn’t dwell on it too long, which is just as well because there were hardly any professional options for me at that time apart from Worcester.
“That’s the reason I took it – it was the only offer out there.
“There were various options to play semi-pro rugby or maybe look to go overseas and work on the side, but Worcester offered me a full-time academy contract and the opportunity of solid training and being around good professionals.
“Thank god that option was there and I’ll always be grateful to Mark Hewitt, their academy manager at the time, for looking after me. As a Welsh boy in England, Mark was great for me and their backs coach, Sam Vesty, was terrific as well.”
Vesty, like Adams, has since moved on and is now casting his magic spell over the backs at Northampton, many of whom are also enjoying international recognition as a result of his influence.
Adams adds: “I’m sure if you ask anybody who’s worked under Sam, they’ll speak highly of him. Dan Biggar and I have had a few conversations about Sam and it’s evident to see how much he’s helped ‘Biggs’ at Northampton. How good has Dan been for Wales? I think Sam’s brought new dimensions to Dan’s game and it was the same with me when I was at Worcester.
“He’d always hammer on about making sure your training session wasn’t done and how, after the formal business was completed, you’ve got your individual stuff to attend to. In my case, it was with the back-three boys practicing high balls, kicking or whatever and he always made sure I was out there doing the extras.
“Sam was so keen to be out there with us and in some ways he thought he was still a player because he got so involved.
“I’m sure he’s the same at Northampton now and you can see similar things happening with boys like George Furbank, Harry Mallinder, Rory Hutchinson, Fraser Dingwall and Alex Mitchell, who are all improving fast and putting themselves in contention to play international rugby. Sam’s given them the confidence to perform and Northampton have an unbelievable crop.”
Adams put in plenty of hard yakka himself, with his spell at Cinderford during the 2015/16 season preceding a hugely successful breakthrough period at Worcester.
Adams said: “I’ve never been one to look too far ahead. I’ve always taken things day-by-day, week-by-week so I make sure that I’m ready for whatever opportunity comes up, which five years ago meant playing for Cinderford or Worcester’s A-team or getting a run-out in their LV= Cup side.
“I just made sure that I gave it my all and another guy who was really good to me at Worcester was our academy backs coach, Gordon Ross.
“He was really helpful when I started playing a few games for the first team and without him and Sam combined, I probably wouldn’t have added the skills I needed to compete at a higher level, which eventually meant Wales.”
On the back of his exploits for Worcester, Adams was handed a Wales debut against Scotland in the first match of the 2018 Six Nations and has not looked back. A successful tour of Argentina ensued, after which he helped Wales to a Grand Slam in 2019 before going on to feature in a World Cup campaign that ended in heart-breaking fashion.
“The World Cup still hurts because it was so near, so far,” Adams laments. “To come down to one penalty in that semi-final against South Africa was heart-wrenching because we’d been flying high and were so confident before every game, going in believing we could win it.
“That semi-final was tough to take, but for me it was a massively positive tournament and international year as a whole. To win a Six Nations Grand Slam was brilliant because some people take five or six years to win a title, let alone a Grand Slam, so to do it in my second stint was unbelievable – then to be top scorer at a World Cup was pretty special as well.
“I’ve taken so many learnings from all that, which hopefully I’ll use to get better now. Working with Rob Howley and latterly Stephen Jones with Wales has been good and Neil Jenkins has helped me so much with my kicking. It probably wasn’t one of my strongest points but as you move up the levels playing Prem and Test rugby, you recognise how important it is.”
Into the here and now, Adams has four targets in mind: bringing success to his new club Cardiff Blues, continuing his impressive Test career with Wales, getting on to next year’s Lions tour and, most importantly of all, never allowing himself to rest on any laurels.
“No, you definitely can’t do that,” says Adams. “There’s always somebody getting faster, fitter and stronger chipping at your heels. It doesn’t matter where you are or how many caps you have, there’s always somebody after your place so the minute you sit back and think you’ve done this or that or you’re set, before you know it you’ll be watching the game in a suit from the stand rather than being out there in your kit.
“You’ve only got to look at Louis Rees-Zammit to see a great talent who’s had an awesome season for Gloucester in the Premiership. The six weeks he had with Wales will have been invaluable to him in terms of working with top internationals like George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams and he’ll have learned heaps off them.
“He’ll improve his game now so the quicker you realise that and put all your efforts into constantly improving, the longer you are going to stay in the environment.”
While Six Nations results went against Wales during Wayne Pivac’s first campaign, Adams says: “He took it all in his stride very well and I thought Sam Warburton was a great addition to the coaching team.
“I don’t think anyone expected Sam to come on board as a coach but he was brilliant and it’s like he’s been doing it for years because he really understands the game. Not everything went right during the Six Nations, but it felt like we came out of it with lots of positives.”
As for a shot at the Lions in South Africa next year, Adams says: “It’s brilliant that people might consider me and I’m thankful for that, but there are so many quality back-three players in the British Isles that it’s hard to think about that right now.
“Sometimes I think about it, of course you do, but you’ve just got to keep your head down and give yourself a chance.
“It’s one of those things that as an international you aspire to – it’s the pinnacle for a northern hemisphere player to represent the Lions because you join an elite club that’s best of the best – but selection is a year away and there’s lots of rugby to be played.
“I just want to get stuck in for Cardiff when we get back and help us become play-off contenders, the potential for our squad is huge.
“I loved the Christmas derby matches with big crowds at the Arms Park and there’s no reason why we can’t be successful.”
If Adams does make the Lions tour, there’s someone else he will thank. He added: “Dai Flanagan was excellent for me as a young lad at the Scarlets and he fought my corner when it came to staying or going.
“Obviously, I left, but he’s doing great stuff as attack coach at the Scarlets and I’ll always be grateful to him for believing in me.”
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