From basketball to Test rugby
December 2, 2013
Cory Allen, on his Test debut © PA Photos
Seventy-two minutes, a lot can happen in rugby during that time. For an individual making his Test debut, fight or flight can kick in. Some never recover from a bruising introduction to international rugby. For others, dipping their toe in the Test water can be the start of a career that can span a decade, including Lions tours and all manner of on and off-field riches.
For Cory Allen, his debut during the November Test series for Wales against Argentina lasted 72 minutes until a dislocated shoulder spelled an end to that game and also any hopes of playing Tonga and then the Wallabies. "I felt it straight away, I knew it was out. I was a bit gutted at the time," Allen admits.
When Warren Gatland picks through the bones of another mixed autumn for Wales he will look at the positives of their impressive win over Argentina, George North's individual brilliance last Saturday and the fact he managed to hand six players their first taste of the Millennium Stadium on a Test day. Yet those triumphs will be counter-weighted by another November where a win over the southern hemisphere big three has escaped his team. One win in 23 matches as Wales boss against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is a dismal return.
But Allen's performance may have given Gatland a feeling of optimism; those 72 minutes will give the young centre a benchmark now. For Allen, it was a watershed moment in an ever-quickening career.
"It was just an amazing experience," Allen told ESPN. "I was more nervous when the team was announced than I was on the day. Come the day, I was more excited. But when we turned into the Millennium Stadium and there were these fans cheering, singing, drinking, hitting the bus, the butterflies kicked in.
"I'll be honest, I was close to tears during the anthem but I was thinking to myself 'you can't cry on TV'. I was a bit quiet early on, I was looking for that first touch. Nothing can prepare you for the noise though, you just can't hear anything. I hadn't had much to compare it to as I had played twice in the Millennium Stadium before in the Welsh Cup finals at youth level, but that was in front of 2000-odd crowd."
The last 12 months have seen him accelerate from playing for Cardiff RFC and the Wales Sevens team into a fully-fledged international. His goals at the start of the season were geared towards making a dent in the Blues team, any thought of playing for Wales was more than a dream for him, it was never on his radar. He had a chance to play for the Welsh Under-20 side in the summer, but injury robbed him of that opportunity and also the chance of playing in the Sevens World Cup.
Yet a matter of months on and there he was partnering Scott Williams in the Welsh midfield against Argentina.
"I didn't think it would come around this quick. My goal was to play for Wales but if you asked me after the Hong Kong tournament, which was the last time I played before I did my shoulder, if I'd be playing in the autumn, I'd have told you 'no chance'. But I'm fortunate I have had my opportunities with the Blues and then to play for Wales."
While his Wales Test time totals 72 minutes, he has only played 10 games for the Blues. Gatland clearly subscribes to the mantra 'if you're good enough, you're old enough'.
But it could have been very different for Allen had he followed a different sport.
"When I was little, all I did was play basketball. My cousins used to live a couple of doors down from me and that's all we did when we were young. I played rugby since I was four or five but I seemed to enjoy basketball more when I was younger, whether that was because I was playing with my family or not, I'm not sure. But as I got older, I had to choose between basketball, rugby and football and I went for rugby which looks to be the right decision."
Scoring in the 2012 Hong Kong Sevens © Getty Images
Basketball's loss is Wales' gain. A spell of rehabilitation now awaits him but Wales look to have unearthed a gem in Allen. With his powerful stature it is hard to ignore comparisons between him and another Welsh centre who is currently sidelined recovering from injury - Jamie Roberts.
When Roberts made his debut in 2008, Allen watched what would become a future team-mate from his uncle's pub in the canton area of Cardiff. "There was never one guy I watched who I thought yeah, that's who I want to be. Everyone has their heroes, but I just watched them.
"But at the Blues, Jamie and Casey Laulala were great for me. I used to go over my Cardiff RFC games with Casey and he told me what I can and can't do. I can't speak highly enough of him as a player and a guy."
As Laulala and Roberts know, sport makes for no man as they made their Test debuts at the age of 22.
Allen now has time to re-assess his goals for the season. It seems he has taken his rapid elevation in his stride. He still lives with his parents and although his mother had to take a day off work to cope with the shock of Allen being included in the Welsh team, he is adamant his newfound Test status will not change him as an individual.
"I'm a pretty grounded boy, I'd never get ahead of myself. My family bring me down to earth."
Three months is likely to be the spell Allen will be out of action and while the first few matches of the Six Nations may escape him, his future is grounded after signing a new contract with the Blues, an occasion he marked by having a meal with the family.
Test matches await Allen, and an initiation for Wales alongside the other debutants, but in those minutes of Test rugby and in his games for the Blues, he has shown enough maturity and raw ability to prove he should be more than a mere flash in the Welsh pan. It was a gamble by Gatland to pick Allen for that match but it could pay dividends come the 2015 World Cup as Wales look to long-term reward over short-term gain.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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