A father's pride as Saints flanker Ludlam graces the world stage

For the majority of proud rugby parents who go to watch their child play at a weekend, seeing them grace a World Cup game is, and only ever will be, a dream.

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 3:41 pm
Lewis Ludlam with dad Arron and Arron's partner Jo

It doesn’t matter, of course. As a parent, pride will be felt, no matter what level your child plays at.

But just what would it be like if that child became good. No, not just good. Really good.

And what would it be like if that same child not only got called up by their country, but actually got to represent them. And not just represent them, but represent them on the biggest stage of all.

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A young Lewis Ludlam with former South Africa star Bryan Habana

That was the scenario that occurred for Arron Ludlam, father of Saints flanker Lewis Ludlam.

And it didn’t exactly occur over a lengthy period of time. It happened extremely quickly when you compare it to many other rugby journeys.

Because just last year, Ludlam Jnr was rarely even featuring for Saints’ first team, let alone England’s.

Lewis won back-to-back titles with the Wanderers but, by his own admission, felt he may have to leave Northampton to fulfil his own aims, and the dreams his family members had for him.

Arron and Lewis are big Tottenham Hostpur supporters

Enter a new era at Saints, one in which youngsters started to rise rapidly.

Ludlam went from Wanderer to fully-fledged Saint. Then, incredibly, to World Cup bolter.

“We’re still kind of pinching ourselves from it,” said delighted dad Arron.

“In a funny sort of way, it probably worked in Lewis’s favour that he didn’t have a great deal of time to think about it (playing for England).

Lewis was able to celebrate scoring a try against the USA in the World Cup, his first for England

“He wasn’t able to be overly concerned about it and he literally got thrown into that first warm-up game against Wales. He was able to impose himself on it.

“Even then, he was due to be on the bench and he found out on the morning of the game that Sam Underhill had a slight knock and that he was starting.

“It worked in his favour that he had very little time to think about it and for the pressure to build.”

Arron travelled to Japan with his partner, Jo, just before the World Cup began.

They planned to watch the opening two England games, against Tonga and the USA, hoping that Lewis would get some game time.

And he did, coming off the bench in the win against Tonga before playing a starring role against the USA, starting and scoring in Kobe.

"The reason we chose the first two games was that we recognised they were four days apart and we thought they would have to utilise the whole squad," Arron explained.

"Given that Lewis was an outside bet, it was probably the best opportunity to see him play.

"We got to see him play about 20 minutes in the first game, which was really exciting, and then he started and finished the USA game.

"We were incredibly lucky to see one and a half games, and obviously he got the try against the USA, which was absolutely fantastic.

"Tries are probably not the most important thing for a flanker to do on a rugby pitch, but it was fantastic to know he scored his first England try in a World Cup match.

"The funny thing was that I was watching the ball go across the line, he was in space and George Ford passed to him.

"He was still 10 metres out but I was up out of my seat, shouting and celebrating and it was at that point I noticed all the other friends and family were looking at me. I was thinking 'please don't drop this, make sure you get over the line and put it down'.

"It was a fantastic experience."

Ipswich-born Lewis's senior England journey started when he linked up with the squad to help them prepare for the Barbarians clash back in June.

But he soon went from water-boy in that match to making his debut in the World Cup warm-up match against Wales.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But did Arron ever dream that he would one day see his son strutting his stuff for the Red Rose?

"I don't think you ever dare to think about it," Arron said.

"There's a story I remember when he was playing at Ipswich Rugby Club and he was about eight years old at the time. An old fella used to stand on the side of the pitch and he came up to me after a game and said 'one day, your lad is going to play for England'.

"At the time you don't think too much of it and I'm sure he probably said that every other week to a different kid.

"Through the years as they're developing, you never really get the sense they're going to be a professional.

"Saints do absolutely the right thing in terms of playing everything down, keeping their feet on the ground and telling them not to look too far ahead.

"I don't think we ever thought he would be a rugby player until he was offered his first senior Academy contract and even then you think a lot of players get that and don't break into the first team.

"Lewis did get released from the Academy at about 14. Like a lot of boys, he seemed to go through a growth period where he was more prone to injuries as his body grew.

"He had a spell where he wasn't able to consistently take part in training and Saints took the decision to release him and send him back to school to work hard.

"But he ended up playing at the St Joseph's College festival and for the Eastern Counties and Saints were obviously watching those games closely and decided to bring him back in.

"(Former Saints Academy manager) Simon Sinclair, who is a good friend of mine, and Dusty Hare took the decision to bring him back in again.

"He was very focused in that being what he wanted to do. We encouraged him to focus on his school work but one of the things you get to know about Lewis is that when he feels he's got a point to prove, it brings out the best in him.

"He was so determined and a little bit more relaxed when he went back to Saints. He used to be quite tense and worried before being released but he came back incredibly focused, driven and wanted to enjoy his rugby.

"Taking the pressure off himself, he was able to play at his best."

Ludlam has certainly done that since establishing himself in the Saints team from the start of last season.

And Arron knows exactly who his son owes his rapid recent rise to.

"The single biggest thing that has triggered his career is the change in coaching team at Saints.

"He did have a fantastic relationship with Jim (Mallinder) in particular and he has an awful lot of respect for him.

"But the change in ethos under Chris (Boyd) to playing a bit more free-flowing rugby meant Chris saw more in his skillset than just his physical presence.

"It gave him a chance and he owes a huge debt of gratitude to Chris Boyd for giving him that opportunity, and I'd like to think he's repaid a bit of that over the past year."

But Boyd, who arrived at Saints from the Hurricanes prior to the start of the last season, is not the only reason why Lewis has achieved what he has.

His dad, though he may not admit it, has also played a big part, with Lewis crediting him in an interview with this publication after making his Saints debut in an Anglo-Welsh Cup win at Newcastle Falcons in November, 2016.

Arron was a keen boxer and Lewis has clearly taken some of those fighting qualities forward with him.

"I boxed white collar, only a handful of fights, but Lewis used to like coming to the gym with me," Arron explained.

"I've also sparred with him quite a bit and I used to toughen him up a bit through some light sparring, which he used to enjoy.

"Unfortunately, he's got longer reach than me so a lot of the time he was able to keep me at distance rather than me get the better of him.

"And I don't think there will be too many times I ask him for a sparring session now!

"There was a bit of a perception he wasn't big enough so he worked hard on that side of his game in terms of increasing his body mass.

"He's up to around 110kg, which is where he'd want to be."

As well as raw determination and fight, Lewis has also inherited his patriotism from his father.

One of the most enduring rugby images in recent times came from just before England's clash with Wales as Lewis passionately sung the national anthem ahead of his debut.

In the stands at Twickenham that day, a video was taken of Arron doing exactly the same thing, and Lewis later admitted that he saw his dad during what was a surreal moment.

"The RFU give you really good seats at Twickenham and the players were right in my eyeline there," Arron said.

"It's something I've always impressed upon him. Lewis comes from a very mixed immigrant background with his grandparents on his mother's side being part of the Windrush generation and my parents being of Palestinian and Lebanese descent.

"But at the same time, we're incredibly proud to be English, which is where Lewis was born, and we've always impressed on him the importance of being proud to be part of this diverse country, and the national anthem is a key part of that.

"I'm really pleased when he shows that level of passion, and it connects you with the supporters as well because they recognise this is someone who really cares about playing for his country."

And Lewis has a similar love for Saints, his boyhood club.

Arron said: "We're based out in Suffolk but Northampton Saints is our closest rugby club and Lewis is Saints, boy and man.

"We love the club, it's a great family club and there isn't another club in the Premiership quite like Saints with the connection with the armed forces etc. It's a unique family club.

"We love it to pieces."

The Ludlam family are not the only ones who have been part of the Franklin's Gardens fabric for many years now, with so many youngsters having come through the Academy to represent the first team in recent years.

And there are now real bonds between parents.

"There are some friendships there, definitely," Arron said.

"I didn't know Tim Furbank (father of George Furbank) that well but I've got to know him and am really good friends with him.

"Moony (Alex Moon) went to school with Lewis before going up north to Sedbergh so we know the Moons very well.

"I've seen Rory's (Hutchinson) dad around the place a few times and the Fishs as well - Lewis and (James) Fish lived together for three or four years - we've got to know them very well.

"It's really nice because they've all come through together and we've got to know them very well.

"Whenever one of them scores a try, you look over your shoulder."

Who knows, in the next few years, the likes of Furbank, Moon and Fish could be following Ludlam onto the international stage.

But for Lewis's part, he has been told not to expect to stay there, unless he learns from every experience he has been afforded in recent months.

"He doesn't need an awful lot of bringing back down to earth but we talk regularly about how things are going," Arron said.

"We talked on Monday about his experience over the past couple of months and the kind of things I was encouraging him to think about was to look around the squad he's been living with and think about how they eat, train, perform and make sure he takes something from being around those players to improve his game.

"He's got to aspire to be a consistent starter for England because this is just the start of the next chapter and if he doesn't push on from here, it will be a lost opportunity.

"He's got to find another way to take his game to the next level and work even harder."

Lewis has certainly done that, bouncing back from Saints Academy rejection, overcoming injury problems, not being selected for the first team and more to shine for club and country in recent times.

But whatever else he achieves in his career, he will never forget what he and his team-mates achieved in Japan - and neither will his dad.