Building of Big Ben! How Morgan beat a disease to join new-look England
Ben Morgan, one of the fresh faces of
the England rugby revolution, might have been forced to limp away from
the sport after suffering from a disease which previously struck down
the likes of Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes.
Morgan, 22, the Scarlets No 8 who
has opted for England over Wales, fell victim to the Osgood-Schlatter
disease while in his mid-teenage years.
If the cap fits: Morgan turned down the chance to play for Wales
Osgood-Schlatter attacks children between the ages of nine and 16, more commonly boys active in sport. The condition coincides with periods of growth spurts and can be accompanied by such intense knee and/or shin pain that even walking up and down stairs is difficult.
Gerrard and Scholes overcame the disease to become the heart and soul of English football for a decade and more. Morgan will hope to make a comparable progression in rugby.
Rest is reckoned to be the best cure, with some of the more unfortunate casualties sidelined for up to two years. Morgan sat out most of his 15th year as hospital visits were interspersed with occasional matches.
'It was a very difficult period for Ben,' Kate, his mother, told Sportsmail. 'I remember him missing one trial because of it. And he could not make another due to a compound fracture of a finger. Not a rugby accident – he did it trying to jump a stream.'
Morgan himself has tried to put that period out of his mind. 'All I remember was that it was very painful and forced me to stop playing rugby for a year,' he said. 'It was bad enough that it prevented me from playing the game I love. It was a horrible, frustrating time.'
All change: Morgan started out as a winger
Phil Sprague, Morgan's coach at Dursley RFC from the age of eight to 18, is in no doubt that the illness explained how the future England squad member reached manhood without playing representative rugby.
'I think that is why he did not get picked up,' Sprague said. 'English rugby is a system of academies and Ben was simply not playing when people were looking and choosing.'
Eventually, Morgan, by then a regular in the Dursley senior team made it into the Gloucestershire Under 20s side.
He had started as a wing – 'young and quick and small' – Prague remembered. 'He had very good hands, could give and take a pass and run with the ball.'
Only after the illness did he convert to being a forward. 'Ben stopped training, but he never stopped eating,' Sprague joked. 'He came back to us taller and a lot heavier. He was clearly no longer a winger. We put him into the second row, then the back row before he settled at No 8.'
A higher level of rugby came with the move to Cinderford. But he lasted only a year there, languishing in the second XV, by his own estimation 'not in the best shape'. Wales and a professional contract with Merthyr Tydfil provided a more significant step up. But it was his signing for the Scarlets in May 2009 that changed his career. 'I lost 17 kilos after joining the Scarlets. They have been fantastic for me.'
His first training session with the region after being picked for Stuart Lancaster's 30-man squad for the Six Nations Championship on Tuesday was greeted by a rousing, if mickey-taking, chorus of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
It might have been Bread of Heaven. Morgan was about to qualify for Wales on the three-year residential rule when he declared his allegiance to England. 'I followed my heart,' he told Sportsmail. 'I am English. It is as simple as that.'
Born in a Bristol hospital and brought up in the tiny South Gloucestershire village of Kingswood, Morgan comes from 100 per cent English stock going back at least three generations.
'I still can't quite believe it. It's a huge privilege to get selected for England. To be given the chance to play for my country, after growing up supporting England, is something that hasn't quite sunk in yet,' he said. 'I'm obviously over the moon. I got the news from Stuart Lancaster when I was at my step-mum's birthday party back home in Gloucestershire on Tuesday night – so the family were together and were obviously delighted.'
The last Morgan to play No 8 for England went on to be president of the RFU. Ben Morgan will be concentrating on gaining his first cap rather than giving thought to the kind of rugby career which saw Derek Morgan manage England touring parties throughout the Eighties and eventually reach the top of the official pyramid in 2002. Coincidentally, Derek Morgan could also have chosen Wales, having played for Wales Schoolboys.
'It is never an easy decision and I am sure it was not for Ben,' Derek Morgan said. 'I just hope in the future he is as happy with the decision as I have always been.'