Anyone who has seen James Stephenson jink and weave his way through defences would have guessed the Worcester winger’s route to the Premiership has not been a straight one.
And anyone who has seen the 23-year-old put his pedal to the metal could probably have predicted no matter how much twisting and turning that route demanded, it would be negotiated quickly. Stephenson is both slippery and fast.
Yet even with those qualities the Londoner’s development has been some story having taken just three years to progress from discarded schoolboy openside flanker to top – flight winger.
Make no mistake about it Stephenson was a promising youngster, perhaps shorter than you’d want your No.7, but tenacious enough to be capped by Ireland Under-18s.
Indeed, as part of the London Irish academy his logical path might have been in Steffon Armitage’s powerful footsteps, as an unconventionally-shaped back rower whose value lay not in the tale of the tape but in his derring-do and less obvious qualities.
But then when he left school a glorious professional career was seemingly over before it had begun.
“When you play a schoolboy international you kind of think ‘I might pick up a contract now’. All I wanted out of school was to get a contract and get a shot at a full-time club,” he admitted.
“It didn’t happen which was a big, big downer for me. Being a schoolboy international was a massive achievement, you’ve done your school proud, you do your family proud, so to not get a full-time recognition for that was tough.”
There was nothing for it but to head off to St Mary’s University and to take the scenic route of student life, community rugby and a spot of expert help from sprint coach Margot Wells, famed in athletics circles as the wife of Olympic 100m champion Alan and in rugby for helping create the wunderkind that was Danny Cipriani.
But then how many flank forwards do you see sprinting the length of the pitch? Being fast was only the first step, the second was changing position.
“I had a few good Sevens tournaments on the amateur circuit, I was scoring quite a lot of tries and I was running past quite a few people so I thought I might as well have a bit of a go on the wing.
“At the time, playing in the back row and repeatedly getting rejected I wasn’t really enjoying it that much. You are not going to enjoy it if people are telling you you’re good at a position but you’re not getting any recognition.
“Playing Sevens I’d met Mike Friday, who was at Blackheath, I gave him a call and said I was going to try out on the wing and asked if he’d give me a chance.”
To his credit the former England Sevens coach indulged Stephenson while several other clubs didn’t. His reward was almost instant.
In just his fourth game he ripped Otley asunder and scored four tries before going on to complete the 2010-11 campaign with 11 in total. The next season was even better and he demonstrated he learns as quickly as he runs by ending with 19.
Indeed, he and flanker Dave Allen vied all season long to break Tyson Lewis’ single season record of 21. It was Allen who ended up doing it as the famously inhospitable climate at Birmingham & Solihull’s Portway ground turned against Stephenson in the penultimate match.
“I could have done with it being dry that day but Dave Allen added to his total of tries from driving mauls.”
Nevertheless Bedford were convinced and Stephenson spent last year in the Championship – where, typically, he scored eight times in just 14 games. Richard Hill was also convinced and a few weeks ago so too was his successor, Dean Ryan, who handed Stephenson the Premiership debut he always craved.
“If you had said to me when I was driving back from Blackheath training, half-way across London at 11pm, going into the library doing my studies until 1am, and then the next day trying to do my training, that in 18 months I would be living in Worcester and playing in the Premiership I would have said ‘That’s crazy’.”
But then you’ve seen Stephenson run haven’t you. Nothing’s straightforward.