"FlyingFin" Woods. Remember that Name. You’ll Be Hearing it Again
"FlyingFin" Woods. Remember that Name. You’ll Be Hearing it Again
How are rugby legends ‘made’?
Are legends born with the gift or is it learned? How did Jonny Wilkinson, Leigh Halfpenny, and Dan Carter become the heroes that they are?
I once read with awe a story about Leigh Halfpenny. It was about how he would go to the local park as a lad and kick and kick from sun-up to sundown. The story goes that whenever he’s faced with a high-pressure situation – and he’s found himself in a fair few – he takes the scrumcap off and travels back in his mind and places himself before those old goalposts. He reminds himself how easy it is just to slot that ball through the uprights, just like at home. He puts himself in those moments and he just does it – as he has done successfully thousands of times.
When I see the images posted of Finlay Woods out at his local rugby pitch kicking at the posts, I imagine the future 21-year-old Flying Fin putting himself there, just like Halfpenny and other rugby legends have before him... And all feels right in the world.
Admittedly, it’s an interesting time in rugby. Many believe we are at a crossroads like never before.
To an extent I suppose this is true, especially with the global pandemic causing chaos across all codes of rugby all over the world.
Unions are struggling to make ends meet, Sevens is in crisis, the Olympics are in doubt for a second year. Revenues are down because the few games being played are held in empty stadiums. Cancellations, withdraws, dissent.
On the surface it does seem rather dire.
But there are many who still have faith, who believe not all is lost in the rugby world.
Growth is still happening; there are many stories of teams from grassroots on up training ‘together apart’ (that 2020 buzz-term meant to unify us while acknowledging our isolation). There remains plenty of evidence that passion continues to flourish for the oval ball; there are still young players who place rugby above all else, and who endeavour to reach the pinnacle in the sport we all love.
Enter Finlay Woods, 11 years old, from Gosport, England.
All Finlay wants to do is play rugby. While it may seem fanciful to some to hear that rugby is Finlay’s life-long ambition considering his young age, once you learn a bit about this up-and-coming phenom, it won’t seem quite as far-fetched. He isn’t just another sports-fanatical pre-teen. He isn’t just another young man with a hobby. He’s Wilkinson, Halfpenny, Carter.
In his mind, he WILL be as good as his hero Jonny Wilkinson. Not if....not maybe.
Finlay’s grades are exemplary for good reason. No good grades, no dream to play rugby at the top level. That isn’t some house rule in the Woods home. That’s Finlay himself taking seriously the path to professional ball. Finlay wants to wear the Rose for England. He knows what it takes to get there.
Before I go any further, I want to make perfectly clear that this mindset is all driven directly by Finlay. There is no pressure from coaches. There is no pressure from his parents or family. All they have for Finlay and his lofty ambition is great support.
This is where the difference lies: the days that Finlay spends an hour or more kicking at the posts or working on his form – it's all on him. His workouts and his training sessions, all self-prescribed. As long as he continues to develop his skills, Finlay believes with his entire being that his path is clear.
This is how rugby brain develops at a young age – in those fortunate enough to possess that rarest of gifts.
His parents, Owen and Zoe, are extremely proud of their son. Owen says that his role in Fin’s journey is to nurture Fin's passion and gifts, to celebrate them, and to be his son’s number one fan. And while he’d be disappointed if Fin ever hung up his boots, it’s only that he’d be sad for what might have been, tinged with a bit of regret to shelve the adventure they’ve been on together. But Owen makes clear — and it’s also clearly evident — that he’d never be disappointed in his son, and that Finlay’s aspirations are not only driven by the youngster himself but are inevitably his choice alone.
Flying Fin Woods does all he can to make sure that he’ll get his opportunity to play rugby at the highest level. Destination: England Rugby, with a stop at London Irish. And with luck, LIRFC Academy will be part of the journey as well. In the meantime, he plies his trade as a Flyhalf for Gosport and Fareham RFC, heading into the U12 in the upcoming season, pandemic notwithstanding.
He reaffirms his chosen path daily.
He has training journals. He reads books. He watches videos. He runs drills. During the pandemic, he’s trained with Coach Dad (Owen is a level 1 & 2 RFU coach and referee). He does all the work necessary to maintain his form while we all wait for the green light to return to training and the desperately missed match schedule.
So, while the rest of us worry about where Rugby is going and whether or not it has a future, Finlay is busy making sure that rugby is his future.
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Many players twice his age aren’t either as driven or as disciplined as Fin. It’s that determination which is starting to catch the eye of many within the rugby community, including our own Coach of the World, Robin MacDowell. MacDowell found kicking videos of Fin online and saw that spark he’s seen a few times before in other talented players. And make no mistake, MacDowell knows how to spot them – his record for finding talent is eerily accurate.
He reached out to Owen Woods and learned of Finlay’s impressive training regime. Right away he wanted to help. He believes without a doubt that if Finlay remains on his current trajectory, he’ll make it to his end goal. MacDowell says, “Finlay has really impressed me. For such a young athlete, he’s so consistent in his training programs from week to week and determined to achieve his dreams! He truly embodies the definition of #dreambelievesucceed. What is truly special for me is seeing the bond he has with his father Owen. He couldn’t ask for a more supportive rugby dad! I see the passion and the love for the game.” MacDowell goes on to say that he’s very much looking forward to Fin developing into a “world-class kicker”.
I had the pleasure of sitting – as one does during a pandemic, on zoom – with MacDowell on the west coast of Canada, me in the middle, and Owen and Finlay Woods back home in England – watching the interplay between father and son, the unflinching determination in young Fin’s eyes, and MacDowell’s excitement for seeing that rare extra bright spark in the young man’s countenance.
MacDowell’s heart is with the rising stars, such as Finlay Woods.
Finlay Woods is a man of few words, but he certainly means what he says.
“What is your ultimate goal with rugby, Fin?”
“To be better than Jonny Wilkinson.” Did he flinch? Not one bit.
“Does Jonny know this?” Not yet. MacDowell pipes up: “he will soon enough.” Fin laughs. He’s ready.
This leads me to ask who Fin’s rugby heroes are. This photo is Owen’s genuine reaction as he hears for the first time “my dad is my personal rugby hero” from his son. He admits later that it was an unexpected highlight of his own journey with Finlay. It’s never what a dad expects to hear, but when it happens it just means the world. It puts father and son squarely on the journey together.
What three things does the young man think he needs to prepare for a career in rugby?
This is very important. Remember that these are Finlay Woods’ words:
“To be dedicated. To play your best. And be disciplined on and off the pitch.”
No scripting. No prodding. No pause. Fin knows what is necessary for success.
During covid, he’s hit his home pitch twice a week with dad Owen for kicking practice. But the rest of the time he’s concentrated on improving his strength and fitness. He follows an app from School of Kicking. He says he loves it. It’s clear he does. Always striving to get better.
Richard Cheetham of the University of Winchester is known widely in coaching circles in the UK and works with players from grassroots to professional. He featured Fin in a video with Tommy Bell for Eddie Jones about how skill is developed in young players. He used footage of Finlay kicking at the posts but also of some of those trick-shots.
Note: It might not have been down several levels and around the block like Wilkinson’s famous garbage can shot from France, but Fin’s nailed the wheelie bin at the end of the garden. Boom. Basketball net and trampoline trick shots factor as well.
Finlay Woods doesn’t just want to be a flyhalf for England; he will be. Positive self-talk is big with this young man. But if it doesn’t happen, he also knows it’s not the end of the world. On to plan B. Of course, at 11, no player wants to think about plan B – they just really want to continue to shoot for the ultimate goal.
In the near future the hope is for Fin to make it to the London Irish Developing Players Pathway, which he can achieve at 13. I of course note my affinity with LIRFC from when Canada’s own Jebb Sinclair played there, and it is pointed out that there are some lovely shots of Jebb reading a book to Fin back in the day (about five years ago). Sinclair is a hero of Fin’s, and the Woods’ first reason to have a warm spot for Canadian rugby.
Of course, more recently the reason is MacDowell (who since our conversation with Owen and Fin Woods has met online with them twice more as part of his ‘consulting’ role, which I’ll remind you is just him giving what wisdom he can to Owen and Fin Woods, simply because he saw the special spark. He believes as strongly in Finlay Woods as Owen does).
So, the Bronze Academy is the goal. You play at school, but you start with the academy once a month, and as you get older, you are more and more involved with the academy (Bronze, Silver, Gold). These are Fin’s stepping-stones to full-time academy and college (and performance-level play) or a professional contract. “It depends heavily on if he is spotted and by whom and what their thought process is around it” Owen admits.
London Irish is the feeder Academy for the Developing Players Pathway in the Woods’ area, so unless he’s tapped by a private school outside of their feeder region who would sponsor him, that would be where Fin is headed. And that’s ok with him.
Schoolwork comes first, then rugby, then everything else after that. I note the gaming chair Finlay sits in, which leads to a bit of discussion about all the trending games he plays. All of this just further illustrates that Finlay Woods is indeed leading a balanced life.
“I’ve always said to Fin that I would never force him to do anything that he doesn’t want to do, and everything you see is coming from him. I am just the catalyst to get him where he needs to go,” Owen says. He adds something he heard from RFU’s Jack Pattinson about what scouts look for: Who drives who to training. Does the child drive the parent to training, or does the parent drive the child? “It’s his want, his thirst, his dream, and I just want to support him,” he adds with pride.
MacDowell adds how important it is to have a dad who supports his child, especially one who is as knowledgeable as Owen is. He points to Canada’s own Nathan Hirayama who has been immensely successful in both 15s and 7s, and who is fortunate to have as his number one fan Gary Hirayama, who also played for Canada.
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Owen adds that it’s very much his own ethos. As a coach he says the same thing to his team: he doesn’t care what the result is, as long as he knows his team played their best, played a fair game, respected each other and the officials, and had fun. “As long as you all walk off the pitch uninjured and tried something you hadn’t tried before, then you’re all winners in my book.” That, in a tidy little package of a quote, is the values of our game, which we all know to be a cut above other sports. Of course, it isn’t universal. There are coaches for whom it isn’t at all a “game”. But as Owen says, how are the players to learn if they don’t try something? He adds that yelling at his players isn’t a chosen tactic. “Once you raise your voice people stop listening,” he says. MacDowell can attest to this himself as a coach who remains even-tempered regardless of the result. Address the issues. But there’s a way for it to be done so the point gets across without tearing down an individual.
As for his own experience, Owen admits that he played in school and is a fan. While he doesn’t have much of a playing history, he loves coaching and officiating. Sure, he’d love to see his son reach the highest level of performance playing, no matter how long it takes. But if it doesn’t happen and Fin says that he did the best he could, then no one could ask any more anyway. It’s up to Fin how that plays out. And Owen will be there regardless of the outcome. It is a genuine response.
As Owen says, you can have all the skill in the world, but if you don’t love what you’re doing and you have an attitude, you’ll be considered uncoachable. The goal is to make sure you love what you’re doing and maintain a level head while you do it.
What does Finlay Woods want to say to any player who might be reading this?
“Never give up.”
We all smile – the pure earnestness just further illustrates how serious this young man is, and how much he believes his own advice. Spoken like someone three times his own age.
“And what else?” Dad asks.
“And have fun,” Fin adds. They fist bump. Safe to say they’re on the same page.
Owen believes MacDowell’s own phrase really encompasses it all: Dream. Believe. Succeed.
“Don’t let what’s behind you define you,” he adds. The elder Woods has such great coach quotes that I find myself wishing I could be in his locker room at halftime.
A police officer by day, Owen Woods sees the types of things that fracture society. It only drives him to live the opposite – to put good back into the world in everything he does. He says rugby is really the gold standard. “You can walk into any rugby club around the world and you’ve found friends,” he says.
And it’s true.
Kids – you are more in charge of your destiny than you believe. Take that to heart.
And honestly, if this is the ethos that Fin has absorbed from his dad, then he’s going places.
Notwithstanding all that great skill that Flying Fin Woods was born with.
Will he ‘Wear the Rose’? My money is on it. And along with Mom Zoe and Dad Owen and Coach MacDowell, I will proudly say ‘I was there when.’
Karen L. Gasbarino, Jan. 2021
Rugby Hive Editor
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