An exclusive interview with Josh Bartholomew, Online Editor
It’s the most wintry of winter days when we meet in mid-December – the rain is pouring, temperatures are close to freezing and Alex Lundberg’s hair is in a wet mop across his face having just beaten Richmond in the Championship Cup.
Yet still, the Old Hamptonian and current Ealing Trailfinders prop is smiling. After his horrific run with injury, who can blame him? At least he’s playing rugby.
Injuries are a key part of rugby, but even at 24, former Wasps man Lundberg has had to recover from more than most. So much so that he asked for an early release from his inaugural professional contract at the Premiership high-flyers.
“I had a long string of injuries, and I felt that it was probably best to change – physically and mentally. I thought it was the best time to do it,” Lundberg admits.
Despite his obvious potential rising through the academy, Wasps never had the chance to give Lundberg first-team game-time, such was his barren run with injuries. “It was a timing thing. Pretty much from that moment [of signing his first contract] I was injured, so there was never really an opportunity for Wasps to give me a chance.
“Up until that point I’d been playing on loan, getting experience in the national leagues. I don’t really feel like they had an opportunity to give me a chance.”
Leaving Wasps last year was a brave decision, and one that few academy youngsters in the country would make. Plush Premiership training facilities or muddy lower-league pitches? You can see why one option is more popular than the other.
It’s even more courageous when you consider the uncertainty Lundberg was inviting after his release. He knew he wanted to play in New Zealand, but aside from that, not a lot was decided.
Enter Ealing Trailfinders. Ealing’s Director of Rugby is fellow OH Ben Ward, but ironically, it was their Head Coach at the time Alex Codling who approached Lundberg. “I knew the head coach here at the time [Alex Codling] from playing under him at Rosslyn Park,” Lundberg remembers.
“He said to come down and have a couple of games before I moved to New Zealand. I played and got injured again, but Ealing offered me a [long-term] contract and I signed because I like it here.”
While he was injured, Lundberg actually returned to his former haunt at Hanworth Road, where as an U18 he captained the 1st XV to a Natwest Cup semi-final. This time, however, he was a coach. “I’d done a bit of coaching at Hampton back when Wasps played in London, and whilst I was without a club, doing my rehab I coached a lot at school.
“I really enjoyed it. I worked with quite a few teams through the school, and Sean Thomson was really good in letting me come and coach, giving me a fair bit of responsibility with different sides.”
During his coaching stint at Hampton, Lundberg played a key role in the U15s’ cup success as they reached their own national semi-final last season, as well as the U14s’ Rosslyn Park campaign.
Lundberg is now a key part of Ealing’s Championship squad, having asserted himself in North London this season. Trailfinders have fought admirably with London Irish this campaign, pushing them all the way to the line.
This season alone, Lundberg has played 20 times, over six times the amount he turned out for Wasps. Having left the Premiership himself, Lundberg is well placed to comment on Ealing’s position as they push for top-tier status.
“I think we definitely need to make improvements, but I do feel like we’re on the right track. Obviously we’ve had a lot of new players this year and some changes in coaching staff as well, so it’s just about trying to find a rhythm, which hopefully we’re just starting to get into now [December].”
But, as Ben Ward detailed in his interview with HSC, Ealing’s ambitions may be halted before they’ve truly begun, as the Premiership clubs seek changes in the structure of the competition which may result in a ringfencing arrangement – an end to promotion and relegation.
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Lundberg is a prime example of the Championship’s benefits. As a promising young player who’s hit a block in his career for whatever reason, where better to ply your trade than the next tier down, where forward packs are strong and physicality levels are high?
“I wouldn’t like them to ringfence it just yet,” Lundberg says with a smile across his face.
“I think it’s got its positives and negatives. Especially this year in the Premiership, anyone could go down. Whether any of those teams should is a talking point, but I do think that you’ve got to give the Championship sides who have the ability and potential to go up the opportunity to do so. From my perspective at the moment, I really hope it doesn’t get ringfenced.”
If ringfencing does take place, where does that leave the Championship? In a less healthy state perhaps, and the next Alex Lundberg will be in a poorer position for it.
As it is, Lundberg is focussing on the immediate future with Ealing, as they look to challenge for promotion once again next season. He’ll form a key part of that team from loosehead prop.
“I’ve played a bit since coming back from injury, but I’m struggling to get the form that I’d like. I think that’s probably to be expected with a long lay-off, but I’d like to build on the experiences that I’ve had and contribute more around the park – I’ve got a bit of a way to go until I reach the levels of performance that I’d be happy with.
“I think for me, having had so long out with injury, I just want to enjoy playing rugby. I enjoy it here at Ealing, and playing for them in the Premiership would be great. If I got an opportunity in the Premiership that’d also be great, but at the same time, I just want to be playing and enjoying myself, and if that isn’t in the Premiership then so be it.”
A wise outlook, but chances are, Lundberg will be back in the top-tier before long, with Ealing or not.