Christ Tshiunza started rugby as a JOKE but now he’s set for Wales debut after incredible journey

The sight of 6ft 6in, 17st 11lb completing his newspaper round pedalling up the Whitchurch Boys High School drive at seven o’clock each morning was one to behold.

‘You’ve never seen a bloke look like that, trying to ride a bike too small for him! His knees were out to the side!’ laughs Steve Williams, the school’s iconic PE teacher who has coached Sam Warburton, Gareth Bale, Geraint Thomas and Wales’ newest rugby star.

Tshiunza, Wales’ boy wonder with the holy name, has turned heads ever since.

Christ Tshiunza is set for his Wales debut just months after rising into senior level in rugby 

Born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 when the country was gripped by a second national war that ended up killing 5.4million, his father Felix took him, his wife, their four daughters and youngest son Christ away to Wales in 2010.

Living in Splott, then Llandaff the Tshiunza’s (pronounced Chun-za), a church-going Christian family hence their son’s name, initially spoke no English – but 11 years on their youngest will win his first cap for Wales against Fiji at the Principality Stadium on Sunday.

In doing so Tshiunza will complete a remarkable set of debuts; playing his first games for Wales Under 20s, Exeter Chiefs, Exeter University at the Wales national team, in that order, in a matter of months.

It was hours before he starred for his uni against Cardiff University in a BUCS Super League game at Topsham that he found out Wayne Pivac had picked him in the autumn squad.

Tshiunza has burst onto the scene at just 19 with his powerful frame and staggering speed

Tshiunza has burst onto the scene at just 19 with his powerful frame and staggering speed 

The 19-year-old went to the same High School that produced Sam Warburton and many others

The 19-year-old went to the same High School that produced Sam Warburton and many others

That ended any prospect of him turning to England, after featuring in a behind-closed-doors youth game this year.

‘That was pretty cool,’ Haydn Thomas, the former Chiefs scrum-half, now the link-man between the Premiership side and their closest university.

‘In the huddle after the boys congratulated him, but said “more importantly, congratulations on making your university debut!”’

HIS SEASON SO FAR

(* denotes debut)

Exeter Chiefs v Leicester (*) Sep, 19

Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Sep, 25

Exeter Chiefs v Sale Oct, 3

Exeter Chiefs v Worcester Oct, 9

Exeter University v Cardiff University (*) Oct, 13

Exeter University v Leeds Beckett Oct, 20

Exeter Chiefs v Newcastle Nov, 6

Wales v Fiji (*)  Sunday 

The fact that Tshiunza is only in his second year there, where his Sports Science degree timetable is tweaked by a lady named Sarah Jackson so he can maximise his rugby training time, and may well play more for the students’ side just highlights how quickly he is rising through the ranks.

Aged 13 he joined Whitchurch, that great Cardiff sporting institution, having taken up rugby as a joke the year before. He was not enormous then, but by 15 had shot up five inches in no time.

‘He eats like a horse too, so is extremely popular with the chef at Exeter Chiefs I understand!’ jokes Williams, then asked by the Mail on Sunday what his secret is having produced so many sporting stars since he started at Whitchurch in the 1970s.

‘It’s not the water I assure you, and not the school dinners either!’

When selected for Cardiff Schools under-15s Tshiunza was not first choice by any means.

‘He probably didn’t have his best playing time at school – it was difficult for him,’ explains Rob Gibson, Chiefs’ academy manager who tracked his progress at school.

‘He’s better in the senior environment, playing against men. He excels there.

‘Sometimes he was a little bit awkward, growing into his body. It’s difficult if the opposition are 5ft 6in and he’s trying to get down and chop tackle them!’

But Tshiunza was an incredible athlete – a self-proclaimed Paul Pogba on the football-field, he cleared 1m 80cm in the high-jump and ran a 25-second 200m aged 17.

Wayne Pivac has been impressed and will hand the teenager his debut against Fiji on Sunday

Wayne Pivac has been impressed and will hand the teenager his debut against Fiji on Sunday

‘At that kind of weight that’s incredible,’ says Williams.

‘Coming off the bend in the 200m it was jaw-dropping stuff.’

As he developed, Tshiunza would enter Williams’ office and look at the pictures on the wall – 80 or 90 sportsmen, from Olympians to cricketers, megastar footballers to Tour de France winners.

‘He’d say “I want to go on the wall” and he did,’ relays Williams.

Playing for Whitchurch and Rhiwbina, Tshiunza was earmarked as a hot talent. Cardiff took him into their academy, but with the help of their university links, track-record, Gibson and Rob Baxter, Exeter whisked him away.

‘I don’t speak a lot of French, his father doesn’t speak a lot of English but we did a lot of smiling at each other and we knew we were on the same radar!’ says Gibson.

‘He just wanted his boy to be looked after. Christ was a great translator for us!’

The 6ft 6in powerhouse only made his Exeter Chiefs debut against Leicester in September

The 6ft 6in powerhouse only made his Exeter Chiefs debut against Leicester in September 

It was only in the summer of 2020 that Tshiunza left school – with an A and two Bs at A-Level – and the lockdown year helped him prepare for a long professional career.

Exeter took him into their sports-science suite. They found weaknesses, and strengthened his shoulders, knees and other joints.

‘The key for us was to make him robust and resilient. It wasn’t intensive, heavy weights, it was a smart approach. He’s a long-term project for us, with a big future in the game so we want to make sure he’s training and playing more than he’s in rehab.

‘Give it a couple of years and he will be leading the field by far. We’re going for longevity rather than immediate results.’

But those results are coming anyway. Viewed as a hybrid blindside flanker-cum-lock in the mould of World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes he is on track already.

Tshiunza looks set to be at the heart of Wales' XV for many World Cups and Six Nations to come

Tshiunza looks set to be at the heart of Wales’ XV for many World Cups and Six Nations to come

‘He could easily make that 2023 World Cup,’ says Gibson.

‘I sat down with him four years ago and crystal-ball gazed with him and that World Cup was the end of it. But he’s blown my planning out the water!

‘We want Christ to get off the turf and to be athletic, but Steve Williams and I are old-school and will keep his feet on the ground – apart from when he’s jumping!’

There is no doubt Christ can be a king for Wales.

‘He has had some adversity, and this is only sport after all, but he is able to dig deep I can assure you,’ concludes Williams.

‘This is his dream, and he’s fulfilling part of it today.’

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