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Heinz has grandmother to thank for landing England chance
The Gloucester captain will make his Test debut against Wales on Sunday.
Willi Heinz will win his Test debut against Wales on Sunday thanking the maternal grandmother who made his England selection possible through a World War Two romance.
The 32-year-old from New Zealand is on the brink of World Cup selection that would represent an extraordinary ascent from injury-troubled club player with a bleak international outlook to back-up scrum-half to Ben Youngs.
An outstanding season as Gloucester captain has propelled him into Eddie Jones’ plans with the warm-up Test against the Grand Slam champions – the first of four games leading into Japan 2019 – an audition for the global showpiece.
And Heinz insists that his appearance at Twickenham would have delighted his grandmother Aylieff, who was an avid supporter of English sport.
“She was born and raised in a little place called Bishop’s Waltham near Southampton,” Heinz said.
“She met my grandfather who was with the New Zealand Navy in World War Two. She was a WREN. They hit it off pretty quickly and then she was on a boat back to New Zealand.
“My grandfather died when I was five or six so she lived four or five houses up the street from us and in the latter stages of her life she moved in with us.
“I was always really close with her. She was a massive sports fan, whether it was rugby, tennis, cricket. She loved it all.
“She never got the opportunity to get back here as much as she would have liked but she always really encouraged me and my sisters to come over and live here if we got the opportunity.
“I know she would be hugely proud of me getting this chance on Sunday.”
Heinz played against Stuart Lancaster’s England for Super Rugby team the Crusaders in 2014, recalling from the 38-7 defeat that they “wiped the floor with us”, but before the game he had an inkling of what to expect.
“Being a bit of a rugby head I always watched the Premiership. You had to subscribe to a certain channel back in New Zealand to get the Premiership games and I always did that,” Heinz said.
“I always admired it. I was half expecting it to be a pretty physical confrontation in that game but the speed and the intensity they played with as well was a shock to all of us.”
In 2015 he made his way to these shores with little intent of playing for the side that had overwhelmed his Crusaders a year earlier, but in 2017 he was on Jones’ radar and was called up to a training camp in Brighton.
“I always knew I would be eligible through my English heritage but I didn’t come over here assuming that I would get an opportunity,” Heinz said.
“It was about playing really well for Gloucester, that was always my focus – settling in really well in the area, bringing a young family over and then diving in head first with Gloucester and trying to be as good as I can for them.
“If you start doing that and performing at that level then potentially you start getting opportunities higher up. It has all happened pretty quickly.
“I’d had a couple of messages from Eddie in the last couple of years, but I struggled with injury for 12-18 months so I never really got a good string of games together for Gloucester to really put myself in the England conversation.
“Last season, after a little lay-off at the start, I managed to play the rest of the season and I got a message from him at the back end of the season saying he’d been watching my progress.
“A couple of weeks later, we had one-on-ones with the England coaches and he kind of made it clear what he liked in my play and what I could keep working on.
“Then I was lucky enough to be named in the training camp to start preparing for the World Cup.”