DUBAI // Two brothers from Dubai will start the new rugby season as professional players with the English Premiership club Northampton Saints.
Devante Onojaife, who first learnt the sport during PE lessons at Jumeirah Primary School (JPS), represented England Under-18 earlier this year, and subsequently signed pro terms with Northampton.
He is on the same playing staff at the club in the English Midlands as older brother Jordan, who also played for England at age-group level having cut his teeth on the pitches of Dubai.
“Words can’t describe the feeling,” Devante, 18, said of his elevation from academy level to the ranks of the professional game this year.
“It’s been a six-year journey of blood, sweat and tears, of knowing what I wanted to achieve and having all the ups and downs along the way.
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“The amount of times in Dubai I spent going to early morning fitness sessions before school, going to cross-fit sessions on a Saturday morning at 6.30am, and my lunchtimes at school and weekends in the gym.
“So when I got the call to come to Saints and train with the senior squad I knew all the pain I went through was worth it.”
The brothers grew up in Dubai after their family moved from London when father Kingsley took a job as a manager in the oil and gas industry in December 2006.
They have enjoyed a startling journey from the UAE desert to the fields of the English professional game.
Jordan had his first taste of the game aged 13, as he was hauled off the basketball court at Jumeirah College when the school’s rugby team were short of players.
Devante, by contrast, says he had never even heard of rugby before the family moved to Dubai. He immediately took to it, after his introductory lessons at JPS.
“What I liked so much about rugby is that until I discovered it, I was always reminded to be careful and to ‘tone it down’ whenever I took part in other sports such as football,” said the prop forward.
“That is fair enough as the nature of the sport is different, but this meant I never felt I could be myself. Rugby allowed me to express myself in ways I was never allowed to before.”
Older brother Jordan might have played more for Northampton’s first team so far, had he not been vying for places with the likes of Courtney Lawes and Victor Matfield last season.
The second-row forward trod a path from Dubai to both Stowe School and then the Saints, which his brother has since followed.
The former Dubai Exiles youth player was part of the England U20 squad which won the World Championship in New Zealand in 2014.
That team was captained by another second-row forward, Maro Itoje, who has since graduated with dramatic effect to the full England squad, and Jordan has been inspired by his former colleague’s development.
“It is hard not to be inspired by [Itoje],” said Jordan, who turned 21 at the start of this month.
“It’s great to see all the young guys who are not long out of the age-group squads progress to the senior team, with both their club and for England. It gives you confidence and belief that it is achievable to make the jump and succeed.
“I have a couple of first-team caps so far for the club and I want to add to that, so my goal for the season is to try and get as many more as I can.”
Alan Hughes, the head of rugby at Stowe School, says Devante’s power marks him out as a fine prospect in the front row.
Having arrived at the school as a loose forward, he was encouraged to make the switch to prop. He can play on either side of the scrum, and played in the front row for England U18 against Wales and France in February.
“Naturally Devante was at first skeptical about this positional switch, and we started him at loose head to begin with so he could adapt gradually to the different demands,” Hughes said.
“He started to recognise this was where he could exploit his physical stature. As he grew in confidence we encouraged him to experiment with playing tight head as well which will certainly benefit him in the long term.
“We hope to see both brothers one day turning out together in a Saints jersey. Both boys enjoyed their time here and it has been a pleasure to watch them both achieve their ambition of becoming professional rugby players.”
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