Saints farewell interview: Devante Onojaife

While the problematic snow in Timisoara was frustrating for some, it was much more than that for Devante Onojaife.

Devante Onojaife is departing
Devante Onojaife is departing

The versatile forward was due to make his first start for the Saints first team in the European Challenge Cup fixture back in December 2018.

But after a largely clear Friday, the snow descended overnight, leaving the pitch at the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium unplayable, despite the best efforts of the locals.

It meant the game was abandoned and Saints were eventually awarded the full five points, helping them to progress to the quarter-finals.

But while the outcome wasn’t too bad for the team, it was for Onojaife.

He would never get the chance to start another Saints game, and is now leaving the club this summer following the expiration of his contract.

The 22-year-old was only able to make six appearances, all as a replacement, across three seasons.

And he is left ruing that weekend in Romania, which included six hours spent on the tarmac at Timisoara airport before the flight home was cancelled and put back by 24 hours.

“I was meant to start that game but it got called off because of the snow and I struggled to get that first-team spot,” said Onojaife, who now plies his trade predominantly at No.8.

“There are obviously quite a lot of good back rowers above me, a lot of competition.”

Saints went on to eviscerate Timisoara in January 2019, beating the Romanian minnows 111-3 at Franklin’s Gardens.

But Onojaife didn’t get the chance to play in that game and was only left looking back with regret that the Romanian adventure didn’t end in a more satisfactory manner.

“Looking back at it, it’s incredibly frustrating because someone in my position, a young player trying to break into the first team, you’re craving a start,” the 22-year-old said.

“When you get these five or 10 minutes at the end of a game in the first team, you’ve obviously got all these nerves and it’s hard to compose yourself.

“Even if you do compose yourself, it’s hard to do something that stands out and it’s challenging.

“Starting in a first-team game really gives you an opportunity and that’s your chance to prove it.

“If you don’t get that, it’s really tough to break through.”

Another thing that could have thwarted Onojaife’s chances of establishing himself in the first team is his flexibility.

He came through the Saints Academy playing at prop before losing weight and taking up roles in the back row and second row.

“When I got signed, I was a loosehead/tighthead and I did that for the first half of the season,” said Onojaife.

“I was 135kg but with all the fitness I started doing, I started losing quite a lot of weight and Jim Mallinder had a little word with me after a session and said he wouldn’t mind seeing me at back row.

“He thought I was running well, carrying well and he thought it would be interesting to see me in the back row.

“I started doing more fitness sessions, changed my physique and a couple of months later, I made my debut against Newcastle in the Anglo-Welsh and it was a positive.”

Onojaife made his Saints debut in the 24-16 Anglo-Welsh Cup win against the Falcons at Kingston Park in November 2016. Lewis Ludlam earned his first Northampton senior appearance in the same game.

But the duo have enjoyed differing fortunes since, with Onojaife now searching for a new club and Ludlam now in the England reckoning.

While Ludlam has been able to make the back row his home, Onojaife hasn’t been able to enjoy the same positional security.

“I started as a prop, went to back row and in these past couple of years, more so because of injury, I’ve picked up playing second row quite a lot,” Onojaife said.

“It’s allowed me to pick up skills like calling the lineouts, which I’ve done for the Wanderers, and I think I might have played more games in the second row than in the back row during the past year.

“It is an asset for a team to be able to play more than one position, but being used as cover for more than one position has inhibited me to develop skills needed for a back row for instance.

“It has stopped me from doing what I need to do and it could be one of the reasons why I haven’t developed as much as I’d liked to.”

Onojaife has a fascinating background in rugby as he was introduced to the sport while growing up in Dubai.

He went on to represent his school, Jumeirah College and Dubai Exiles, earning the player of the tournament prize for his impressive performances at the Abu Dhabi Sevens.

He was also awarded coaches’ player of the season and players’ player of the season at Jumeirah College in 2014.

After coming through the Saints Junior Academy, Onojaife joined the Senior Academy after studying at Stowe School, where he was the rugby team’s vice-captain and pack leader during his final year.

While at Saints, he gained international honours, representing Scotland at Under-20s level during the 2018 Six Nations.

But he was never quite able to make things stick at the Gardens, eventually leaving the club this summer, two years after his brother, Jordan, suffered the same fate.

But Jordan has bounced back brilliantly and can certainly serve as inspiration to Onojaife Jnr.

“I’ve spoken to my brother quite a lot,” Devante said.

“He left Saints and went to Ealing for a year and now he’s got two years at Bedford and he just got in the Championship team of the season.

“He’s doing well.

“Yes, I can be frustrated about my time at Saints and not getting the opportunities but what I can take from it is a lot of lessons.

“I’ve learned a lot from the good players I’ve been around and I can change that negativity into a positive.

“I’m still young, 22 years old, and I’m young enough to start somewhere else and grow and be a good player somewhere else.

“I’ve got more passion than ever and I’m more determined.

“As an athlete, you have to have the self-belief, and I know I’m good enough to make it.

“For a number of reasons, I haven’t got the opportunity at Saints, but credit to the back row there because they are very good and it’s tough to break through.

“But I’ve learned a lot from them, learned a lot about how to be resilient and it’s going to help me in future.”