In a world of high-performance academies, sports science and Project Mbappé (or more recently, project Littler), the emergence of players who have come from an alternative route has become few and far between.
However, in the case of Ospreys burgeoning star Max Nagy, a rugby odyssey that started in Buckingham and arrived in Swansea via Auckland, paints a picture of a player who is as well balanced off the pitch as his swerving side steps on it.
Released from the Northampton Saints academy as an undersized flyhalf, the now 6’4” fullback has been one of the breakthrough talents of the 2023/24 United Rugby Championship season. Such has been the level of performances that an inquest into his eligibility for the Welsh national team became a key focus for those covering Welsh Rugby.
Picking up an unfortunate ankle injury just as he was making headlines could have derailed a weaker mind, but the naturally optimistic Nagy has taken the setback in his stride.
“It’s actually better than what it could have been. In terms of the scenario, I could have done a lot of things to my ankle, but there were only a couple of ligaments that were triggered, really, so just one needed to be reattached.
“So the recovery time was not too bad. It’s like 12 to 16 weeks probably so.
“Hopefully, I will have some pace when I come back! I never had pace! Hopefully, they’ve given me some fast-twitch muscle fibres! When you’re long and lanky you look sluggish, you need to be short to look quick!”
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Unsurprising it was that he is undeterred; one only needs to talk to Max for a few minutes to realise that underneath the laid-back outward persona is a determined yet well-rounded individual. Certainly, his unconventional route to professional rugby plays a role in his ability to put into perspective the challenges that come with his chosen career.
“After I left school, I played for my local team, Buckingham, which was great for me, and I got some exposure at that first team level, which was quite a step up for a 17/18 year-old.
“Then after that, I actually took a year out, so I didn’t go straight to Uni,
“I decided I wanted to travel a bit and stuff and went to New Zealand, and I just messaged a random club out there in Auckland and said can I play a bit for a few months?
“The plan was to just to keep ticking over and keep playing because obviously I enjoyed it and I was ok at it. So, I just wanted a different experience, really.
“This club called Pakuranga had a director at the time called Pita Alatini, who played for the All Blacks.
“He was really nice to me, and you know, welcomed me with open arms.
“He said, look, it’s brilliant, you’re coming over, you can play under-21s rugby, and I was like, great, you know, I’m happy to play at whatever level.
“It was actually a pretty high standard, to be honest, for an age grade, so I played for four or five months out there and then came back, and I went to uni.”
As Max’s time in New Zealand developed, it was a niggle that would see him end his playing days in Auckland and continue his travels before returning to the UK.
Now 19 years old, Max chose Swansea University as his destination of choice to continue his education. Whilst in Swansea, his talent would quickly be recognised despite this not being his main intention.
“I went to Swansea purely for Uni reasons really, to go have fun, experience the nightlife and meet new people.
“I wanted to take my rugby seriously and thought I could maybe do it in a semi-professional manner, but I never thought I would get to where I am now, to be honest.”
“I played my first year with the Uni when we were the league below the top University BUCS league, so we were playing against 2nd teams like Bath 2nds and Hartpury 2nds, so nobody really took note of that league.
“I played pretty well for them and was starting every week, so I played that season. After that season, they (The Ospreys) said we like the look of you in terms of an academy viewpoint.”
“So in my second year of Uni, they brought me and a few other boys like Huw Sutton into the academy as they were doing an U23’s Celtic Cup tournament again the likes of Connacht ‘A’ and Munster ‘A’ were playing in it.
“They brought us in for that and an academy pre-season, and they were good with me. My first call was in my second year, and they were lenient when I needed to be in, so it worked around my lectures and exams.
“They were good with me, and I wasn’t contracted, so that went on for a couple of years with me just in and out of the academy showing face, training when I could and trying to get help from the coaches when I could.
“So, it was more of a verbal link rather than a signed-in-stone kind of thing.”
Despite now being on the Ospreys’ radar as one to watch, it would not be smooth sailing for Max, who, like the rest of the world, saw his day-to-day life come to somewhat of a standstill as the COVID-19 lockdowns took hold.
“So I did that, and then all of the COVID stuff happened, so we all broke up.”
Whilst he may not have been in the Ospreys environment as the club followed the protocols placed on so many sporting organisations, his potential had not been forgotten.
“Then, funnily enough, about a year into covid, around December time, they contacted me and Huw (Sutton) and said we could do with a few numbers in the academy training.
“We were like, brilliant! We haven’t chucked the ball around for about a year, so of course, we were going to say yes to training even if it was COVID-restricted.
“It was mental, really, because we were coming towards the end of our Uni times, so we were around 21 at the time training against 17/18 years, and he was just smoking the kids, and I was shouting at them, getting angry if someone didn’t know their role.
“You could tell we were a bit older! So, they then suggested a trial with the first team, so me and Suts (Sutton) both went at the same time for a trial with the first team. It was a six-week trial to see how we fit in and if we liked it, and thankfully, the coaches liked us and offered us contracts and gave me an opportunity in the Rainbow Cup. It has all sort of snowballed from there, really.”
Taking his opportunity with both hands, Max credits his success to a love for the sport and the experiences it has afforded him. Given the extensive research and discussion surrounding the topic of athletes in high-performance environments from an early age, hearing Max’s story of experience gathered through different environments is altogether refreshing.
“That wouldn’t have worked for me, you see; it would have just sucked the love out of the game if you are that serious from that young.
“It works for some players. Some players are really diligent from 14/15, they want to be there every day, rugby, rugby, rugby. But for me, I feel like if you are not enjoying the other side of your life, then you’re not going to be playing well on the pitch. So, for me University Rugby, I could speak highly enough of having the opportunity to have played it.
“From a rugby perspective, you’re playing against different styles. So when I was with my local men’s side playing club rugby, it was a lot slower and more physical with attractional game plans. Then you go over to New Zealand with U21s Rugby and it is fast, they are chucking it around from their own 22 so completely contrasting styles. Then you go to Uni, and it’s a mix of both with big physical lads from academies, and then there are almost hidden gems who are just class players.
“I think it makes you a much better rugby player and person if you can have all of those different experiences.”
Shifting the discussion towards the topic of international rugby, Max, whilst honoured to be in the conversation, made it clear that it had not been at the forefront of his mind.
Initially saying “no comment” with a chuckle, he went on to say, “I don’t know the ins and outs of it, and I haven’t really spoken to anyone about it. I am just trying to play some decent rugby.”
Discussing the nuts and bolts that would go into any future call-ups, Max’s family background is as varied as his career has been to date.
“My grandad was from Northern Ireland; he was from Belfast. So, the only thing I am not is Welsh, but hopefully, with the residency, I am!
“I think it is my fifth year here, so I wasn’t too sure about it, but the club were looking into it as it opens one more space for an overseas player if I am Welsh-qualified.”
Given the well-documented challenges facing Welsh Rugby away from the pitch, the talent on it remains of exceptional quality, a point Max was keen to highlight.
“I think that’s the strange thing (negativity surrounding the regions); the potential is so high in terms of the exposure the players are getting from such a young age. You look at the general age of our squad at Ospreys, and it is so young.
“You look at people like Morgan Morris, Rhys Davis, Jac Morgan, these blokes have played like 50 – 100 professional games, and they are all only around those 25/26 years of age. So they still have a huge amount of growth in terms of becoming better players. So, if you look at Wales in terms of World Cup cycles, there is a massive chance to grow in the next few years and to really compete at the next World Cup because of the general age of the squad.
“They are only going to get better, and these are players that aren’t even in their prime yet, so the only way is up really.
“You look at players like Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake; they are already freakishly good.”
Crediting his head coach Toby Booth for not only taking a chance on him but investing in his development, Max said, “He has been a massive positive influence on me, I can’t thank him enough for me giving me a chance with Ospreys when nobody else really would. He has really grown me as a player, he spends a lot of time with me individually working on my extras and what we want to improve.
“He gives me ideas on what I can work on my own whether that’s practicing my kicking technique. He gives me a lot of good advice whether it is analysing performances or reviews, so I can’t speak highly enough of what he has done for me.
“In terms of me improving as a player, he has a plan for me, and slowly, gradually, I think you can see that game on game, year on year, that it is working, and I feel I am getting better as a player. There is a plan in place that keeps evolving for me to get to the next level as a player.”
Assembling a talented team of coaches is a major credit to Booth, who joined the region for the 2019/20 season. Since then, he has developed an exceptional group of Welsh coaches with the latest addition being former Crusaders assistant Mark Jones.
Making an immediate impact, Max credits Jones’s attention to detail and enthusiasm for coaching as a key contributor to his breakthrough this season.
“He is an unbelievably good coach, and he has been helping me loads.
“He is helping me a lot with my defensive game; I have looked a lot at Leigh Halfpenny’s stuff. Defensively, he is probably the best fullback there has been, so especially when it is coming into your own half, his reading of the game from a positional point of view, I am trying to take something from that.”
Continuing the links to New Zealand, possibly the biggest change in the trajectory of Max’s rugby career came directly from his time in Auckland.
“When I was in New Zealand and playing that U21, so almost at the time I got a little niggle was the time I was going to push up to the Prems first team level, which was a very good standard. There was then some talk of me going on trial for the Auckland U20s, so it was building there, and then I got a niggle, and I wasn’t there for too long with the travel. So there was potential in New Zealand, but nothing came of it.
“I was a ten when I left England, and then I became a fullback, so when I moved to New Zealand, I made the transition. I was versatile for my first XV at my local club, so wherever we had a cap, I could play. So I played 10, I played 13, and I played fullback.
“So when I went to New Zealand, they just said we are going to play you at fullback, and that is where you are going to be. There were no questions about moving me to 10 as we had a good 10 at the time who I think was playing for Auckland.
“They liked me at fullback; I think they liked having a tall, rangy guy at fullback with a decent boot.”
Confident in his newfound position, Max was clear to state where he sees his future but was open to helping his team in any way necessary.
“Yeah, definitely I am at home at fullback, when they first brought me in like other young players you kind of get hidden on the wing. But I am trying to learn and develop as a 13 so I have had a couple of stints there.
“So Munster away last year, we got a bit of hiding, but Mikey Collins had to go off, so I spent 50-60min at 13 against (Malakai) Fekitoa and (Antoine) Frisch, and they were playing class, which wasn’t helping anyone! That was a good experience and good exposure to a new position because, defensively, it is completely different.
“I would have fullback as my primary position, but I am working on 13 too as I don’t want to lose my versatility, you have to be flexible positioning, I think. The higher level you go with better squads, there might be a player firing hot in your position, so if that means because you’re versatile, you get a bench spot, then that’s only going to help you.”
With so much life experience under his belt at just 24 years old, Max’s journey from amateur club rugby to the cutthroat professional game is an interesting tale befitting more of an autobiography than simply an article. Yet, hopefully, this has offered a snapshot into what makes one of the URC’s most promising talents tick.