Regan Grace recounts a childhood encounter with Shane Williams, the rugby player she idolized.

“I met him when he was still at school. I was doing a house and it was in the center of Port Talbot, so me and a friend went to take a picture”, says Grace.

“He was great at that and he was an incredible player that I loved watching, who could kick the opponent and do special things.”

Since then, the children have sought out Grace herself to take pictures via camera phones; also asking for autographs. Nothing is denied, because the Port Talbot boy is trapped and hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He never will. A gritty old industrial town that no one can ignore instills certain values ​​that tend to stick with those who grew up there.

When he went to try out for rugby union with St Helens aged 17, he called his mum to say he was coming home as the training was so hard it was like being in the army. He later reported that after the first session at the gym, he was unable to lift his arms for several days. His mum told him to keep at it, and he did just that, until he had resounding success, scoring 89 tries in 143 games and appearing in three Super League grand finals, all of which he won. He also helped the Saints to their first Challenge Cup success in 13 years.

So what next?

You remember Sid Waddell’s famous quote on darts back then. “When Alexander the Great was 33 years old, he cried salty tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… [Eric] Bristow is only 27 years old.”

Except there were still worlds for Grace to conquer. in rugby.

Can he succeed in 15-a-side football? Would he be able to shine a light on the union code with the kind of impressive effort that made him a fixture in the league?

Can you be good enough to play test rugby for Wales and line up at the Principality Stadium with your hair on the back of your head, standing tall as Heng Vlad Phi Nhadau flies across the floor, an experience like no other?

Will he be able to participate in the World Cup?

So many questions that couldn’t be ignored.

Regan Grace (left) in action for St Helens

Grace decided to return to the sport she grew up in, signing with Racing 92 in Paris.

Unfortunately, fate did not play kindly as the Welsh international suffered a serious Achilles tendon injury while playing for St Helens against Salford on 31 July. It was beyond cruel.

“It broke my heart,” says Grace. “I signed my contract with Racing and I knew I had one or two jobs to do for the Saints, which was to get us to the grand final and win it before I left.

“Then the injury happened, in the 79th minute, I think there were 10 seconds left for the game to end. I went back to charge, got the ball and my Achilles tendon hit.”

An operation followed, and a whole world of hard work. Grace hopes to return in the spring, but it will take time. The key is to get back in shape and kick so he can make his mark and make an impact, perhaps with the same breaks he had in the league and incredibly brilliant tries. Do that and the French will accept it because it has what Thierry Henry called va va voom.

“With the injury, I’m where I need to be,” he says. “We said March weather would be a good target to aim for. I feel we are on the right track and physios have been saying the same thing.

“However, we don’t want to rush anything.

“I want to come back when I’m fit, when I feel good and when the doctors say I’m ready.

“How long it takes can depend on a number of things including your weight, the position you play in and the requirements. If I was fighting and such, it would take longer.

“I hope to go back to how it was.

“Some people say that when they come back, it really feels like spring again.

“After taking off the surgical boot, it felt really tight. But a lot of work is needed to get it back on track.”

Wayne Pivac was involved in Grace’s discussions, looking to have as many World Cup selection options as possible. “He’s obviously a rugby star,” Pivac said amid news that the winger had asked to return to the union, calling the 26-year-old an “interesting player”.

Six months later, the New Zealander made history as Wales head coach, being succeeded by Warren Gatland.

Gatland’s views on Grace are unknown, but brilliant attempts and performances could be convincing and it’s hard to imagine the new Wales manager turning a blind eye if France’s reports are good.

Did Grace talk to Pivac before returning to the union? “I didn’t have direct contact with Wayne,” says Grace.

“Some WRU officials came to the Saints to watch training.

“As we won the Super League three times in a row, we had teams that wanted to know what we were doing, how we trained and what our schedule was, they just wanted to know a little bit.

“The WRU reached out.

“I just spoke to the general staff.

“I met people there, like manager Dan Clements, who was involved in my rugby career. I reached it.

“But it was the only time I spoke to people from the union.”

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Perhaps we are being too hasty when we ask whether Grace feels he can present himself as an option for Wales at the World Cup, however he was highly regarded in the league when he was billed as a ‘star prospect’. It’s only been since he was a teenager that the request hasn’t seemed outlandish, although the injury left him with little time to prove himself at the age of 15.

“I don’t know,” he says when asked. “Clearly not much time.

“We’ll have to see.

“I’d like to make a good impression and show what I’m capable of. I can do my best and I hope people like what they see.

“My first priority is to start playing again.

So it’s a good game.

“I hope everything goes well. Playing back is probably the best position for a player to switch codes. I also did sports. Going to the teen league and going pro was harder for me, coming out of the union.

“The union has opportunities in the countryside.

“When I watch the games, I see parts of the game where I think, ‘I could go there’ or ‘I would go back there myself.’ Especially when I was watching the French league games.”

Grace was linked with a return to Wales, but Welsh Regions were in financial trouble and when Racing arrived the approach seemed right. “Returning to Wales is something I’ve been considering,” says Grace. “But the detachments had enough personnel. I didn’t give up or anything like that. There simply wasn’t time for both sides. There were options, but next year would be better. But I wanted to go back to the union right now, the sooner the better, so I could start learning.

“Racing has great opportunities and is very ambitious. I told them what I wanted to do and they told me what their plans were. We both wanted to win.

“They knew I come from a club whose culture is to win.”

His commitment to St Helens is genuine and sweet: “It’s a great club, on and off the pitch, and the values ​​are good. The people there are great and the club teaches the importance of hard work and honesty.

“Some of these things are also great life assets.

“I feel that the time I spend with them will help me a lot.

“It was a difficult decision to leave because I had been there since I was 17. I was a kid when I arrived, but this place became my home for eight years.

“When you’re in a good place, you’re winning and you’re comfortable, it’s hard to go elsewhere. You think, “Why should I give up what I have now?”

“But there were always boxes in my head that I wanted to check.

“Becoming a unionized professional was definitely one of them.

“All the kids who play for Wales think, ‘I want to play for the national team when I grow up.’

“I was no different.

“But I chose a different path and the league was good for me.

“I just felt like it was time to try something different.”

Regan Grace enjoys life in Paris despite her injury issues
Regan Grace enjoys life in Paris despite her injury issues

Was the prospect of one day playing for Wales in the union part of the appeal of his return? “Of course,” he says. “If I played in the league for the rest of my life, that would be out of the question. So that’s another plus point in the sense that I was going into the union, trying to put myself on the map for that.”

Grace now lives in the French capital, adjusting to her new life with all its charms and difficulties. “I live about 20 minutes from the Eiffel Tower and it’s boring,” he laughs.

“I’m doing my best to learn the language, but it’s hard. For the first month after coming here, every day when I came home I couldn’t keep my eyes open because I was so tired trying to concentrate and listen and understand what people were saying.

“I’m starting to pick things up. I see myself sitting there listening to and selecting snippets of people’s conversations. I really can’t hold a conversation with anyone but I’m learning as I go. We have classes with the club and I’m going to give private lessons because it’s important. I don’t want to stay here and leave without learning the language.”

Grace continues to have her eye on the league, but is looking to make it big in her union career.

“I was very proud of Wales’ effort at the Rugby World Cup,” he says.

“They weren’t like that. They showed up, took a clear shot and managed to beat the Cook Islands. They deserved to leave the tournament with at least one victory.

“But I thought they were excellent.

“I will always follow the championship, like many other sports.

“But now I’m focused on unification. As I entered the championship very young, I still have time to work the union well and see what I can do with it. The plan is to stay in the union and do what you can.

“I hope it happens.”

Many others will also want this to happen.

How he lives in Paris will be one of the most moving stories of the year.

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