Games in front of no supporters are bad enough but to have two landmark matches in your career go by without anyone present in the stands feels extremely unlucky. “First England cap with no fans, 100th Bath game with no fans – I’m used to it now,” laughs Beno Obano, after bringing up his Bath century last weekend against Zebre.
Obano’s on-field stock has never been higher yet his work away from it in recent months has commanded attention. Obano, 26, released the documentary ‘Everybody’s Game’ through Amazon Prime last November, a project featuring England team-mates Maro Itoje, Anthony Watson and Ellis Genge.
The crux of the documentary was to highlight how many more people can benefit from what rugby has to offer, if the game can crack through into the areas of society where there remains an abundance of unfulfilled sporting talent.
Biyi Alo, the Wasps prop, was a late addition to the documentary but delivered one of its core messages. “Rugby can be that vehicle to change a lot of people’s lives, and not enough people are exposed to it. There are plenty more people who may be more athletic and more gifted than me who just are not exposed to the sport.”
Reflecting on the project now, Obano tells Telegraph Sport: “It wasn’t a race documentary or a class documentary. The whole goal of it was for people to watch it and they might tell one other person [about rugby], and that next person might then pay more attention when the Six Nations is on, and then as they watch the Six Nations that person might invite their friends round to watch the games together.
“I feel like I’ve done that from the messages I’ve got, but I really won’t know. It’s gone into schools as well now as a teaching aid of some sort, and I was just happy that everyone sort of got it, if you know what I mean. Once you watched it, you got it.”
That core message in terms of improving the sport’s wider exposure was combined with a drive to change not only the elitist perception of rugby to outsiders, but internally the perception of black players within the sport as well. “I feel the game still is a bit backwards in terms of perceptions with people of colour. It’s very difficult,” Watson states in the documentary. “I feel for the players of colour coming through, because there’s a level of bias there, or they don’t get the benefit of the doubt like players who aren’t of colour.”
Which includes, of course, the role of the media. Genge’s post-match interview after England’s 2020 win over Scotland, drinking a beer while addressing the “sausages” who had written England off after their loss to France the previous weekend, is cited in the documentary as an example of a player expressing their personality only to be criticised for, essentially, being themself.
“One thing I wanted [in the documentary] was to not sensationalise anything, to not make things seem really bad or good, because that’s what a lot of television does, and in a lot of journalism as well,” Obano explains. “‘Someone shows their character, OK let’s blow this up because we don’t get this enough so we need to make a big deal out of this’. If we accepted those moments for what they were, maybe we would not get the same responses which we do.”
The fact that Obano wanted to produce and direct the documentary himself, so this his message could come across as purely as possible and not be altered in the edit, feels telling, with the 26-year-old taking inspiration from other documentaries but otherwise learning on the hoof, putting the production together through “trial and error”.
“You can sit down with a journalist and have a newspaper article about your thoughts on something, but it never comes across the same way as a visual representation, and done in an artistic way,” Obano explains. “It’s so easy to say something and for it to be misconstrued down the line. Even if I gave the documentary to someone else to direct or produce, the way it would then be put on screen would be slightly different to the vision I had. So it was a case of, this is the vision I have and the message I want to portray, therefore I have to take creative control of the whole process, because I want it to be exactly how I want people to perceive it.”
As much as there is to discuss about Obano’s documentary, his efforts on the field deserve high praise. After multiple call-ups for training camps he was finally handed a first England Test cap in this Six Nations, coming off the bench against Scotland, with more to follow you imagine this summer.
“I felt a lot of weight dropped off my shoulders, I won’t lie. A lot of relief. You have been working for something for so long, it’s all you can think about every single day. It was a case of OK, thank god, now I can properly get into my England career.”
Not bad for a player who turned up at Bath on trial for an A league game and only managed 18 minutes. Obano’s rugby career really began going into in his final year at Dulwich College, thriving on a tour to South Africa, before being snapped up by Wasps’ academy. An ill-timed injury led to his release and subsequent arrival at Bath on trial, when according to club captain Charlie Ewels, Obano was “the size of a bus”. The phenomenal hard work that went into his subsequent physical transformation sums up his drive as both a player and a person.
“He was enormous, must have been 130kg, and came off after 18 minutes with cramp,” Ewels adds. “I think the club said they’d keep him for the pre-season but he would have to get fitter, and that the training he would need to do would be minging because that’s what he needed. The transformation his body went through in that pre-season and the way he put his head down and worked, straight away everyone sat up and thought ‘fair enough’, because of his attitude and how he was going to work.
“Look at him now, he’s one of the most powerful athletes in the game. He just goes and goes and goes. Off the field he’s so well-rounded, he’s always got a smile and a different idea, and on the pitch now, just a fierce competitor and so powerful. It’s great to see him get his 100th game for Bath and his first cap for England, all duly deserved and all off the back of very hard work.”
Obano, naturally, remembers that trial game well. “When I played my first ‘A’ league game for Bath, no one thought this guy was going to go on to represent England and play 100 games for Bath. I thought I might!” he laughs, “But no one else. If I’m honest, I’m pretty proud of playing 100 games for Bath.”
Capping off a season of personal milestones by winning the Challenge Cup would make for a fitting conclusion, with Bath standing as good a chance as most of the leading sides remaining ahead of facing London Irish in their quarter-final on Friday evening.
“All you want to do when you are younger is get into the team and play, you are a little bit selfish. By your mid-20s, you’re trying to find that good feeling, all the time,” Obano explains. “And that’s what winning a trophy does. That becomes your thing to be happy, searching for that feeling again and again.” Eventually, you sense he will get there.