Christ Tshiunza’s journey to the Guinness Six Nations has been far from conventional, but it has moulded an elite mentality that he shares with the great Welsh sporting stars who came before him.
The prodigious forward has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the international stage, winning his first Wales cap against Fiji in the 2021 Autumn Nations Series, aged just 19.
After a breakout start to the 2022-23 Gallagher Premiership season with Exeter Chiefs, the four-cap international played from the start against Scotland on Saturday.
From those that knew him best, this is the making of Christ Tshiunza.
The versatile forward was born to a loving family in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2002, the only boy among five siblings.
However, Tshiunza’s life changed forever when he and his French-speaking family escaped the country’s civil war in 2010, starting a new life in Cardiff.
The Tshiunza family did not speak English and shared a one-bedroom flat between seven people in Splott before moving to Llandaff.
However, the welcoming Welsh community around him soon helped the then-seven-year-old find his feet in a new country.
Now 21, Tshiunza believes sport helped break down barriers during those early years in Wales, and he realised that he was taller and faster than many of his peers.
The Kinshasa-born sensation attended Whitchurch High School, where he walked the same hallways as icons of Welsh sport such as Sam Warburton, Gareth Bale and Geraint Thomas.
And it was at that great sporting institution that Tshiunza first fell in love with rugby.
“There was no stopping him, he was deadly serious about what he wanted to achieve, but he did everything with a huge smile on his face,” said Whitchurch High School director of rugby Steve Williams.
“He was very receptive, highly intelligent, and an absolute pleasure to be around right from the start.
“He was very much the same as some of the others, with Sam and Geraint, they had this sound foundation and a huge work ethic, so you felt early on that if Christ worked hard, there was no telling where he could go.”
Tshiunza was fourth choice lock while playing for Cardiff Schools at Under-15s, but his elite mentality and commitment to putting in the hard yards in the gym soon saw him surpass his peers.
Williams said: “There is always someone to follow at Whitchurch High School, Christ used to look up to Sam, ‘what did he do, what did Geraint do’?
“You can drive people hard, but it has to come from the individuals; I remember Christ had a paper round that started at 5am.
“He had his bike, and it would be pelting down with rain and snow, he would be very wet and cold, but he would arrive at the weights room at 7am shivering.”
After a growth spurt at 15, Tshiunza was ready to take the next step in his sporting career.
Williams said: “The progress he made between 16 and 17 was quite phenomenal, he grew again.
“With all the hard work he was putting in, he was suddenly producing some excellent performances both for us and for the region as well.
“Bit by bit, he started to overtake people, and then the whole thing accelerated.
“He just could not get enough of sport, he would be working here from 7am, and he would be back after school.”
Tshiunza went from strength to strength in the Welsh capital playing for Cardiff Schools, Cardiff Blues’ Under-16s and Under-18s, as well as Rhiwbina RFC.
He also took his first steps on the international stage, representing Wales at Under-18s level.
Clubs across the UK were beginning to stand up and take notice.
Tshiunza once again took the unconventional route, balancing his sporting success with his education by studying for a degree in sports science at Exeter University.
He also signed a four-year academy contract with Exeter Chiefs in 2019, completing his final year at Whitchurch High School before splitting his time between Chiefs, Exeter University’s rugby team and his studies.
Unfortunately, his first year of university rugby was hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited his game time for his club, country and university.
However, he took the opportunity to work on his weaknesses, a trait Exeter University director of rugby Keith Fleming believes will stand him in good stead during his professional career.
Fleming said: “Some of the players were able to work on weaknesses or bulk up, and that was the impressive thing with Christ.
“He is just a really lovely bloke, he is really appreciative of the help that he gets and he works hard both physically and academically.
“He is a model student and a model professional rugby player.
“I did not have the benefit of too much of his playing time because of his meteoric rise and an injury he picked up during a camp with Wales, but when he did play, he was a serious bonus to have in the squad, and he is just going to get better and better and better.
“He is going to be a very very good player.”
Tshiunza represented Wales in the 2021 Under-20 Six Nations during the summer of 2021, scoring in a 32-24 win against Scotland.
The forward’s career was beginning to build momentum, making his full first-team debut for the Chiefs in the opening game of the 2021/22 season at Leicester Tigers.
In another unlikely twist, Tshiunza made his BUCS debut just weeks after his first appearance in the Gallagher Premiership, helping Exeter University to a 37-8 win against Cardiff University.
And Exeter University full-back Max Bliss believes that Tshiunza’s tenacity helped take the university team to a different level.
He said: “Christ is driven, he is quite a relaxed dude, but he can switch it on.
“He is not intense, but you can tell he has goals, and you can tell he has levels that he wants to hit.
“We have a pretty high level of player at Exeter University, we had him and Dafydd Jenkins, who is also under 21 and being selected alongside Christ in the Guinness Six Nations squad.
“We had both of them on the pitch at the same time, Christ at six and Dafydd playing second row, so it does fill you with confidence when you have got a forward pack who are not only well drilled but seriously talented.”
After a rollercoaster few months that saw him make his BUCS and Premiership debut, things could not have gotten much better for Tshiunza.
However, he was in for one final surprise, a call-up to Wayne Pivac’s Wales squad for their 2021 Autumn Nations Series game against Fiji.
Now 6ft 6in and 17st 11lb, the forward did not look out of place at Principality Stadium at all on his debut, helping his team to a 38-23 win.
He followed that up with another cameo a week later as Wales recorded a dramatic 29-28 win over Australia.
In just over a year since then, Tshiunza has established himself as one of the breakout stars of the 2022-23 season in England, making ten league appearances.
He made headlines in the Chiefs’ Round 3 clash against Harlequins, crossing the whitewash twice to earn his side a stunning 43-42 win at Sandy Park.
And now Gatland has given the 21-year-old his seal of approval, selecting him in his first Guinness Six Nations squad back as Wales’ head coach.
It is a just reward for a player who has worked his socks off to reach Rugby’s Great Championship via an unconventional route.
But Tshiunza has not forgotten where he came from and was keen to ensure Whitchurch High School director of rugby Mr Williams was there to witness his Wales debut.
Williams added: “He had his first cap, and he arranged for about 20-odd of us to go down the stadium.
“He arranged everything, we got tickets together, and he came to see us while we had something to eat after the game.
“At 20 years of age, I would not have thought of that, I would have been too busy thinking about what a great occasion it was and spending time with the other players.
“He remembers where he comes from, big time.”