Advantage of being Johnny on the spot
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Gareth Delve took the field for Wales against the Brumbies on Tuesday after being called up as a replacement for Toby Faletau. He might have been next in mind for the coaches anyway, but it certainly did him no harm that he was already available in Australia.
When it was confirmed Max Evans couldn’t immediately join the Scotland touring party, Andy Robinson turned to Alex Dunbar, who just happened to be visiting family in Tasmania at the time.
I’m now watching England play the South African Barbarians and Nick Abendanon is at full back for the visitors. He’s been called into the squad as a replacement for the injured Mike Brown. Again, the Bath player is a genuine contender for the number 15 shirt but it surely did him no harm that he was in Johannesburg at the weekend, where he attended the wedding of club team mate Pieter Dixon.
Even with the speed of today’s long distance flights, trips between the hemispheres take time and it must be very tempting for a coach to turn to someone who is already on the doorstep. In 1993, Mike Brewer missed out on selection for the All Blacks tour up north. He was carrying an injury but had fallen back in the pecking order. He elected to travel to Britain anyway as a sponsor’s representative.
New Zealand lost to England at Twickenham that year but still had some anti-climactic fixtures left in the country. The squad had cover in the back row but Brewer won selection for the match against the Barbarians, which was the first time a player had been named to the All Blacks team from outside the touring party. He ended up taking the field from the bench. Sean Fitzpatrick wrote in his biography that he made a point of giving him a warm welcome to make it clear what he thought of his original non-selection.
You might think that players would be delighted to receive an unexpected call-up. That wasn’t quite the case in 2001, when the British and Irish Lions asked Scottish scrum-half Andy Nicol to fill in on the bench for them. With the last tour match looming, Austin Healey was a late injury withdrawal and there was no time to fly in a replacement to back-up starting number nine Matt Dawson.
As Nicol later recalled, “I was convinced it was a wind-up by someone with a comedy Irish accent, and then I realised it really was Donal Lenihan and he was being deadly serious!” Nicol was in Australia with a tour group and, by his own admission, had taken full part in the kind of tour activities which count as the worst preparation for international rugby.
He had only hours to learn some of the calls and was distinctly relieved that Dawson made it through the 80 minutes.
Nicol and Brewer were both at the end of their careers when called into action.
In 1987, Welsh prop David Young began his 51-cap Test career when he was summoned to debut for his country in their World cup match against England. The tournament was primarily being hosted by New Zealand but the quarter final was one of the games held in Australia.
The 19-year-old Young was playing off-season rugby with Northern Suburbs, and took the telephone call asking him to go to Brisbane while drinking in a pub in Sydney.
With the longer June tours now set to be a regular part of the rugby calendar, a northern player who doesn’t make the cut for the original squad might look at the examples above and consider arranging a holiday with his country’s playing schedule in mind. It might not be pleasant being so close to the action while not an official part of the squad but, if the manager has your contact details, there’s always an outside chance that someone else’s misfortune becomes your opportunity.
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