Nathan Sharpe walks away from rugby this weekend on his terms, something which seemed inconceivable just over a year ago.
The 34-year-old brings the curtain down on his decorated career in Cardiff on Saturday when he leads out the Wallabies against Wales in his 116th and final Test.
It’s a far cry from where the two-time John Eales Medallist (2007 and 2012) was just over a year ago.
Sharpe was reduced to being a fringe player at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and a controversial omission from Australia’s 22-man squad for the semi-final defeat against the All Blacks in Auckland.
It appeared the Western Force second-rower, who made his Test debut against France in 2002, would be stranded on 99 Test caps as he headed towards retirement.
“That’s just the way life rolls out and the way the cards fall. Those things happen and you just have to move on from them,” Sharpe said.
“Everyone’s career goes through those peaks and troughs I suppose. I don’t have any issues with anything that’s happened. I’ve been very lucky in my career.”
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans gave Sharpe a start in his 100th Test in the third-place playoff victory over Wales at the World Cup.
Sharpe had planned to quit at the conclusion of this year’s Super Rugby season, but injuries to Deans’ favoured locking combination, captain James Horwill and Dan Vickerman, changed that.
He was called up for the June internationals against Scotland and Wales, his form then prompting Deans to ask him to delay retirement for a bit longer.
When second and third-choice skippers David Pocock and Will Genia copped injuries at the start of The Rugby Championship, Sharpe was asked to lead Australia on their four-Test European tour.
Deans is full of praise for his skipper after helping the Wallabies in their hour of need.
“He’s done a great job in that role this year,” Deans said.
“He’s given this young group a great start. He’s been a good source of counsel, a good source of composure and has led effectively as well.”
The Wagga Wagga product applauded everybody involved in the Wallabies’ set-up for enduring a challenging season which amazingly they can finish as the world No.2 side with a win over Wales.
“It’s been a tough year for Australian rugby with the injuries and the pressure but I’ve been really happy with the way the guys who have come on board have responded,” Sharpe said.
“That sets a good marker for Australian rugby going forward because when the incumbent players come back there’s going to be pressure across the board.”
Sharpe is pleased he gets the chance that not many are afforded the luxury of in sport these days, going out on their own terms.
“A lot of my close mates in rugby didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye properly. I’ve been able to do that with the (Western) Force and now with the Wallabies as well. It’s nice,” he said.
“If you had have said to me when I started my career that I’d be playing my last Test as captain of my country I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Given the command Sharpe has with his teammates and his presence in everything involving the Wallabies, whether it’s a press conference, training session or game, it’s hard to believe this weekend’s Test will be just his 10th as skipper.
But it’s no surprise that Sharpe is such a good leader having learned from one of the Wallabies’ best skippers in John Eales.
When Sharpe first arrived on the scene at Test level it was the likes of Eales and his fellow Queenslanders Tim Horan, Toutai Kefu and Chris Latham who he turned to for guidance.
“The Queensland guys really helped me make the transition into Test rugby and then further down the track too I learned from guys like Steve Larkham and George Smith,” he said.
“I thought the way John Eales managed men around rugby on and off the field was outstanding.
“He’s a guy I still ask for advice these days. He’s a great fella and he understands people and has been great for my career.”
Sharpe has played with plenty of champions over the years but says it’s hardworking and unheralded players like prop Bill Young who he remembers as one of his favourite and most admired teammates.
“They’re the guys that you want to play with. Those guys who do the hard stuff nobody sees. Bill Young used to put his body on the line and is the type of bloke you really appreciated as a teammate,” Sharpe said.
“George Smith was another guy who didn’t get enough credit. He put his body on the line for the team whenever he played and he just got on with it.”
He’s run into some pretty handy opponents too and Sharpe rates South Africa’s Victor Matfield as the best lock he’s come up against.
“He was composed, talismanic and was a great organiser of lineouts in any team he played in and he was skilful too,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe played in three World Cups and his most memorable game came from the 2003 tournament when Australia scored an upset 22-10 win over the All Blacks in Sydney.
“It was the circumstances behind the win. New Zealand put 50 points on us in the last Bledisloe and they had gone on a record run,” he said.
“No one else in that stadium thought we were going to win except for the guys on the field and even then we probably had a few guys that didn’t.
“It’s just the way we adapted our game plan and executed it that makes that game so special. It was a pretty precise bit of rugby.”
He believes it’s just a matter of time before the Wallabies will be challenging the All Blacks regularly after losing 14 of their past 18 clashes with New Zealand.
“They’re in a period where they’ve got a lot of experienced players around. You don’t win a World Cup without a grizzly team that’s been around for a long time that’s been through their share of heartbreak,” Sharpe said.
“What they are also doing is bringing in a lot of young guys and you can see they’re doing a good job with that right through their system.
“But Australia is going to get to that point as well once we’ve settled on five States playing in the competition.
“As our depth increases you put structures in place which allows that development.
“There’s no doubt about it, we have to cut our own path and see what works for us and to make it an even better system. Those works are in progress.”
Sharpe will move into the resources sector post rugby but says he will be involved in the game in some capacity in the future.
He hopes to be remembered as a player who always gave his best.
“If one of my teammates in the future is asked what I was like to play with, I’d hope they’d say he was a bloke who I wanted to play with and I wanted to play for. That would keep me happy.”