Over the last year I’ve read a lot of Roarers express worry about what the next generation of Wallabies players and coaches are going to be like. Are enough talented players coming through?
In virtually all sporting contests, people like to look at the individual match-ups between opposing players and this evening’s game between Ireland and Australia will be no different.
Obviously the big contest will be between the two openside flankers – Sean O’Brien, who was named European player of the year and Australia’s David Pocock. However, for me, it will be all about the opposing fullbacks.
It will come as little surprise to many that I attended the great Rugby nursery of St Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill (cerise blood is not, in fact, a disease). Graduating in 2003, I was lucky enough to have been present when a young bloke from Mt Druitt turned up and started building a name for himself on the rugby pitch.
Kurtley Beale was a few years younger than me and so, as pecking orders go in any high school, I don’t think I ever said so much as a “hi” to him. Perhaps I told him to tuck his shirt in while watching the first XV play but that would have been it.
Nevertheless, I didn’t need to talk to him to hear the talk about him and the amazing things he was doing out on college A every Saturday morning. By the time he finished his first season playing 13A’s (as a 12 year old) the whole college had an idea that this kid could play.
After a year of every other bloke banging on about him, I decided it was time I had a look at this kid’s skills. I was aware that he was young for his year and so figured he’d be playing for the 13A’s again this season and went along to one of their games.
But he wasn’t there.
I asked around and it turned out the coaches had decided he was far too good to be playing 13’s again, even if he was that age. And, in fact, he was too good to play another season in the age group he had competed in last year.
So the first game I ever saw Kurtley Beale play was for Joey’s 15A’s, when he had only just turned thirteen.
It was the right call – another season in any age group lower would have worked against him. He was challenged playing 15A’s but let there be no mistake, the youngest kid on the paddock was also far and away the best.
My own rugby aspirations amounted to cheering on Joey’s First XV and so losing the championship to Riverview in the final play of the final game of the 2003 season was a crushing end to my rugby career. I stood in the stands singing “Sub Tuum”, cried and then had Monday off school to try and overcome what I figured at the time was a broken heart.
I would have loved nothing more than to have been present for Joey’s vs Riverview in 2004. That day Joey’s were victorious thanks in no small part to Kurtley who, having just turned 15, was the youngest player in the open GPS competition.
However I could not be at Lane Cove because I was on the other side of the planet, doing a gap year at Clongowes Wood College, County Kildaire, Ireland and cheering on their senior cup rugby team.
The Clongowes team were tough, worked hard for each other and played with plenty of passion but they would have told you themselves they weren’t the most talented team getting around.
However they did have the most talented schoolboy player in Ireland in their team.
Clongowes’ fullback was a bloke who stood six foot two, weighed a bit less than 100 kgs, kicked goals with Wilkinson-esque precision and could disappear through a gap quicker than a pint of Guinness on a Friday afternoon (any afternoon really).
His name was Rob Kearney.
That year the Clongonians made it all the way to the Senior Cup final, going down gallantly to Irish rugby powerhouse Blackrock in one of the last rugby matches ever played at the old Lansdowne Road.
And though it takes 15 blokes to win a game of rugby, I don’t think a single Clongonian – whether he was playing or watching the team – would argue the team could have made the final without Rob.
Countless times throughout the season when they were pinned down on their line, the Clongowes boys would win a turnover, pass it to Rob and suddenly they’d be jogging to a lineout on the opposition’s 40 metre line.
Much like Kurtley’s well-publicized love of league, Rob’s first love was not rugby either.
Like so many Irishmen, Rob’s first sport had been Gaelic football. He had been so good at it he was playing first grade for his local side of Dundalk by the time he was 16.
After finishing school, Rob faced the decision of which sport he would pursue full time as an adult.
This decision would seem to make itself, since a professional rugby player is on a contract worth millions and a Gaelic footballer makes precisely zero dollars, due to the sport still being proudly amateur.
However one need only look to Tadhg Kennelly’s sojourn home to win an All-Ireland final with his home club of Kerry to realize the Irish are wired differently to any other nation of people.
Again, like Kurtley, Rob was also courted by rugby clubs whilst still at school and began training with provincial team Leinster when he wasn’t attending classes.
Perhaps training alongside his future Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll at Leinster helped his decision but Rob ended up sticking with rugby and after debuting for Ireland in 2008, winning a Heineken Cup and scoring tries for the British and Irish Lions in 2009, he now finds himself playing for the World Cup in New Zealand.
And so tonight the two school boy superstars meet. Both have battled the demon of great expectation and come out on top and both have matured a great deal in the process.
After spending 2004 cheering for not only the Purple and White of Clongowes but the Green of Ireland I can’t help but feel slightly torn over the result. My home country and fellow Joe boy or the land I called home for a year and the bloke whose old jersey I found and gave to my little brother, telling him it would be worth something one day.
Kearney to score. Wallabies to win.