When I catch up with Scott Fardy, he is in a sober, reflective mood. He is worried about the welfare of friends and relatives, should the bushfires currently raging along Australia’s eastern seaboard spread to Canberra.
Fardy has had experience of such things. Back in 2011, a tsunami hit the Japanese steel town of Kamaishi when he was finishing up a stint with the Kamaishi Seawaves.
After the tsunami swept through the town, he went out to take a look at the damage himself. Cresting the hill to the nearby settlement of Omachi, he found that “everything was flattened, gone. It looked like the end of days”.
Kamaishi was the only club in Japan owned by the community, rather than a company, and that was a perfect fit for the Fardy psyche. The Australian embassy offered to evacuate him, but he refused, staying instead to unload and distribute essential supplies.
That is what his sense of team and community demanded of him, both inside and outside rugby.
“Rugby has values, like being a team, working hard, not letting your mates down,” he says.
He stayed until the work was done. That, as much as anything, epitomises his attitude as a player.
He has the humility to undertake the tasks for which there will be no prizes, the tasks which will leave him on the ground and out of the spotlight – for all except maybe for the most discerning of contact work coaches.
“I’ve always played in the same kind of way,” he says.
“All those experiences do definitely shape you as a person, but so did the experience of getting beaten up regularly by my brother when I was growing up. It was already there in my youth.”
Perhaps that history of taking the harder road is one reason why Fardy achieved success relatively late on in his career. He only established himself in the Brumbies first XV at the age of 27. One year later, in 2013, he was in the Wallabies.
The tornado of perceived success petered out on the firm grip of down-to-earth perspective:
“It’s just rugby, it doesn’t define you as a person.”
It may also have made it easier to take those gritty, blue-collar values to Europe in 2017. By the end of 2016, Fardy felt the writing was on the wall for him at home.
“I had a couple of friends who kept their ears to the ground, and they told me I might be on the outer. But I’d always wanted to come and play in Europe and it had always been an ambition of mine,” he says.
“So, it wasn’t really a shock at that point in time, I was ready for it. I knew they were looking to get rid of me at that stage.
“I knew I could still play, and that there was international quality football left in me. But I hadn’t been managed as well I could have been in Australia – my body hadn’t been managed well… I’d been required to play through injuries.
“I’d been asked to play on occasions when probably I should not have been asked the question at all, and I knew that would catch up with me eventually.”
Fardy resisted the temptation to pick up a potentially larger paycheque in England or France because of the need to play more matches, as many or 30 or 40 a year. At Leinster, he has started 28 games in his first two seasons with the club. One of his playful nicknames at the club is ‘Saturday’ because he only really turns up for the big matches.
“At Leinster, it’s completely different. The medical staff really look after you. I know I’m not going to be asked to play 30 games per season,” he says.
“Of all the countries in Europe, they manage their players particularly well in Ireland.
“If you look at the game in Australia, it’s a young man’s game, the average age of a Super Rugby player is much younger than it is over here. I was talking to Sam Carter the other day [the Brumbies’ lineout captain has just joined Ulster] and he was saying exactly the same thing.
“You get far more time at home, more days off from rugby and more time with your family. As a result, I feel much fresher and more settled.
“For me, coming to Europe was always about improving my rugby and playing within a good team. I’m a late starter. I’m old but I don’t really have too many miles on the clock, so I feel there is still improvement inside me.
“There was no wish to go somewhere just to collect my pension, I’m only really happy when I’m winning and that had to be part of the equation.”
Fardy also wanted the opportunity to compare the top European club competitions with Super Rugby.
“I wanted to play in the Heineken Cup, and it is such an amazing competition. The crowds make it that way, it is they who give the games a real sense of occasion and I badly wanted to be a part of that.
“The Heineken Cup is very different to Super Rugby. There are fewer games overall, and they are split up because of the way the tournament is played in blocks.
“We get a lot of support [Leinster average almost 20,000 at home matches], even at away games, and even in Africa. In Super Rugby you could play some very big matches in half-empty stadiums. At the recent European game in Northampton, you could see a big block of Leinster fans in a packed, heaving ground, all waving their little blue flags as we ran out on to the field.”
Looking back at the experience of the Wallabies since he left the fold, Fardy was lukewarm about their performance at the recent World Cup in Japan. The defence did not impress him at all:
“The biggest problem for the Wallabies was that they leaked too many points, they beat New Zealand in their first [Bledisloe Cup] game and then lost the next weekend by 36 to nil and you just can’t do that.
“They leaked points in their big games at the World Cup too, against Wales and England. The best sides out there had very good line-speed and were big in contact, and they defended in a northern hemisphere style. Australia didn’t have either.
“You have to play a defence which can get the ball back for you as quickly as possible. We had an aggressive one at the Brumbies when I was there, though nothing like the high line-speed defences of today. Against New Zealand teams in particular, we had to handle some very high-class attacks.
“In Europe, you also learn to defend in a wider variety of conditions. Over here, it rains in more than half the games, so your players learn to adapt to tough conditions. In Australia, it only rained in probably 10-15per cent of the matches I played.
“But at the beginning and the end of the season in the Europe, you’ll see some really good quality games when the weather dries out.”
One of the positions in which Australia have struggled to unearth a starter of genuine quality since the 2015 World Cup is number 6 and Fardy is uniquely qualified to comment on that role:
“If you look at the role of the number 6 in the modern game, lineout ability and defence, especially short-side defence, are probably the key facets. When I was playing with David Pocock and Michael Hooper who were either on the ball or around it a huge amount of times, as a number 6 I was often doing the unseen work – covering space and working with the backs, to make sure everything was in order.
“Any coach who comes in needs to have a player matrix on each of the positions in the back row, and what he wants from them. The Brumbies were pretty strict in that respect, demanding a big third lineout target at number 6 and a big ball runner at number 8.
“Last season they were different, they had two very good readers of the game in Lachie McCaffrey and Pete Samu, but they didn’t fit the same matrix. It’s a credit to [assistant coach] Laurie Fisher that he made it all work, but then Laurie is an incredible coach.
“At Leinster, we try to get our best players on the field in the back row. Rhys Ruddock is a blindside flanker who probably doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves, but he does the bits and pieces around set-piece that are so vital. He’s one of those players who sacrifices his own visibility for the sake of the team as a whole. Number 6 is very much a mature man’s position in that respect.”
The 2019 Wallabies could certainly have done with a mature man of Fardy’s stature in Japan. That ability to sacrifice yourself in the lower-profile tasks for the greater good would have been of immense value, and Australia lacked that essential ‘oil in the machine’ of their back-row selection.
Fardy had some notable observations to make about the relative standard of coaching and preparation in the two hemispheres:
“One of [Leinster senior coach] Stuart Lancaster’s greatest strengths is that he’s restless – he’s constantly on the lookout for new ideas. When we first met, we sat down over a coffee and he picked my brain for two hours solid. He loves it, he absorbs information like a sponge.
“Here at Leinster, we have Felipe Contepomi from Argentina, Rob McBryde from Wales, Lancaster from England and Leo Cullen from Ireland, so they’re all coming at situations from different angles and from the perspective of their different rugby upbringings. That’s really important in a club where most of the players are all coming out of the same three or four major rugby-playing schools in and around Dublin.
“I have been very lucky to have great coaches both at Leinster and the Brumbies, but the big difference is the amount of detail the players can take in and digest over here. At the Brumbies and even with the Wallabies, the degree of detail would be nowhere near the detail we get at Leinster.
“It’s important for the coaches to give the right amount and quality of information, and then it’s up to the senior players to drive it through the week, and make sure everyone knows what the key areas of the game are going to be. The first two days are information-heavy, then the senior playing group takes it on through the rest of the build-up.”
So, what does the future hold for Scott Fardy after his playing days are over – maybe a transition into the world of coaching?
“I tend to talk a lot and give out a lot of advice – whether anybody listens to it is another matter! Everyone tells me I’m mentoring the younger players, but mostly I’m just taking the mickey, even when I have my serious face on,” he says.
“but I enjoy the process because of the quality of the coaches and senior players here.
“If I’d finished my career in Australia, I would have felt like I’d missed out on an opportunity, but coming here I’ve really enjoyed experiencing people who view the game so differently from everything I’m used to.
“I’d like to consider coaching when I finally hang up my boots – that is, if I’m not too worried about getting my weekends back. You’re either all in or you’re not, so it’s a back and white situation. I’d recommend any young Australian coach come to Europe because so the environment is so foreign. You can look at doing the same things a different way and I think that is very important.”
Looking ahead to international competition in 2020, Fardy is positive about Aussie prospects under new Kiwi head coach Dave Rennie:
“He’s stepping into a very exciting situation, with so many of senior players still available for selection after the World Cup. The Genias, Foleys, Kepus and Kerevis of this world may have gone, but there is a promising group of young players coming through from the under 20s to replace them. The big challenge for us, as always, is beating New Zealand.
“As far as Giteau’s Law is concerned, they could bring the cap threshold down to 39 – then I could keep playing! But I don’t really understand the point of making it into a rigid rule.
“Why not just judge it by position? If you need to bring someone in, change the law. Nic White came back and performed really well in 2019, and he only had 20 caps or so. I understand why the rule is in place, but I don’t feel it should exclude players who go overseas, because the money and lifestyle on offer is going to continue to attract ever younger players from Australia.”
However, he ended our chat with a warning about the future of the professional game in both Australia, in particular, and the southern hemisphere in general:
“Something needs to change in the southern hemisphere model – I know even when I was playing in Super Rugby, none of my friends were going to watch it. There is a real lack of engagement among young rugby followers compared to what I’ve seen over here. It’s such a crowded sports market in Australia that the product has to be better than what it has been in recent years.
“They could start by changing kick-off times so that there are more afternoon matches which families can attend. In Canberra, we used to pitch up for evening matches where the temperature was below freezing in June. People won’t come along for that kind of game in any numbers.
“The proportion of afternoon kick-offs in the Heineken Cup is much better. For example, we’re playing Benetton Treviso in the next round of the European Champions Cup and kick-off time is 1:00. Families will come to the game, they’ll spend money in the facilities and that money will go back into the community.
“And for goodness sakes, play in smaller stadia that suit the kind of attendance you’re expecting, not in big stadia only half full… Pick a packed Ballymore over an empty Suncorp. Otherwise, the occasions are just soulless.
“If the atmosphere is energising, people will come back for more.”