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Super Rugby retrospectives: Peter Hewat

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24th May, 2020
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It took Peter Hewat a while to introduce himself to Super Rugby. When he finally did so back in 2005, it was with one heck of a hello.

Hewat’s debut in Round 1 for the Waratahs came three weeks shy of his 27th birthday. During this clash against Waikato in Sydney there were few signs to portend the incredible breakthrough season that would follow. The next week didn’t provide too many clues either.

Then Round 3 happened. An injury to fullback and place-kicker Mat Rogers led to Hewat getting the nod at number 15.

He did not disappoint. Hewat exploded into the Super 12 spotlight with a try and six goals in a win over the Cats. This 20-point performance put the wheels in motion for a record-breaking season for the Tahs newcomer.

Hewat set new Super Rugby franchise highs for tries (ten) and points in a season (174), as well as points in a single game (34). His points haul was the highest of any player in the competition that season. Not bad for a rookie.

Hewat’s success stunned himself as much as it did the fans and the media.

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“It was quite surreal to be honest,” he says. “I was happy just to make the team. I was just trying to do the best for my team game by game and was lucky enough to score a couple of points along the way.”

Hewat was scoring tries for fun. His five-pointer in Round 3 at Ellis Park was the first of ten for the season. Chips and regathers, intercepts and runaways, counter attacks from deep inside his own half all led to scores for the speedy and skilful fullback.

His use of the leather was also on song. Hewat’s kicking out of hand was excellent, and his David Beckham-like curling penalty and conversion kicks were hitting the mark from all angles.

Hewat gives plenty of credit to his teammates for his exceptional debut season. He insists that being a part of a strong squad, with most of the attention on others, allowed him to play with freedom and confidence.

“You had guys who knew their way around a footy field,” he says. “Chris Whitaker was the captain, then there was (Nathan) Grey, (Morgan) Turinui, Matty Rogers, (Lote) Tuqiri, Rocky Elsom, Dan Vickerman.

“There were some big names, especially in the back line. That took the heat off me and I was able to play my natural game, which definitely helped. Our opponents were busy looking at Tuqiri, Rogers and those sort of guys so it was easy for me to just play footy.”

It had been a long climb to the Super 12 stage for Hewat. His first game of senior rugby had come nine years earlier as an 18-year-old with Norths in the Queensland Premier League. He then went on to represent his country at under-21 level followed by three years in the national Sevens set-up.

However, Hewat admits that some complacency then crept in. This would hold him back from excelling at 15s for a few years.

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“I played Aussie (under) 21s and maybe took things a little bit for granted,” he says. “I suppose it took me a little bit of time to work things out. Moving down to Manly helped me recognise that I needed to do more than just train on a Tuesday and Thursday.

“The stars aligned for me when I moved down to Manly. I had a couple of okay years there and then Ewen (McKenzie) saw something in me that others didn’t.”

Australian Wallabies Rugby Union coach Ewen McKenzie. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

McKenzie was in his first full year as Waratahs boss when he signed Hewat in 2004. Joining McKenzie as an assistant on the NSW staff that same year was Brian Melrose – Hewat’s head coach at Manly.

It was Melrose who had encouraged Hewat to move down to Sydney to try his hand at the Shute Shield back in 2003. To this day he considers Melrose one of the most influential coaches in his playing career.

With the backing of the Waratahs staff, combined with his own strong self belief, Hewat felt ready to contribute to the Waratahs’ cause right from the get-go.

“I think that it was my time. I’d played a lot of club rugby and I felt comfortable at that stage of my career,” he says.

“I felt like I belonged at that level. The more games I played the more comfortable I got – just enjoy it and back your ability, I thought.”

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Season 2005 would be a memorable campaign for both Hewat and his team. The Waratahs won their first five games and rode that momentum all the way to the grand final. They ended up losing that game 35-25 to the Crusaders. However, just getting there was a huge achievement in itself.

Prior to then, NSW had never made a Super 12 semi-final let alone a decider. They also broke a couple of other ducks that season: beating the Reds, and knocking off the Brumbies at Canberra Stadium.

Hewat continued in the same vein the following year. ‘Peter Perfect’ was the ABC headline when he scored 28 points, including nine from nine with the boot, in a 43-9 rout of Auckland.

He was then dubbed ‘Superboot Hewat’ by the NZ Herald after two kicks led to tries in a winning effort against the Highlanders. Hewat’s 191 points that season were bested only by Canterbury’s Daniel Carter.

The Waratahs topped the competition for a portion of that season. Their prospects, again, looked good for another tilt at the title.

But back-to-back defeats to close out the regular season took them out of the top two. That meant a trip to Wellington to face the Canes in the semis. The Tahs were in a position to win that game only to be denied by a game-snatching penalty kick at the death.

The men in sky blue never really got going in 2007. Beset by injuries, they suffered a major drop-off from the previous two years finishing with just three wins from 13 starts.

Hewat did okay from a personal standpoint. He scored another 156 points, bringing his combined total over three seasons to 521. No Super Rugby player scored more points than the Waratahs’ sharpshooter in that span. Not Jimmy Gopperth. Not Derick Hougaard. Not even Daniel Carter.

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Peter Hewat

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

That 2007 campaign would be Hewat’s last in Super Rugby. A combination of age and a lack of recognition from national selectors led to him accepting an offer to play overseas.

“I thought that I’d reached the highest level that I could in Australian rugby,” he says. “I didn’t think I could do much more than I had.

“I was nearly 30 when I left. I realised that I only have a short life span as a player, so I thought it was time to experience a new culture and different style of rugby.”

Hewat spent the next six years playing abroad: three apiece with London Irish and Suntory Sungoliath.

The 6’3” flyer nearly made an unexpected comeback to Super Rugby in 2012. Long-term injuries to Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano had the Brumbies shopping for cover.

Hewat was between seasons with Suntory at the time thus available to answer their SOS. However, the training paddock was as close as he got due to being unable to obtain insurance.

It seems, though, that a permanent move to the Australian capital was always on the cards. In late 2017, the Brumbies signed Hewat as their backs and attack coach where he remains now.

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Prior to this appointment, he spent five years coaching on the Suntory staff. Hewat traces his desire to coach back to the start of his playing tenure with the Japanese club.

The head coach there at the time was one of rugby’s greatest mentors who apparently saw something in Hewat.

“One of the main points of me choosing Suntory was having somebody like Eddie (Jones) there,” says Hewat.

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“He spoke to me when I first signed and said that – potentially after I retire – there could be an avenue to go into coaching.”

This seemed to sow a seed in Hewat who would then revel in a mentoring role with his Sungoliath teammates.

“As a foreigner your first priority is to play well,” he says. “Secondly, you’ve got to make the Japanese guys better players.

“I really enjoyed helping those guys and that’s when I really first got the taste and hunger for coaching. Seeing them improve gave me a real sense of accomplishment.”

Hewat immediately joined the Suntory coaching staff after retiring as a player. It was during this stint that he first became acquainted with Dan McKellar. The current Brumbies head man used to travel occasionally to Tokyo to work with Suntory as a spot coach.

“I spent a lot of time coaching there with Dan and just being able to talk footy,” says Hewat. “I suppose we hit it off in regards to how we see and coach the game.”

When an assistant coach position came up at the Brumbies in 2017, McKellar contacted Hewat to run the opportunity by him. The overture was accepted.

So after a decade of playing and coaching abroad, Hewat came back in Super Rugby.

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The 42-year-old has now been part of a formidable coaching axis with McKellar and fellow assistant Laurie Fisher for the past three seasons.

Dan McKellar

(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

The Brumbies have been an improving team ever since. Hewat feels fortunate to be in a position where the brains trust are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

“I’m thoroughly enjoying working with Dan and Laurie. It makes it really easy when you can go to work and you have three people who challenge each other but see the same picture. I feel very, very lucky,” he says.

The Brumbies were on a major roll before the coronavirus pandemic derailed the 2020 Super Rugby campaign. They jumped out of the gate with a 5-1 record and looked like Australia’s top franchise by a considerable margin.

When the competition halted, the Brumbies were leading all teams with an average of 35 points scored per game. The players looked skilfully assured and uninhibited in their attacking approach. This is no doubt a strong reflection of their attack and skills coach.

“My philosophy is very simple from an attacking perspective – back your ability and back your instinct,” says Hewat. ”I like to instill confidence in the group and encourage them to have a crack if they see something.”

After pressing the reset button, preparations have now begun in earnest for the domestic season beginning in early July.

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That means that Hewat is back in the full swing of nurturing a very talented crop of young backs at the Brumbies. Players like Noah Lolesio, Irae Simone, Tom Wright and Andy Muirhead will all be looking to pick things up from where they left them a few months ago. They should only get better and better.

Then there is the next layer of youngsters looking to break through. Ryan Lonergan, Mack Hansen and Len Ikitau are among a cluster of prospects that promise to have bright futures in Australian rugby. Hewat’s goal is to help all of them reach their potential.

“My advice to the kids here is try to and squeeze as much out of your careers as you can, and just to never give up. You never know when it’s going to finish, or start, to be honest.”

A poignant message, especially coming from somebody like Hewat: a man who knows about the curse of complacency, and equally how much someone can achieve when they fully apply themselves.

Those Brumbies youngsters are in very good hands.