How good was Chris Latham?
The image of him back in his Super Rugby days was unmistakable: maroon shirt, a shock of blonde hair, long shanks, low-slung socks, bike shorts, sheer brilliance from the fullback position.
Australian rugby fans had the joy of watching Latham play for a dozen seasons. He achieved an awful lot during that time.
Here’s a thumbnail summary of his Super Rugby body of work: 12 seasons, 100-plus games, most ever tries for the Queensland Reds (38), most tries for the Reds in a single season (ten), four Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year awards, four Queensland Player’s Player awards.
It was an outstanding provincial career. One that surely places him in the upper echelon of Aussie Super Rugby players over the competition’s 25-year history.
Of course, it was during his time with the Reds when Latham thrived. Many will recall, though, that his initial two Super 12 seasons (1997-98) were spent with the NSW Waratahs.
Gaining a foothold with NSW was tricky for Latham. He played in spits and spurts there and mostly as a replacement on the wing.
Comparisons between himself and established Waratahs fullback Matthew Burke were inevitable. The latter was already a seasoned Wallaby, while Latham was an emerging talent having just represented NSW and Australia in under-21s.
But for Latham, thoughts of Burke – or any other player for that matter – were way down the priority list. Latham’s aim was to carve his own distinct path, as his manager-to-be Tony Dempsey discovered.
“We went for a coffee and Tony said to me, ‘I could really see you being the next Matt Burke of NSW rugby’,” says Latham.
“But I told him that I didn’t want to be the next Matt Burke. I wanted to be the first Chris Latham.
“Why would I want to be someone else? You’re there to prove yourself as you. I wasn’t too focused on who was there and who wasn’t there. I wanted to make my own mark.”
Not quite hitting his straps with the Tahs, the temptation was there to head to Queensland for a fresh start.
The Waratahs offered him double what the Reds put on the table, but Latham’s affection for the Sunshine State led him to dodge the dollars and head north.
“I went to play for Queensland because I always loved Queensland,” he says.
“If it was the (State of) Origin I went for the Maroons.
“Growing up, when my family went on holidays we always went up there. I always wanted to be a part of Queensland for some reason.”
Latham’s career took off after he joined the Reds in 1999. He claimed ownership of the Reds’ number 15 jersey within a year, and would not relinquish it until he left Super Rugby in 2008.
His first campaign with Queensland was actually the team’s most successful during his tenure. They topped the table with an 8-1-2 record, earning the right to host a semi-final.
However, their number one seeding did not hold up with the defending champion Crusaders galloping into Ballymore and spoiling the Reds’ party.
The team’s fortunes then slowly faded over the next several years. They slipped from top to mid-table, then over Latham’s final three seasons, to the bottom three.
There were significant changes to the team’s personnel during Latham’s early years. A golden generation of players including John Eales, Tim Horan, David Wilson, Dan Crowley and Michael Foley had all moved on by 2001 at the latest.
But Latham does not blame the player exodus. He believes that the Reds still had enough quality in their squad to remain contenders.
“Without a doubt the talent was there,” he says.
“It’s always been there at Queensland. I don’t think that I can recall a year to date when there hasn’t been enough talent to win a competition.”
Latham points his finger at the coaching situation for Queensland’s noughties nosedive. Not necessarily the coaches themselves, but the revolving door of head honchos that occurred after John Connolly’s departure in 2000.
“We had five or six coaches in seven or eight years,” he says. “It was a stupid amount of turnover. There was never a chance to build continuity.
“After losing those players there was always going to be that sense of a rebuilding period. But if you’re continuously turning over coaches every year or so with new thoughts, new policies and new ideas you’re never going to get that consistency.”
While the Reds regressed through the 2000s, Latham’s career went in the polar opposite direction. In the 2000 season he won the first of his four Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year awards.
Latham became a cult hero at Ballymore. Many of his thrilling tries through the years still linger long in the memory.
His score against the Brumbies in Round 1 of 2002 ranks high in his greatest hits. After fielding a down-field kick he ran, chipped off his left foot, then grubbered off the right, regathered and dotted down before the clock had even reached 0:20.
Latham’s effort against Otago three years later was one of the great individual Super Rugby tries. With three men to beat in a narrow corridor, Latham burst through the first, palmed off the second then carried the third on his back into the corner to touch down.
His scores in front of XXXX Hill became legendary, as did the celebrations. The point at the crowd, the finger wag, the ball slam, the swan dive, the tap of the invisible watch. The fans lapped it up.
You can sense the emotion in Latham’s voice as he remembers the engagement he had with the Ballymore faithful.
“I loved it,” he says.
“It was what I really lived for back then to run out at Ballymore and see that hill.
“For me that was the pinnacle of what rugby was to me. It made me come alive. I just wanted to bust my ass to make sure I got a try down there.”
It was not just the meat pies that endeared Latham to Reds supporters. He was a commanding presence in the Reds’ back line. At six foot four and weighing 100 kilos, he was hefty in the collision and handy under high, hanging kicks.
His own kicking game was also spectacular. Having played football until his mid-teens, you might think that Latham’s sure-footedness was connected to his time playing with the round ball. Not so, apparently.
“When I was first picked up by the Waratahs I was woeful at kicking a football,” he says.
“Andy Friend was their skills coach then and every lunchtime for at least a year we would kick down at Elizabeth Bay Park.”
“Ever since then it would be something that I’d work on every single day. I would never have a day off. If it was a day off from rugby training I would still come in to Ballymore and kick to myself on the number one oval.”
Speaking of Ballymore, Latham believes that it should still be the Reds’ home base for Super Rugby games. He would prefer a more intimate rugby experience without the “wizz and fizz” that accompanies contemporary match-day experiences.
Instead of investing in fireworks, jumping castles and other gimmicks, Latham feels franchises should be capitalising more on their greatest assets: the players.
“You don’t need bells and whistles and marketing,” he says.
“You’ve got your talent that you’re paying for – that’s your marketing.
“We need to get back that excitement and enjoyment of club rugby to engage mums and dads and kids again.
“We don’t have the Reds guys going back there enough. I don’t want to be one of those players that says ‘back in my day,’ but in all honesty I loved playing club footy.
“Nothing would make me happier than if we played on a Friday night because I could sneak down on a Saturday afternoon to play for my club.
“I was as proud as punch to put on that jersey and play for Wests. It was my way of giving back. It was my way of mentoring the next person and enticing them. Just like it was when I first started.”
Latham here is referring to his early days playing with Randwick. The famed club were responsible for encouraging him to move to Sydney from the NSW country town of Narrabri. It was at Randwick that one of Australia’s all-time rugby greats took Latham under his wing.
“Out of the blue this guy came up behind me one afternoon and said, ‘Okay Chris, you and I are going to train together.’ I turned around and it was Campo (David Campese),” Latham recalls.
“I just remember that every time we trained he’d come grab me and we’d train together and do the drills together. We did the same later on at NSW.
“That always stuck that there was this genuine superstar who was happy to apply his trade to the country kid nobody. That resonated very deeply with me.”
Interestingly, Latham now sits second behind his old Galloping Greens teammate with 40 tries scored for the Wallabies. That, in addition to his records at the Reds, leaves a great scoring legacy in Australian rugby.
Latham, though, has never got caught up in personal records. He was not even aware that he held multiple Reds scoring marks.
“I don’t look at things like that,” he says.
“Now that I’m retired and even when I was playing I was more about effort.”
“I liked it when people said things about how hard I worked, or how I was the first person there and always the last to leave. Those are the things that I’m proud of more than individual things.
“For me rugby is a 15-man game. It’s a full squad thing. If I didn’t have 14 other players on the field helping me, those things don’t mean anything. They are unachievable.”
Words of genuine modesty, but few would argue that there was something special about Latho. On his day, the great Reds fullback could figuratively carry his teammates on his sturdy shoulders and lead them forth to victory. For good measure, he might also literally pick up defenders and carry them over the line to score tries.
That’s how good Chris Latham was.