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An open letter to Jordan Petaia: Forget about being the 'next big thing' and enjoy the ride

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Roar Rookie
14th October, 2021
124
10458 Reads

Hi Jordan Petaia, is it all right if I call you Jordie even though we haven’t met? Most others seem to, even Dave Rennie so I trust it’s okay.

Jordie you’ve been on my Wallaby watching rugby mind for a few years now, and I really felt for you being injured. Actually, your injuries and how that must have felt for you was secondary to my own selfish desire.

I just wanted you to get on the field hoping you could unleash some magic to help us beat the All Blacks as you seemed to have that X factor that was missing. Then along came Caleb Clarke and blew us away and I had another case of ‘Lomu déjà vu’, seeing yet another Kiwi winger run over us, through us and even around us.

And then something happened. We stopped expecting youth to save us, Dave Rennie got some calmer heads and won four on the trot, and once again being a Wallaby supporter was okay.

So, mate, I’ve had an epiphany. And I want to take away a load that I reckon you secretly would be glad to ditch, then give you something valuable.

Firstly, I want to relieve you of the weight of expectation of being “The Next Big thing”, hereafter called TNBT.

Back during those sometimes tantalising but more often bleak ‘Cheika’d’ years of 2017-2020, when we struggled against good opposition and got sometimes close to but mostly smashed by the All Blacks, even the Argies, Poms and Lions, I was a Wallaby supporter grasping at straws.

I envied the All Blacks for their potency, their ability to turn our mistakes (so many) into tries either side of halftime or just minutes from the end and run away with the game when I thought we had a sniff.

Jordan Petaia of the Reds

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

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But every loss hurt. Actually that scarring began the day Jonah Lomu first played against us then began ripping out supporters hearts by winning games for The All Blacks. Lomu, the evil Emperor, Darth Sidius of the rugby empire (Star Wars reference #1).

You see I’d been spoilt. As a product of St Joseph’s College Hunter’s Hill, a GPS school with a proud rugby record, I’d got used to winning.

In six years I only played in one losing team. Also I’d witnessed the glory days, the Rod McQueen and John Eales era, David Campese and the Ellas, the George Gregan/Stirling Mortlock/Chris Latham/Joe Roff/Jeremy Paul/Toutai Kefu days.

The Eales, Kefu and Larkham clutch wins at the death, and the Brumbies’ 2004 grand final win against the Crusaders.

There was rivalry of course, but up until then the landscape had been fairly even.

Then came Richie McCaw, the Darth Vader of Trans Tasman rugby, master of the ruck’s dark arts, who spawned a steady stream of players who regularly plunged sharp stakes into the hearts of ‘entitled’ Oz rugby fans. We know the names because we cursed them so often: Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Israel Dagg, Kieran Read, the Smiths Ben, Conrad and Aaron, Joe Rokocoko, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles to name just a few in non sequential time order. And Ardie Savea, the ‘big bus’.

And Jordie I contend that we’ve wanted a weapon of our own. Someone with strength and power, ball playing skills too but just a bloody steamroller to give those Kiwis a taste of their own. And like those before you, we hung our hopes on you-our saviour.

However it’s not only unrealistic but also selfish to ask and expect a single young player like yourself to pull a whole team across the line, unless you were a supernatural being. Which of course you’re not.

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We’ve already seen how the TNBT label is a weight that very few young athletes can bear.

Joseph Suaalii, the rugby prodigy who converted to league this year for the Roosters, failed to live up to the hype with a season-ending foot injury.

Kurtis Patterson, the cricketer, suffered the same fate.

The jump from being a teen, schoolboys or U20s sensational such as Andrew Kellaway, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale, and Harry Wilson is a huge leap because you are now playing against men.

Men who have grown into their bodies more fully, who have the maturity that those mid-twenty years bring, sometimes the extra motivation of a family and children to play for, as well as team and country.

So now having taken that weight off your shoulders, I want to offer you something you may not even know you want or need-the freedom to still be an adolescent, a young man, to have fun. Not with the white powder of course, but to actually smile on the football field and enjoy your time there.

Jordan Petaia of the Reds makes a break

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Another gift I’d like to offer you is that of perspective. If you can manage your body, mind and emotions well enough to have a successful rugby career, and I certainly wish that for you, then there will be a life after that. And with the profile and respect you have built, you will be able to influence people’s lives for the better.

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Young boys, and even young girls will see your exploits on the field, observe your humility and how you carry yourself, and will want to be like you. And that must be a good thing wouldn’t you agree?

Because sport, from what I’ve witnessed, is such a wonderful vehicle for personal growth and expansion. It requires and builds focus, commitment, teamwork, a solid work ethic and sacrifice for the greater good.

Sportspeople learn the sweet taste of winning and the bitterness of losing, as illustrated by Dave Rennie’s wise assertion that this year’s three Bledisloe losses would build his team’s determination to turn things around, which they did with four straight wins.

You have a good group of men around you now. A coach who is a fine man manager, and you’re in the company of men who have travelled full circle and returned much wiser like Samu Kerevi, Quade and James O’Connor. They and others are exemplars and mentors who will assist you in gaining and maintaining perspective.

To my mind, of greatest importance Jordie, is the fact that you and your performance are separate-they are not the same. A loss, some mistakes, even a below par game doesn’t make you any less of a human being, and as Quade put it, “It’s only a game”.

And that very famous English rugby pundit William Shakespeare also noted:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts..”

So go on the European tour and have fun Jordie, the right kind of fun. The general public are a funny bunch. During the game they want you to carry their own unrealised hopes and dreams, then either put you on a pedestal and tear you down, or just tear you down because you’re living the life they dreamed of but couldn’t create.

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Oh, this really is the most important thing I want you to get Jordie. It’s that you’re good enough, just as you are. Good enough as a human, good enough as a rugby player. The coach has shown faith in you, your family believe in you, the team at the Reds believe in you, your Wallaby teammates believe in you.

Now it’s just up to you to believe in you. To believe you are enough. And it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Why do I say that? Because I can tell by the look in your eyes on the field, and your injury pattern, that you are still wrestling with some ‘inner demons, as are nearly all the world.’ That you are trying too hard! I still am as well.

Maybe you saw Lomu, Nonu and Savea and wanted to be the person who ‘ran’ over players. Perhaps you have always had to prove yourself to family or yourself. Or could it be that your parents always pushed you to perform, or you felt the need to prove to those around you how tough you were.

Whatever it is, it’s ok now. You can relax just a little. You’re in the team, and you’ve got this!

Luckily for you your timing is excellent. There’s no longer any need to play the Cheika ‘attackathon’ from all parts of the ground. Dave Rennie has a different strategy and I hope you take it on too. As an example, rewatch the Wallaby v South Africa Game 2 highlights.

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Around the third minute, Folau Fainga’a takes a pass from Taniela Tupou and is tackled five metres out. He turns and throws a one handed pass to Andrew Kellaway who has come in to form a ruck.

Kellaway, who has learned patience and the value of treasuring the ball and consolidating field positioning, isn’t expecting a pass and knocks it on. The Boks are off the hook, pressure is released.

Dave Rennie looks on.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Compare that with Pete Samu’s second half break off Kerevi’s offload. He manages to stay on his feet, and instead of throwing a speculator as Wallabies have been guilty for several years, his Crusaders training kicks in and he takes the ball into a ruck. Marika scores very soon after.

So Jordie, a few one handed offloads will be okay, but do you know the Pareto Principle or 80:20 rule? It says loosely that 80 per cent of your results come from 20 per cent of your efforts. The All Blacks certainly know that and just look at how many tries they have scored of our players pushing passes. So less can be more, as weird as that may sound.

Well Jordie, I look forward to watching your growth and maturity as a person and in your rugby game. I’m sure as well as your power game, you are also learning the subtleties of players like Ben Smith and Anton Lienart-Brown who were not big men and so had to develop two invaluable rugby IQ skills – finding and running into space; and mastering BIPART, which in my humble opinion is one of the hardest things to learn in rugby and life.

BIRPART is an acronym for “Being In the Right Place At the Right Time”, something Andrew Kellaway seems to be getting good at.

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As a real tryhard myself, I found pushing and trying too hard blocks out those BIPART messages. So instead of doing everything at 110 per cent all the time, I’d love to see you do it at 100 per cent just 20 per cent of the time, and know when to pull back and when to go hard. I reckon you’ll have less injuries that way.

Enjoy the spring tour and your Baa Baas experience Jordie. I hope it’s both the making of and rounding out of you as a player and person.

Yours truly

Mark Austin (Roar Rookie, rugby tragic, self-employed philosopher)

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