Three years ago, Ned Hanigan was experiencing drought on and off the park.
He had fallen out of favour with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and then was overlooked for the 2019 World Cup squad. At home the family farm in NSW’s central-western plains was cracked dirt, barely a drizzle all year to bring any hope.
Hanigan regained his cherished gold jumper in 2020 under Dave Rennie, Cheika’s replacement bringing him back from the wilderness and rewarding his impressive work rate and athleticism.
But Hanigan ended that year needing a change and made what looks an increasingly attractive move for an Australian rugby player, trading in the land of scorched earth for the land of the rising sun.
On Sunday, after a false start last weekend, Hanigan will return to the Waratahs squad for the first time in two years, against the Highlanders.
It will be two weeks to the day he landed at Sydney airport, still lightly bruised from a game with the aptly named Kurita Water Gush.
And the fresh start in Waratah blue comes at a time when Pasadena, the family farm that’s 60 clicks outside of Coonamble, is so lush “the cattle don’t even have to bend down to eat”.
The drought is broken – on and off the park. All Hanigan sees now is growth.
“I knew it was going to feel quite surreal, because I finished playing over there on a Friday night and was back here in Australia on Sunday morning, and into training Monday morning,” Hanigan tells The Roar of his whirlwind return to the Tahs.
“The most surreal feeling is the fact that I’ve gone back, I’ve met new faces, met some fellas that I’ve played with in previous years, but everything just feels so familiar.
“And after being away for a while, you kind of think things might be a bit different with those relationships with people but obviously the culture in the Tahs is still there. There’s a really good feeling in there at the moment.”
Rookie coach Darren Coleman has received a lot of praise from his players for how he’s revived the Tahs this season after the misery of last year. He has also recruited cannily – Hanigan is just one example of a hardened pro brought in to complement a promising young roster.
Hanigan had worked with Coleman before, with the Country Eagles, and had teammates coached by him in Sydney club rugby and in the US.
“He’s a coach that you want to play for,” says Hanigan. “He absolutely invests so much into whatever team that he’s coaching.
“He reads the group went really well, understands group dynamics and what makes players tick, which is so important as a head coach these days.
“He knows the players, what they can do and what he wants out of them. That’s definitely one of his best traits – but there are a hell of a lot of other things too. He’s a very detailed oriented coach, that’s for sure.
“And he makes no apologies that he’s so emotionally attached to whatever team that he coaches.
“You can just tell that he really wanted to coach the Waratahs and has gone about his pathway to get there, the right way.”
In a land of Zen, Hanigan found a balance: how to enjoy the game again and his time away from it too.
“I’d been at the Tahs for about five years, and I just felt as though I needed a bit of a change personally, and where I was mentally around the game,” Hanigan says.
“I learned new things overseas, and I just feel that coming back, I potentially could use those things to be a better player.
“I felt that that overall look on things was just going to help me perform better when I came home. So, I just felt like it was the right timing.
“That’s what we’re all trying to do as footy players, trying to get better every day.”
Away from the training and playing fields, Tokyo was a headspin – a long way from Pasadena.
“I was right in the mixer,” he says. “Had the full Japanese experience, dived into the language a fair bit and the culture and how they do things. I had a helluva time over here.”
He was intrigued by how the locals approached life with a different mentality from those at home. How orderly and respectful of each other they seemed.
“When that red man is showing at the traffic lights, but there’s no traffic, in Australia, we just bowl out across the road a fair bit of the time, but in Japan, they Do. Not. Cross. The. Road.
“Sometimes I’d be looking left and right. There’d be no cars for kays and I thought I’d cross – but you don’t do it in Japan.”
Hanigan was learning about patience and the long game.
While Japanese rugby clubs are throwing yen at every Tom, Nick and Taniela who have pulled on a gold or Super Rugby jersey, the sport is finding its place in a country obsessed with baseball and soccer.
“There’s still a real sense of rugby just being about the love for the game,” Hanigan found. “The team I was with, they were all company workers, and they would come in after a pretty big shift, on the tools or behind the desk or whatever.
“They just play rugby because they love being around each other. They love the mateship. They love being able to go and work hard for one another on the footy field.
“They love rugby for those times where they’re able to sit around and have a beer with one another after the game and then come Monday it’s kind of win, lose or draw they still love the game for what it is, and they just enjoy being around one another.
“That aspect of the footy over there, I think it’s helped me a little bit. It puts things into perspective. You obviously still want the competitive edge. But being able to enjoy footy like that is why I would have started playing or why I fell in love with it.”
Putting the money aside, Hanigan believes there is something else Australian rugby can’t match for some players.
“Players who have been in a system for five or six years might want to experience something a little different and see if they can learn different things,” he says.
“I’m sure there are examples, but there are not many people that come back from Japan and didn’t really like their experience.
“The beauty of rugby is it can take you all over the world. It’s a life experience that rugby players want to take advantage of because it’s such a global sport.”
For most, going away has also meant surrendering their Wallabies jersey. Sure, the Giteau law protected rare cases, and the new update announced earlier this year, will give others a shot.
Ask any overseas-based player about the eligibility rules and they all agree it’s complicated. Hanigan has sympathy for Rugby Australia.
“It’s a tricky situation because it’s in Rugby Australia’s interest to have players in Super Rugby and the people playing the game in Australia and people who watch it want the best players in Australia to be playing,” Hanigan says.
“Sometimes the decisions of players and them wanting to go overseas or Rugby Australia trying to keep them just don’t align.
“Most players from Australia would want to be playing in Australia because it gives them the best opportunity to be selected for further honours. There’s no question that the players who are playing the best footy in Super Rugby will be involved in the selections that happen later in the year.
“It’s a tricky balancing act, I think, which is why the restrictions around that change a little bit because they’ve got to keep changing to try and have the players for Australia that are playing their best footy and eligible.”
Hanigan is eligible – that’s the easy part. Now it’s time to focus on playing his best footy.
His most recent Test was in December 2020, the draw against Argentina. He’s determined it wasn’t his last.
“Well, I’m back in Australia and the ambition to pull on that gold jersey is the epitome for anyone playing in Super Rugby,” he says.
“I’ve been lucky enough to put it on a few times and it’s a pretty special thing to do.
“So that’s an ambition of mine. But for the short term, I just want to get back into the groove of things and put weeks on end where I’m on the training paddock.
“I’m still learning lineout calls at the moment, so I’m not rushing into things.
“I’m just focussing on pushing for selection with the Tahs and hopefully get a game there and just stay fit and be available and whatever happens is going to happen.”
Hanigan has been in touch with Rennie throughout his time away from the Australian game.
“Dave’s a really good communicator,” he says. “I think he stays in contact with so many players and particularly ones that have either played for him previously or might be overseas that he’s interested in.
“I spoke to Dave a little while ago. I rang him a few times about things I needed to get better at. And he helped me in that regard.”
Hanigan received no promises, nor expected any.
“In terms of selection or anything like that, he tends not to talk too much about those things,” Hanigan says. “There’s an understanding amongst players in Australia that if you’re playing good footy and you’re consistent, that’s what will get you picked. That’s how it should always be.
“Any player who is playing good footy and is consistently doing that will be in the eyes of Dave Rennie and the coaches in the Wallaby squad.”
Hanigan feels he has returned to Australia a changed player – some of it to do with the Japan experience and some just through age and experience.
“Probably mentally going into a game and around training,” he says when asked to pinpoint the shifts.
“There are numerous examples of players who might not be as fast or as athletically elite as what they were in their youth, but they can still make plays on a footy field and still get picked for those higher honours,” he says.
“With years comes experience and the more time you spend around the football you just get better with it.”
I mention that I read a recent news story that referred to him as a “veteran”. It took him back enough that he momentarily lost track of his age.
“I don’t feel like a veteran! I feel like I’ve still got a few left in the legs. I’m only 26 so I’m going to still be around for a while.”
Twenty-six? “Oh I’m 27, I turned 27 in April,” he laughed.
What’s a year here or there when you’ve spent six of them in the furnace of Super and Test rugby?
That furnace has scorched at times. No player is universally loved. The comments section on this very site is home to some passionate rugby fans who don’t rate Michael Hooper, the man other judges regularly name as Australia’s best on ground.
Hanigan copped it as hard as anyone, especially as a young Wallaby back in 2017-18.
“If I could have given myself a bit of advice when I was a 20-year-old it probably would have been to have a close circle of people where you really trust their opinions and look to learn from those people,” he says.
“If you get criticised by those people, make sure whatever it is try to work on it and get better at it.”
As for others outside that circle, “you’re always going to have noise from people who know better,” he says.
“They’re always going to give their opinion on things and they’re within their rights to give those opinions.”
But there are opinions, and then there is abuse.
“We’re seeing players talk about it more now – not just in rugby but in NBA, NFL, English Premier League,” Hanigan says. “I know a player who retired early because he’d had had enough of it.
“Now I talk to people that I really trust. I trust my teammates’ opinions; I try to learn off coaches all the time and just keep building on experience to become a better player.
“I’ll never give less than 100% on the footy field. And if that’s not good enough for some people, that’s just how it sits and that’s life.
“I try not to take too much of that to heart but we obviously still hear and still see it and are still affected by it. “
He says the issue is a significant one for young players to come to grips with, along with meeting their own expectations.
“I just hope that particularly younger players get the support they need around it,” he says. “Because as people become more vocal on social media, and people want to give their opinions in a robust way. It can have a detrimental effect on some players.
“It’s a little bit different for everyone. It could be a moment in the game where someone who hasn’t dropped a ball in five years might drop one on the line and that’s the cause of the team not winning. Then they open their phone, and there are messages from Instagram from people they’ve never met before just bombing them.
“That can affect people very differently. It does come with the game but having support around that is pretty important in elite sports.”
The last time I spoke to Hanigan was in late 2019, editing the piece for Athletes Voice, that Hanigan wrote in support of the NSW Positive Rugby Foundation, and batyr, a foundation working on mental health of youngsters in rural areas.
Hanigan, as always, was great value, but it was a darker time.
Ned’s old man Peter, and Peter’s old man before him, had, for more than 50 years, kept a logbook where they noted down every drop of rain in their time at Pasadena.
The headline on the story was When The Dread Sets In. The notebook had been picked up once in six months, for a meagre 15 mills.
Now there are new shoots in Ned’s rugby career and abundant rain out west along with a different tone in his voice.
“When I got back to Australia I said to DC ‘any chance I can just duck home for a day?’ Told him ‘I just want to feed the cows and say g’day to my dog’. He said ‘no, you’re on the paddock, you’re a goer.’
“Here in Sydney, everyone’s getting a little bit sick of the rain. At home the cattle don’t even have to bend down to eat, they’re just mowing the top off, it’s around their chests. Things are going well out there!”
And it’s not over yet, none of it. The North West Plains, he says, are “due for another thumper”.
And Hanigan is preparing for a ‘thumper’ of his own.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have played a few games for the Tahs in the past and to come back and represent my state is something I’m super proud of,” he says of his comeback this weekend.
“Whether I get 30 seconds off the bench or whether someone goes down early and I play 78 minutes – I’m just excited to be a part of it.”