Three years ago, in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tate McDermott took a stand.
Showing maturity beyond his years, that stand marked him out as a leader of his generation and culminated on Thursday in his selection as the Wallabies’ 86th captain.
With the game’s future under a heavy, dark cloud and no broadcast rights deal in place, the then-21-year-old didn’t shy away from the fact he might be short-changed financially.
But wanting to see Australian rugby turn the corner, the halfback, just as he does with ball-in-hand, said he would stay the course and try to take the game forward instead of looking to potentially greener pastures.
“There could be pay cuts around the corner, but you either love your country or you don’t; you either love your state or you don’t,” McDermott told this correspondent.
“There’s no way I’m walking away from Australian rugby. I’m sick of this country struggling in a rugby sense and I want to see it back to the glory days.
“It’s pretty cliched – everyone’s been saying that – but from a lifelong rugby fan, it’s obviously pretty tragic the stage the game’s in and we’ve each got our individual hand in trying to get it out of that mess.”
Now, four months after being left out of Eddie Jones’ training squad, McDermott will lead the Wallabies against the All Blacks on Saturday.
It’s a far cry from the teenage livewire who was tapped on the shoulder by Brad Thorn and asked to shear his long locks.
But tutored under Thorn’s tough, uncompromising school of discipline and resilience, McDermott has grown from a zippy halfback to one who teammates play for.
McDermott was in the front line when his Reds side held out the Chiefs for 27 phases in New Plymouth back in May.
A month later, with the Chiefs’ All Blacks-laden side expected to smash the Reds in the quarter-final, the Reds once again pushed this year’s runners-up right until the final whistle.
McDermott’s fingerprints and never-say-die attitude were all over their late-season surge.
“With Tate, having watched him closely at Super Rugby level with Queensland, he captained a young team and now comes into the team as a starting nine,” Jones said.
“He’s got great potential, good head on him. Calm, shows good direction on the field and he’s got all the attributes of being a very good captain.”
McDermott’s not the first halfback Jones has turned to lead the Wallabies.
Indeed, two decades ago Jones entrusted George Gregan as his general.
While Jones was reticent to make any comparisons between the two halfbacks, he said McDermott shared Gregan’s “strong determination to win” and was a “tough little bugger”.
McDermott’s rise to the Wallabies captaincy comes just four months after being left out of Jones’ first training squad.
“I knew better than most and me and Eddie spoke about it, my performance just wasn’t good enough,” he said.
“Particularly when you’re playing for your country, you can’t afford to dish that out at Super Rugby level and particularly being the captain of my state, it was disappointing.
“So, yeah, of course, I was disappointed but it gave me the time to work on that stuff. Time to freshen up and time to get stuck into what I needed to work on.”
Called into the starting side last week after consecutive Tests on the bench, McDermott’s toughness was on display after recovering from an early heavy shot from Scott Barrett that led to the All Blacks’ opening try.
While he managed to snipe at halfback and inject some pace into the game, McDermott’s pass struggled at times throughout the first half.
The 24-year-old said his core responsibilities as halfback were a constant work-on, but he added that a changed mindset was also something that Jones had wanted to see.
“I tend to, particularly as the captain, look at the negative parts of my game or the negative parts of the whole team game,” McDermott said.
“So taking a step back from that and looking at how we can actually grow, how we can develop as a side, and individually how I can continue to grow in all aspects of my game; the kick, pass and run side as well. So, it’s not just one thing, it was a bundle of things but it gave me that time to nit-pick through that.”
While McDermott will lead the Wallabies against the All Blacks on Saturday in Dunedin, it’s by no means a certainty he will captain the side at next month’s World Cup.
Yet, Jones’ decision to turn to the rising halfback is further evidence of the veteran coach’s desire to usher through the next generation of Wallabies after years of ploughing through the mud.
“We’re definitely remodelling the team,” Jones said, “we need to change the team from where we’ve been.
“And part of it is definitely the leadership aspect.
“Tate’s captain for this game, but then we’ll assess it at the end of the tournament, then we go into World Cup mode.
“So this has been a period where we’ve been finding a lot out about the team, finding out what’s good, what’s not so good.
“Where are we strong? Where are we not strong?
“And the nucleus of any good team going forward is the leadership and the captain’s obviously a massive part of that.
“So it’s all part of a bit of a transitional period for us.”
While McDermott’s responsibilities have undoubtedly increased in recent days with the added responsibilities, the rising halfback said it was important to be aware that he’s got other leaders around him and added that the challenges his Super Rugby side had confronted in recent years had given him a good grounding.
“I’ve learned a lot the last two years and I’ve learned a lot in the last month,” he said.
“Obviously being here in this team, particularly from a leadership point of view, just how quickly we can solve problems is probably the biggest one I’ve learnt.
“It’s so easy to be a captain and criticise or pick up the negative parts of the game, particularly given how poor the Queensland Reds played the last two years.
“So for me, every day was a bit of a challenge.
“There was a lot going on in the background as well, but I guess to where I am now, that’s prepared me to step into this role.
“And like Eddie’s talking about, there’s been four captains, I’m the fourth captain in four games.
“So that just speaks of, I guess the quality I have around me in that space and the amount of people that have helped me in that role.
“I’ll go out there with guys like Samu [Kerevi] who I’ve played a lot with, who’s captained the Reds and has been by my side in this leadership journey. Andrew Kellaway at the back.
“I’ve got a lot of people around me to help me, support and play my best footy.
“You’re talking there around putting all my energy into the leadership. It’s a pretty easy piece when I’ve got those players around me.”