Welcome back to the Taylors Wines Top 5, where we keep you up to date with all of the best player stories being told in the media, brought to you by our good friends at Taylors Wines (and accompanied by a handy wine tip every edition).
The big news story in recent days was, of course, the naming of the Australian squad for the Rugby World Cup, kicking off in Japan next month. Congratulations to all 31 players selected, but our commiserations also go to the players who haven't been selected; there are currently 55 other fully capped Wallabies playing professionally around the world, as well as uncapped players who have been part of Wallaby logistics camps during this RWC cycle.
Following the naming of the squad, the Wallabies headed off to Noumea for an intensive training camp, and they will return to Sydney next week as they finalise RWC preparations with a last hit-out against Samoa at Bankwest Stadium. Never fear, however; for those of you looking for your Rugby fix this weekend, the NRC season kicks off with four fascinating clashes this Saturday (click here to see all the squads).
NSW Country host Sydney in Dubbo in the FOX Sports Match of the Round at 12:00pm (AEST), while Melbourne Rising host Canberra Vikings at 1:30pm. Brisbane City host Fijian Drua at GPS Rugby Club (3:00pm), before the round concludes with Queensland Country heading to Perth to take on the Western Force (5:00pm). Good luck to all the players taking part, as seven teams fight to take the trophy back from the defending champion Drua!
1. Rabs' redemption
The return of the supremely talented James O'Connor is one of the best news stories of Australian Rugby this year, and seeing him descend the stairs of a Qantas jet on Friday morning was a wonderful moment to saviour for all of his fans, and of course O'Connor himself.
A reminder - eight years ago, when Robbie Deans revealed his 31-man Wallabies World Cup squad at Sydney’s Qantas hangar, a hungover James O'Connor was a notable absentee after sleeping through his alarm. Last Friday, that embarrassing gaffe did not repeat as the 29-year-old — fresh from his first appearance in gold in six years after a stunning return from the UK — proudly stood alongside his teammates.
Speaking to Fox Sports' Christy Doran, O'Connor said "it wasn’t about anyone else or anything else, it was just like, ‘I missed this announcement eight years ago.’
“It’s funny because I was speaking to Dave Pocock last night about similar things, just about life. I guess the only constant in life is change and growth. It wasn’t even a lifetime ago, it was almost like two lifetimes ago that version of me, in 2011, I missed that, the choices you make and I’m here now and soaking it up.”
Funnily enough, it was being overlooked for selection four years ago that made O’Connor look in the mirror.
“I think missing out on the 2015 World Cup was a big part of it,” he says. “The whole year of coming back to the Reds and being injured and being broken and being depressed, I wasn’t in a good mindset. I had lost my way. When I went back there, I was just broken. My ego had been broken.”
O'Connor speaks candidly about his journey to rediscover himself.
“Once I got to the UK I started working with a group called Saviour World, who I push their message and want to get it out there because, f**k, it literally saved me. The world tells you that you need power, money, women, all these things, I’ve had all those things, but I felt empty and then I said to myself ‘there’s got to be more to life than James O’Connor the Rugby player, who has a couple of sponsors and is earning good money. I had no substance and I lost my way.
“I met this guy, Oli, from Saviour World, who I met when I moved to London Irish (in 2013), just a chance meeting, a football player was working with him, who I didn’t even know, a mutual friend introduced us and I had a conversation with him and he just blew my mind. At that stage, he was like, ‘Look, we could work together but until you’re going to do it 100 per cent, don’t waste my time. I was like, ‘f**k, I’ve never had someone say that to me and be so brutally honest. I went away and kept in contact with him every now and then. But until I was ready to help myself, there was no point.”
2. Christian's sliding doors moment
Christian Lealiifano would have been playing for Samoa next month if an Australian Rugby great hadn't stepped in to reignite his Wallabies gold ambitions, as he told the Canberra Times' Chris Dutton.
That's why the playmaker's beaming grin at the Wallabies' squad announcement told a number of stories, including his own surprise at securing a ticket to Japan; excited and determined after being diagnosed with leukaemia three years ago before fighting his way back on to the field and restarting his career, relieved because he almost quit his Australian World Cup mission to honour family heritage until a conversation with Stephen Larkham changed his pathway.
Twelve months ago, he was weighing up his future and his prospects of Rugby World Cup selection. The 31-year-old thought he had fallen off the Wallabies' radar and suddenly Samoa emerged as a World Cup option given his family history. He would have needed to play several sevens tournaments this year to be eligible for the tier-two nation, but then Larkham, the Wallabies' 1999 World Cup hero and former Test assistant coach, had some words of wisdom. They were followed by conversations with family and friends, and a change of heart.
"I hadn't played for Australia for three years," Lealiifano says. "I looked at Samoa, joining a tier-two nation. We explored that idea because I didn't think I would get to play for Australia at a World Cup. But then Bernie [Larkham] talked me out of it. He said not to settle, to push myself.
"I'm glad he said that because while it would have been nice to represent my family and Samoa, I've learnt all of my Rugby in Australia.
"I knew playing for Samoa was a long shot, but I explored it and if it came to the crunch, maybe I would have given it a go. But I wanted to back myself to get back to playing quality Rugby and I'm ticking goals off slowly. I'm proud of that."
Lealiifano's journey has been about so much more than Rugby.
"Did I have doubts? Yeah. But to be back to full health ... it's been a hell of a ride," Lealiifano said. "Without the supporter of my family - my partner Luga, mum, my brothers and sisters - and friends and teammates, this just wouldn't be possible. The belief that people have in me is crazy. That's what motivates and inspires me. They drive me to be the best I can be."
3. Dempsey's Cup campaign nearly derailed
It's been a tough year for NSW Waratahs and Wallabies back rower Jack Dempsey, with injury keeping him to just nine appearances in sky blue, so it's fair enough that he wanted to head back to his roots and get some valuable time on the pitch for Gordon in the Shute Shield when he wasn't picked to play against Argentina in Brisbane.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald's Georgina Robinson, Dempsey explained how his good intentions very nearly cost him a place on the plane to Japan, as he injured a shoulder ligament 10 minutes into Gordon's must-win game against Easts on July 27.
"I knew something was going on because I couldn't lift my arm, but it was a big game for the club and for myself. We strapped it up at half-time," he said. "I guess it comes down to the individual. For myself, with the tough two years I've had, all I've wanted to do throughout this rehab time is just get out on to the footy pitch. If I'm on there I'll only be taken off if I can't physically perform at all.
"A lot of things go through your head but I thought if it is significant this could be my last game of the year and I just wanted to help Gordon get into the finals. We lost after the buzzer. It was a bit of a double hit, but it's where I come from, it's where I started my career, I always love going back and playing for them."
Scans brought good news and Dempsey is now confident he will be available for selection against Samoa.
Randwick and Wallaby breakaway Simon Poidevin was the former player asked to make the happy call to Dempsey when the Australian squad was named last week. It will be Dempsey's first World Cup.
"A lot of nostalgia comes to mind, which might seem weird, because I'm only a young player, but I grew up in Sydney, I was there during the 2003 World Cup. Seeing them go all the way to the final and lose by that drop goal, is one of my first ever Rugby moments," he said.
"I was only about eight or nine years old, but to have that memory of how big a World Cup is ... to dream about possibly playing in those moments, is one of the big motivations for why we do what we do. We want to make everyone proud when we go out there."
4. Swoop searching for fulfillment
Picked to play in his fourth Rugby World Cup, with 118 Test caps already under his belt, Adam Ashley-Cooper should be the happiest Wallaby alive. If longevity is a measure of success, the 35-year-old’s standing as a Wallaby great is beyond question, but that’s not how the veteran utility back sees it, as he explained to Julian Linden in the Daily Telegraph.
“I’ve always played the game with a chip on my shoulder. And the fact I’ve played over 100 Tests for Australia and not really achieved anything significant, I’m filthy about that.
“For me to be happy, I’ve got to win the World Cup. It’s great to be picked to play in four World Cups and be in great company with George Gregan but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about winning. That’s what I need and I think it’s what this country needs and what our game needs.”
Ashley-Cooper was resigned to finishing his career without winning the World Cup when he played in the Wallabies side that lost the 2015 final to New Zealand and he took up a lucrative contract in France, then switched to Japan.
But something just kept gnawing away at him so last year, he called up Michael Cheika and asked whether there was any chance he could force his way into the side for this year’s World Cup.
He wasn’t asking for a handout, knowing he wouldn’t get one anyway, and had to take a massive pay cut to return home to play for the Waratahs and prove he deserved a spot on merit.
“I still wanted to achieve something at international level which I hadn’t done so I rang Cheik and said ‘am I dreaming or could this be a reality?” and he said that he was very open to the conversation and I thought I could inspire a lot of others to come back and play,” Ashley-Cooper said.
“So I made that my goal and trained harder than I ever have before because I still had my own questions and fears about what I was trying to so but that’s what drives you.
“You’re allowed to be scared, you’re allowed to be fearful. I think that’s natural but you use that as a mechanism and just keep at it.”
5. Captains excited for rule changes
Finally this week we turn to the NRC and it's experimental rules.
This season, the NRC will feature a rugby league-style 50-22/22-50 kicking rule and introduce a line dropout when the ball is held up over the line. The latter rule is one that should excite plenty of forwards after years of heading to five-metre scrums after stopping a try over the line. Teams won't have to take the dropout under the posts either, in contrast to rugby league, giving them the chance to exit their defensive zone immediately.
Brisbane City skipper Fraser McReight is certainly hoping the law variations open the matches up more this year.
“I think I can see this year it's going to be a very high-scoring NRC but it's not going to be five-metre scrums, scrum, scrum, scrums, penalty try. It's going to be held them up, kick the ball up, attacking Rugby,” he told Rugby.com.au's Beth Newman.
“We like that and it's rewarding because the best thing about Rugby is not just the scrums and the mauls but for me, I love the running, I love the tackling, love the openness and the freedom of the game, that's what this NRC season's going to do so I can't wait to get stuck in.”
Sydney Captain Lalakai Foketi said he felt it would be an easy one to adapt to given how many players have grown up watching or playing rugby league
"I guess my first option would be to run it but I think it's great, it's pretty smart, get rewarded for good play," he said. "If we get into that right position on the field, I'm sure that boys will do that and see what happens. We get a lineout in their 22, hopefully we can counter on that. Everyone watches rugby league here and I'm sure most of them have grown up playing rugby league so again talking to a couple of the boys like Will Harrison and that about the kicking rules, they're loving it so I'm sure if we're in our 50 and we've got a four on two they'll still kick it into the 22.
And now, for an exclusive tip from our friends at Taylors Wines, and this week we’re talking about Riesling…
Like most of the great grape varieties Riesling is adaptable. Just consider the climatic difference between Germany, Austria and Alsace – it’s ancestral homes - and the Clare Valley, the Eden Valley and Mount Barker in Western Australia - it's three prime spots in Australia. Riesling is arguably Australians greatest white wine in the cellar!