Young guns: Andy Muirhead

By Pete Fairbairn, 28.03.18

When your alternative employment option involves needing to exercise absolute caution to simply prevent a fatal fall or the threat electrocution, playing Rugby for a living suddenly isn’t all that intimidating.

And after a journey of perseverance which has also seen him miss out on selection in a number of representative teams, move to a small town in New Zealand and then finally pack his car up and drive from Brisbane to Canberra, Andy Muirhead is making the most of every opportunity to represent the Brumbies in Super Rugby competition.

Muirhead made his first start in Super Rugby against the Brumbies in Canberra a fortnight ago, his fifth overall Super Rugby appearance yet one that seemed perhaps unlikely for the now-25-year-old just a couple of years ago.

To understand Muirhead’s journey, first you need to start back at high school in Brisbane; where he was born and raised, despite some pages on the internet incorrectly referring to him as a New Zealander!

“The whole ‘born in New Zealand thing’ is a bit of a myth; I’m not too sure where that came from, I spent a season playing over there but I’m Australian,” Muirhead is keen to point out!

“I was born and raised in Brisbane. I have some indigenous heritage on my Mum’s side, and her family are from out Chinchilla way, but I attended Brisbane State High School and I’m definitely not a Kiwi!”

If the mention of Brisbane State High School made you do a double take, or indeed made you think that you might have read this story before, you’re forgiven.

However, it might not be Muirhead’s path to the top that has triggered a sense of déjà vu, but rather the fact that his old school produced a disproportionate number of professional and representative players. Of the 61 players from Brisbane State High School to have played for the Australian Schoolboys side, including the likes of Wally Lewis (1976 &1977), Michael Kasprowicz (1989) and Jacob Rauluni (1990), 27 were between 2004 and 2016.

More recent names include Matt Toomua (2006 & 2007), Eddie Quirk (2008), Paul Alo-Emile (2009), Curtis Browning (2009-2011), Chris Feauai-Sautia (2009-2010) and Adam Korczyk (2012), while others like Andy who were overlooked for Australian Schoolboys honours include Sam Caslick and Ben Meehan.

“We had such a good school team, and while I played half a year of 1st XV at fullback there unfortunately, I didn’t get picked in any of the state or national schoolboy teams. When I finished school in 2010, I signed up to play Club Rugby at Souths. I played about half a year of Colts, but at the time we were struggling a bit so I got a crack to play first grade and didn’t look back from there.”

Over the next few years at Souths, Muirhead was coached by former professional stars Van Humphries, Steve and Toutai Kefu, and Elia Tuqiri, however he was also working away in another field as he resisted the urge to put all of his eggs in the one basket.

“I always wanted to pursue footy as a career, but Mum wanted me to get something else behind me as well and convinced me to pick up a trade.

"I was lucky enough to get a job with Energex, which is a Government electrical company, working on the power-lines and I did that while I was playing Club Rugby for Souths.”

Despite consistently starring for Souths, higher honours weren’t forthcoming for Andy and by 2014 he decided to try and forge a different path.

“To be honest, I started to get a bit sick of not getting an opportunity to show what I was capable of in Brisbane with the Reds. I’m good mates with Mafileo Kefu, Toutai and Steve’s brother who played for Tonga, and he knew Tana Umaga who was coaching Counties Manukau at the time.

“He organised for me to move over to New Zealand, play some Club Rugby and train with the team to see how I went. I moved to a town called Waiuku, about an hour south of Auckland, and eventually managed to force my way into some sort of a contract and managed to play a couple of games of ITM Cup.”

Tana Umaga, for those unaware, is one of the greatest backline players in the history of the game. The current Blues Coach, he played 74 Test matches for the All Blacks as well as over 120 Super Rugby games for the Hurricanes and Blues. For a young back like Muirhead, desperate to take the next step, it was an unbelievable opportunity.

“Working with Tana was awesome; pretty much what you hear about him is exactly what he’s like.

He’s down to earth and funny, and the level of respect he has earned makes you train even harder. He has a whole lot of knowledge, and at the time when he threw on his boots at training with the boys he definitely still had it and could have played footy if he wanted to.”

After breaking through and making three appearances for Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup, Muirhead returned home and starred for Souths as they broke a long Queensland Premier Rugby title drought in 2015. National Rugby Championship (NRC) selection and appearances for Brisbane City that same season followed, however when he missed out the following year he again decided it was time to up sticks and leave Brisbane.

“When I didn’t make the 2016 Brisbane City NRC team, I showed interest in moving to Canberra and locked in a commitment to play Club Rugby with Royals. At the same time, the Brumbies needed an outside back to help fill the numbers in their 2017 Super Rugby pre-season, and then from there I was asked to stay around on a month-by-month basis before finally getting selected to tour South Africa and Argentina.”

The Hollywood script writers take over from there; a Super Rugby debut in Port Elizabeth against the Kings was followed by another appearance off the bench against the Jaguares where he scored two tries, and then a permanent contract for 2018 not long after.

This year, Muirhead finds himself in one of the most hotly-contested back three battles in the competition, competing with Tom Banks, James Dargaville, Chance Peni, Henry Speight, Lausi Tauliali and James Verrity-Amm for a place in the 23. That being said, he’s played in the last two matches and is considered a strong chance of selection against the Waratahs this week.

“It’s a confidence thing, to back yourself to get picked in the team,” Andy says. “The outside backs we have here are really good and if you do get into that 23 you need to take your chances and make the most of it. You certainly know that if you don’t perform there are multiple guys ready to come in and take your spot.

“I think I have shown that I can play at the standard required at this level. I have only played five games and I’m very excited about what I have ahead of me, there’s a lot more footy to be played.”

And as for whether he feels safer on the field than up on the power lines, and whether the hard graft required to get where he is has all been worth it?

“I know which job I would much rather be doing!” he laughs. “There are a few touch and go moments when you’re working up on the power lines, and in footy you get those as well, but your life and your safety is not as much at risk! I definitely prefer the footy side of things now.

“The years of not getting contracts handed to me, or not being selected in many representative teams, have encouraged me to work a lot harder and I think that’s just the way I am.

“It’s helped me a lot with pushing myself at pre-season; that comes somewhat naturally to me, to put my head down and work hard without training and I probably appreciate what I have now more than some other guys might in the same circumstances.”

The Andy Muirhead story is an absolute belter, and you cant help but think that there are plenty of chapters that are yet to be written… watch this space!

Fast four with Andrew Muirhead

Sporting Idol Growing Up: George Gregan was somebody I always loved watching play for some reason, even though I wasn’t a scrumhalf.

Cheapest Teammate: Matty Lucas, because he is in the room with me right now and can hear me!

Teammate with the worst dress sense: Blake Enever has a fairly interesting sense of style!

Teammate you’d most like to have dinner with: Kyle Godwin is good value, he has some pretty rank chat so it would be an interesting meal.

Andy Muirhead Profile:

Date of Birth: March 8th, 1993

Position: Wing/Fullback

Super Rugby Caps: 5 Caps (2 tries)

NRC Caps: 12 caps (2 Brisbane City, 10 Canberra Vikings), 4 tries

NPC (New Zealand): 3 caps (Counties Manukau)

Pete Fairbairn
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