I must admit, writing last week’s blog took some steam out of me.
I’d never really spoken to anyone about the pain and regret from the way the Lions series ended.
Reflecting and writing about it was tough. But I’m glad I did, and wish I’d done it sooner.
I remember balling my eyes out on the team bus the next day, heading to the airport to fly home, still drunk from drinking myself into oblivion after the game. We’d been blown off the paddock, and I had been sent off for scrum infringements a quarter into a once-in-a-lifetime game.
To sit on the sidelines for the rest of the game watching on hopelessly as we went down 41-16, was awful.
For a week, I didn’t leave my home (except for Brumbies training) as I was too embarrassed to be seen in public.
I felt I’d let my teammates, my family, and my country down.
So much of my identity had been tied to “Ben the rugby player” and the criticism in the aftermath of that game crushed my self-esteem.
I kept reminding myself “no-one had died” and “it’s only a game”... but it didn’t help. The pain of failure and missing such a huge opportunity hurt for a very very long time.
It was also the first time I’d cried in front of Jen, and how she supported me through those first few days, only confirmed what I already knew. She was the one.
I’d already known for a while that I wanted to marry her, but I’d put those thoughts aside, while I focused on the chance to win in a once in a lifetime series.
If we'd won, I was going to propose to her on the sidelines after the game... and boy did that not go to plan!
But despite many painful defeats, I’m still overwhelming grateful for the career I had and the people I met along the way.
And this week, I wanted to write about some lessons I learned from the game, and the people I learned them from.
Rugby is full of great people. Super smart and hard-working, and I learned something from every single one of them.
I learned some things to avoid from a few. But I mostly learned valuable lessons that I believe will hold me in good stead for what’s next in retirement.
Stirlo & Sharpey
The power of encouragement
During my career, two of the guys I looked up to most were Nathan Sharpe and Stirling Mortlock.
I’d grown up watching both star for the Wallabies, and to play in the same team as them was very special.
But despite that, there was a small interaction I had with each of them that I’ll remember most.
Both interactions were quick moments of encouragement. Moments they won’t remember but had a massively positive impact on my career.
I can’t remember exactly what they said, but I remember how the moment with each made me feel.
During my first season with the Brumbies, I missed selection for the last game of the year.
While having a beer in the change room after the game, Sterlo said to me something along the lines of “you deserve more of a go next year”.
I was shocked.
I’d had a few ok games off the bench, but to hear that from the current Wallabies captain was unreal.
It gave me a huge boost, and the next season was personally one of my best, as I would cement my spot in the starting team, and win forward of the year.
A few years later, Sharpey became Wallabies skipper, and I’d just gotten back into the starting team after being dropped, following a disappointing 2011 World Cup.
As Sharpey and I prepared to catch some kickoffs during training, he turned to me and said something like “well done on getting back into the starting side mate”.
Like Sterlo’s comment, Sharpey’s moment of encouragement spurred me on for the rest of the season, and looking back, it was probably my best in Wallabies colours.
They taught me the power of encouragement, and how even a small dose can send someone a long way in the right direction.
“Look for the space”
Robbie helped me to believe that I could be better than I ever thought I could be, and I will always be grateful to him for that.
Having picked me for the Wallabies as a young bloke, I wasn’t sure what he saw in me.
There are very few people I’ve met in my life that have helped me open my eyes to my true potential, and Dingo was one of them.
I was gutted when he was replaced as coach after the Lions series, as I felt that I’d let him down.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing” he would say in his cryptic sort of way.
“What the fuck does that even mean?” a few of the boys used to say, and for a long time, I wondered the same.
Now I’m older, I understand that he was telling me that I was good enough, but I should just keep going. Keep trying to get better.
Another lesson I learned from Dingo was a mindset he drilled into us. In attack, he taught us to always “look for the space” and to look for where the defenders aren’t.
In retirement, I translate that to “where is the opportunity?” and is a positive reminder to always be on the lookout looking for opportunities that others may have missed.
That mindset helped establish The Dock, when the new Kingston Foreshore precinct was developed, and there was an opportunity to build a pub for the people living in it.
History will say Robbie Deans didn’t achieve what he set out to do, but he should be remembered as one of the greatest mentors to ever coach the Wallabies.
The power of the environment
Jake White… a mystery wrapped in a riddle, but the fondest years of my rugby career was at the Brumbies when Jake was in charge, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Despite it looking like he was going to jump ship early on in his Brumbies tenure, and “throwing his toys” when he didn’t get the Wallabies job, it was great to play in a team coached by Jake.
After a big day of training, Jake was always the first one out the door to head home (or Royal Canberra).
But Jake was a meticulous planner, and even if he wasn’t at his desk, he was preparing his team to win.
He’d created this amazing environment by assembling an incredible coaching staff and having us tidy up the old South Canberra Bowling Club.
The kitchen was dusted off and a sleep-room was added, so players always were always refreshed and had the energy to train at their best.
And once training was finished, he knew his job was done, so he headed off.
That Brumbies environment was unbelievable to be apart of, as every player who entered it improved.
Every time the team played, we played better. And every day I stepped into that Brumbies environment, I felt I got better too.
As Jake would say “the reality is boy…” we were getting better.
And that’s all a player who’s training hard wants. I always felt that every ounce of effort I put into training during those two years directly translated to improvements.
I’m an incredibly lazy person, and I don’t like to waste energy.
But in that environment, you never felt like you wasted a calorie of energy. Every ounce of effort was worth it, and I will always remember my time in that environment and I have Jake to thank for that.
The gift of endless learning
What to say. I was so lucky to have Lord as a coach, not only at the beginning of my professional career but at the end of it too.
Lord taught me the value of being a part of something greater than yourself, and to dedicate yourself to a cause.
Not only did he teach me about giving back to the game, but he taught me to become a student of it, forever learning and looking for ways to improve.
He taught me all this through his actions and his dedication to Rugby and the Brumbies.
Whenever I was coached by Lord, I never had to fire myself up for a game.
A couple of hours before kick-off, we’d gather as a forward pack in a hotel room or the AIS, and every time he spoke, he narrowed my focus to the task at hand and mentally prepared me for battle.
Maybe that was the school teacher in him… used to getting children with short attention spans to focus!
I hope one day we see a Wallaby forward pack with Lord’s fingerprints all over it. Physical, technically accurate, and always getting better.
Up the Owls.
The power of symbolism and having fun
I only had one Wallaby tour under Michael Cheika, but on that trip, he taught me the power of symbolism. How it can be used to communicate a message, and how symbols represent values to the people who idolize them.
Almost nothing had given me more pleasure than to hear he’d smashed a window in the coaching box after a narrow Brumbies victory, but I loved his “let the club swing” analogy he used with the Waratahs on their road to a premiership.
The message of just giving it a go, and not worrying about the result really resonated with me, as I’d gone back into my shell as a player a couple of times following some tough losses.
Stephen Larkham, Andy Friend, Ewen McKenzie, Dan McKellar, and the many other coaches I had over my 20+ years playing rugby, and I learned from all of them, and I can’t thank them enough.
I hope to see Bernie and Andy Friend back in Australian rugby one day, as I believe their best days as coaches lay ahead of them.
Link too, as it was very hard to watch someone who had given the game so much, leave the way he did.
And last but not least, my first ever rugby coach Allan Metcalfe showed me how much fun the game of Rugby is.
My first season was so much fun, as the mighty Beecroft under 12’s finished the season as undefeated premiers.
If I hadn’t enjoyed my first ever season as much as I had, there’s no doubt I wouldn’t have played the game for as long as I did.
Thank you, Allan.
Thanks again to everyone who gave feedback last week! Really appreciate it, and it’s great to know I’m not alone when it comes to struggles communicating.
Ben, I really applaud what you said about Robbie Deans. I have never met him, but he seems to me to be a wonderful caring man, one who in his time as Wallaby Coach was always available to help all levels of the game, whether it be at schools or clubs or other rugby groups, and without any expectation of gratitude or thanks, he did it because of his love of the game, his respect for the game and the position he held as Wallaby Coach.
And his biggest crime was having to handle the petulance of a few of his younger players at the time, who I bet wish they had their time again, maybe they would have behaved differently when they realised what a good man they had in charge of them