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Ex-Wallaby Speight on his short-lived Reds stint, Biarritz lifeline, and dream to coach Fiji

Henry Speight of Reds applauds to fans a match between Jaguares and Reds as part of Super Rugby 2020 at Jose Amalfitani Stadium on February 15, 2020 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

The Fijian, a former Australia international, didn’t get the career ending he wanted in Biarritz. Now back in Brisbane, he is looking to launch a coaching career.

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This is the only French patisserie he has found near his home in Bulimba, on the Brisbane River, a stone’s throw from the CBD. Croissant and pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, depending on the region) remind him of where he was just a few months ago, in Biarritz.

Since November 2023, Henry Speight, a former Wallabies international (age 36, 19 caps between 2014 and 2017) who played for the Canberra Brumbies and Brisbane Reds, has returned to live in Brisbane, closer to his Fijian community, closer to the archipelago and in a more pleasant climate.

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“I don’t know how I survived nine seasons in Canberra,” he laughs, sitting quietly on the terrace of this café.

“The first half it was 8 degrees, the second half 4 degrees.”

It was this geographical proximity that initially prompted him to leave the Brumbies for the Reds in 2020.

There are no direct flights between Australia’s capital and Nadi, Fiji, and the journey from Canberra takes between six and eight hours, with a stopover in Sydney. However, Fiji is just 3.5 hours away from Brisbane International Airport.

His dream: to join the Fiji staff

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“My dream is to coach in Fiji,” he reveals, with the situation there about to be resolved.

Two candidates are well placed to take over from Simon Raiwalui, who left to join World Rugby at the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Mick Byrne, coach of the Fijian Drua, and Senirusi Seruvakula, who is currently serving as interim coach of the Flying Fijians, are among the Fiji Rugby Union’s favourites to take charge of the national team.

Henry Speight may not be ready to be a head coach just yet, but the winger has the skills to be a member of a staff, whether it’s XVs or 7s, men or women. “For the last twenty years, coaches have always come from overseas because Fijians have played elsewhere in the world,” he recalls. “Now we have the structures in place in Fiji.

“It would be a dream to go back and coach or help. The Fijians have enough experience, we have the depth we need now after playing all over the world. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have that. Now we can have the best from both hemispheres, and I want Fiji to benefit from that experience.

“The next two Rugby World Cups will be in Australia in 2027 (men’s) and 2029 (women’s). That would be a challenge for me and that’s what makes it so exciting! In a perfect world it would be great to be involved in 2027 and 2029. At the very least, to be a liaison officer for the French team,” he laughs.

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A 60% pay cut

Although he has rarely played for Fiji – just five appearances for the U19s at the 2007 IRB Under-19 World Cup – Henry Speight has maintained a strong connection with his heritage and culture throughout his life, and it is in this spirit that he and his wife Louise are now raising their little boy, Josefa, now four years old.

The last few years have been particularly difficult for the Speight family. It all started with the Covid 19 pandemic.

“I had just signed a two-year contract with the Reds and everything fell through with the Covid,” he says. “In April 2020 we played our last game and Rugby Australia tells us: no game, no money. Very quickly the financial situation became very complicated. They offered to cut our wages… by 60%. There were discussions with the Players’ Association and the plan was for all of us to have 60% pay cut for six months. For six months you live on 40% of your salary.”

More than ever an island, Australia cut itself off from the world for 14 months (September 2020-November 2021) to protect its population and local economy.

Henry remembers that three quarters of the players went through Job Keeper. He himself took in his brother for six months to help him out. “We were literally counting dollars,” he recalls. While the future looked bright, times had never been tougher.

His debut in Biarritz

Then came the offer to play in Biarritz. “It was never a dream to come and play in France, but it was a great opportunity,” says Henry Speight. “They were looking for a back and had a plan to get back into the Top 14. They had a lot of young players. They were very good but young and they wanted to bring in some experienced players.”

He was reunited with captain Steffon Armitage and fellow countryman Tevita Kuridrani.

“I was 32 at the time and the average age at the Reds was 20. Only 10-15% of the players were over 27. It was a very good challenge for me, and it came at the best time.”

Henry arrived in Biarritz in the last week of July 2020 to celebrate the first birthday of his son, who was born on 1 August. After a few difficult months in Australia, a three-year adventure began in France.

“Everything went well until the second lockdown (October-December 2020). And then it’s very hard for the family,” he confides.

Season one ends on a breathless note

Meanwhile, Henry’s first season at BO went well. Biarritz finished third in the Pro D2. They were beaten by Perpignan in the final but managed to reach the Top 14 against Aviron Bayonnais on kicks competition (6 for each team) at the end of an interminable and suffocating derby that has become part of Basque derby legend.

The next morning, he had to return to Australia with his wife and child. They were waiting for him at the airport.

“I had parked my car in Aguiléra on Friday so that I could leave immediately after the game on Saturday. The five suitcases were already in the boot. I had to get the key in the changing room and leave quickly to catch the 9am flight in Paris on Sunday morning,” he explains.

“But the game dragged on. I asked the physio what time it was, and he shouted, ‘Henry! Stay focused! We have to win!’. In the end, I didn’t even stay with the team to celebrate the win; they gave me the key and I left, drove all night, and got to the airport at 6am!”

The family spent two weeks in unbearable quarantine in a hotel before being allowed to return home, where Louise and Josefa eventually decided to stay.

Making memories with his son

Henry Speight spent the next season in the Top 14, all alone in France. Five wins and 21 defeats later, Biarritz were relegated to Pro D2 after one season. However, the third-year option in his original contract was honoured.

The soap opera surrounding the sale of the club fuelled the debate and created new uncertainty among the players. “Those who were being considered for the takeover wanted me to stay and Aldigé to go to Agen,” he recalls. “But nobody knew what would happen during the holidays.”

Back in Biarritz for the new season and with no news from the club, Speight waited. He then worked with Pat Lam’s Barbarians with Virimi Vakatawa in Brive in August, trained with Samoa in Anglet ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, played in the SuperSevens in Monaco and was involved in media commitments until the autumn.

Finally, tired of waiting, Henry returned to Australia with a simple goal in mind: to make up for lost time with a son he had never seen grow up.

“My main goal is to create memories with my son,” he admits. “He has only seen me play four times: three times for the Reds and once with Biarritz (play-off on 22 May 2021), just after the end of the restrictions in France. There were only 1,000 people in the stands.”

Today, Henry Speight coaches at Brisbane Boys College and plays for the Wests Bulldogs in Toowong, on the outskirts of Brisbane, in the Queensland Premier Rugby season that has just resumed. He scored a brace in front of his son in a 52-19 win over the Tuggeranong Vikings in March.

“Then I heard ‘Fatu’, which means ‘father’ in Fijian. It was my son. After the match I put him on my shoulders, and we walked out onto the pitch and into the changing rooms together. In that first match, everything I’d ever dreamed of came true. It was a very special moment. It marked my return to Australia, a feeling of indescribable happiness,” he says.

Return to Biarritz?

But his happiness would not be complete without the chance to end his career on his own terms. With the sale of BO finally completed at the beginning of April, will he be returning?

“To be honest, in a perfect world that would be my dream,” he reveals. “Normally you choose when to end your career and I haven’t had that opportunity. I’d love to go back to Biarritz and finish well. I loved being there.

“It would also be a great experience with my son. We were there together the first year and my family would have come back with me if I had signed for a fourth season. It would be easier to share the experience of France with my family now that I speak French and know a lot of people.”

After a career that ended abruptly at the end of 2023, this prospect will reignite his passion for the game. And why not start a new coaching career in France before continuing it in Fiji? “In a perfect world,” he smiles, filled with aspirations.

Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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2 Comments
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Andrew 20 days ago

I remember him. Hamilton Boys High and then Waikato. No Chiefs call so off to Canberra where lots of ex NPC kiwis ply their trade hoping for a Wallaby shirt. Hawkes Bay NPC players in particular and now aTaniwha midfielder.

j
john 20 days ago

Henry was a brilliant talent who should have played more games for the Wallabies and Reds, if he had had decent coaches to play under.

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