In the spring of 2013, Nick Haining was unceremoniously booted out of the Western Force academy, another one of the thousands of young blokes who empty themselves in pursuit of dreams and contracts and glory and come up short.
It was a desolate time. Twenty-two years old and tossed on the scrapheap – no longer a burgeoning prospect, not yet an established first-teamer. Trapped in rugby no-man’s-land.
For a back row, Haining was still scrawny by the obscene standards of the professional game, despite gobbling too many carbs and throwing back too many beers. He couldn’t for the life of him put on the slabs of lean beef that seemed to layer themselves so easily on the bodies of his peers and rivals.
“I got kicked out of the academy, lost interest, never played for the Force, wasn’t really going anywhere with rugby,” Haining told RugbyPass. “I thought it was the end of the world. I wasn’t doing some of the right stuff – I was going out a bit too much and enjoying myself. At the time, that was more what I wanted to do. It probably took getting kicked out to actually shape up a bit.
“My biggest thing was putting on weight. I remember I got a bit of a hard time for it; I just couldn’t put on weight. You’ve just got to nurture that, put a diet in place, and say it’s not the end of the world if you’re not putting on weight.”
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Eventually, the size came, but academy life taught him harsh lessons about the brutality of the business, the testosterone-ridden rat race to make it as a professional. “I’ve seen a lot of boys coming through, straight out of school into an academy environment, they are tough and taxing,” he explained. “They go through the academy all the way up to training with the senior squad, maybe get a contract and they just burn out. I’ve seen that many a time before.
“Getting kicked out was partly my fault, but you do feel a bit like you have failed. Even when you are in the academy and things aren’t going your way. A lot of boys struggle when they get bad injuries, and they might not let on in the environment, but they’re finding it bloody hard.
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“Having people in place to recognise that and support young players is a huge part of it. People who are in these positions just need to realise it’s tough work for a young lad and there’s a lot of pressure and competition coming through.”
Haining was lucky. He had a doting, rugby-obsessed family and a wonderful base of support at his local club, Cottesloe. Shorn of all their Wallabies, the Force called him back for a hit-out against the touring British and Irish Lions, a riveting night at Subiaco Oval that helped rekindle his ambition.
“I was transitioning into being a back; I was trying to play centre at the time. I came off the bench on the wing for about 20 minutes and I was marking Sean Maitland. I got Owen Farrell’s jersey after the game, which was bloody sick. I stepped Leigh Halfpenny, I’m pretty sure.
"They were devoured by Ireland’s overwhelmingly superior intensity, dismembered like a baby seal tossed into a shark tank."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 23, 2019
“That was my first professional game ever. I loved it. There were 35,000 there. I had a little chat to Farrell afterwards and got his jersey, but I was quite green still so I kept my mouth shut.”
For a time he went back to Cottesloe, back to his mates and the beers, before a door opened. Two of his Australian pals, Ryan Hodson and Tobias Hoskins, were playing English Championship rugby on the little island of Jersey. They encouraged him to send over a showreel. Before he knew it, there was a contract offer in his inbox.
Haining spent three happy years with the Reds, met his girlfriend Efia and in rugby terms grew from boy to man. “The contacts are just massive, you get some big trucks and some really good players in the Championship,” he said. “It’s a long old season as well. I played every game of my last season. I remember finishing that and just being exhausted.
Players' player – Nick Haining pic.twitter.com/5ZNLwN2fL2
— Jersey Reds (@jerseyrfc) April 30, 2016
“Any word of advice to a young rugby player would be to go and play in a national league or championship league, men’s rugby will develop you, even if you’re not playing week, in week out. That was the big thing that boosted my rugby ability.”
Up at Bristol, Pat Lam liked what he saw. Premiership clubs are constantly vigilant for second tier talent that might flourish given the right platform. Haining was nearly 27 by then, but still a callow professional. Entering the den of the Bears was by turns exhilarating and chastening. “I went there thinking I was a good passer of the ball – it turns out I wasn’t,” he admitted. “My skill-set got a hell of a lot better.”
That gave him a fright, but when he set foot in the gym of a top-flight club and saw the kind of eye-watering weights his team-mates were lumping about, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Haining is a formidable 6ft 4ins and 113kg, but he knows he will never be breaking records on the iron.
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“I’m not taking anything away from strength and conditioning, I know how important it is, but when you get on the field, having a 180kg bench press doesn’t mean you’re the best tackler or defender. You see that time and time again.
“You can look at somebody and see a bit of a physical specimen – I’ve come across a lot of people like that who can run the best times in the bronco and yoyo tests, absolutely smash the gym, then they get on the field and they’re just tickling rucks. Those are all parts of rugby that are important, but the biggest part is rocking up on the weekend, having that attitude, knowing your rugby detail and having a bit of ticker around the field.”
Edinburgh will be the beneficiaries of that “ticker” now. Richard Cockerill took Haining north from Bristol this summer and has challenged him to deliver all of his ballast and belligerence as the coach tries to add extra gears to an evolving side that last term struggled to seize its opportunities.
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) March 25, 2019
Here, Haining faces colossal competition. Scotland internationals Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, John Barclay, Fijian titan Bill Mata, fellow new men Murray Douglas and Mesulame Kunavula and the emerging Luke Crosbie, Lewis Carmichael and Ally Miller are all competing for that six to eight back row space. What sets him apart? Why should he get the jersey?
“I’ve always prided myself in being elusive around the field. In all my contacts, defence and attack, I feel I’m quite powerful. That element of my game is partly why Richard brought me into the squad. That’s always a point of difference. It’s going to be really competitive and all these guys bring huge stuff to the table. That might set me apart but I’ve got to show it on the rugby field first.”
Cockerill signed him for his attributes, not his heritage, but there’s a sub-plot to Haining’s tale. His 81-year-old grandmother Norma is fiercely Scottish. She emigrated to Australia many decades ago but still speaks with a Dundonian rasp and is still “as sharp as saw”. Thanks to Norma’s roots, the carrot of the Test game dangles before her grandson.
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“The main goal is to play international rugby. You’ve got competition, but there are only two teams here, so you have got a lot more chance to make it. It’s going to require a lot of hard work and dedication. Ultimately that’s the goal, but Edinburgh comes first.”
Haining is new here. He probably won’t appreciate the thermonuclear reaction quotes like these, from a man who has been in Scotland precisely three months, can prompt. He knows there will be howls of derision, but he doesn’t see why he should conceal a burning ambition for fear of being ridiculed or labelled a rugby mercenary.
He is quite right to see opportunity in Scotland – over half of the match-day squad dynamited so hopelessly by Ireland learned the game in another country. “As a professional rugby player, if you’re not targeting international rugby you’re probably just content. There’s nothing wrong with that but international rugby was always a dream of mine.
? "We were at times a work in progress last year, but I think we go into this season in really good shape and full of belief." pic.twitter.com/pxEm73dfd6
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) September 25, 2019
“I understand the criticism. There is a very proud patriotism here. I can see everyone is very passionate about their country. But there’s a bit of a different story when that person is scoring the match-winning try in an international.
“If I’m working hard and doing the right things for Edinburgh – it’s a huge if, a massive if – and I’m good enough to get that opportunity, then that’s just world rugby now. I’d wear that badge and that jersey with as much passion as anyone else – I would. I’d be giving just as much to that team as any other Scotland player.”
Scotland don’t have many loose forwards with Haining’s heft and dynamism on the carry. It will take a Herculean effort, especially at 29, to convince Gregor Townsend he is worth a shot, but all that can wait. First, to Edinburgh, and the next stage of a great adventure which begins at home to Zebre in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday.
WATCH: Scottish legend Gavin Hastings recalls the 1991 World Cup in the latest episode of the RugbyPass series, Rugby World Cup memories
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