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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I'll be giving them a bit of lip, a little niggle at the rucks'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Surplus All Blacks winger George Bridge didn’t imagine life would pan out like this, packing his life into a couple of bags and flying halfway around the world to take up a new posting in France this November. The plan wasn’t for the 27-year-old to get to that particular European country until September of next year. Making the 2023 New Zealand squad for the World Cup was his ambition but that was scuppered by failure to make the cut for the July Test series versus Ireland.

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He had started in three of last year’s end-of-2021 tour games, lifting his tally of Test caps to 19 following a 2018 debut and a flourish at the following year’s World Cup in Japan. However, having benched as many times as he started Super Rugby matches this season for the Crusaders, he had the humility to recognise the wind wasn’t in his sails as it used to be.

With Montpellier in his ear and granting a two-and-a-half year deal, he will fly into the Occitania on Monday to undergo his medical at his new club but first things first, having a blast with the Barbarians when they take on an All Blacks XV in London this Sunday. Bridge was chilling mid-afternoon when he picked up the phone to RugbyPass midway through the week-long Baa-Baas adventure where fun, fun and more fun has been the order of each and every day.

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“A fun couple of nights, a few beers but all part of it,” he confessed with another training session complete and another interesting evening stretching ahead before crossing paths on Sunday with some old All Blacks XV friends and acquaintances on the opposition team.

“It’s exciting actually. It’s a young team and I have been around a lot of them, I have obviously played against all of them but there are a lot of young fellas that I have been with at the Crusaders the last couple of years and I will be giving them a bit of lip on Sunday and giving them a little bit of niggle at the bottom of the rucks and stuff, it’s all part of it,” he chuckled.

“It [the AB XV idea] is good, it gives them an opportunity to showcase at a high level and it will drip feed into the top team. They have got a really good coaching group as well so it’s getting them good exposure. They put in a good performance last week against Ireland A, it’s a good quality side.”

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The tuition on the Barbarians side isn’t half-bad either, with Scott Robertson and Ronan O’Gara collaborating as co-coaches a few years after they were once a double act at the Crusaders with the Kiwi in the senior role. “It’s been great. I have been with Razor (Robertson) since he was my U20s coach in 2015, so I have been working with him for a long time and he is no different in this environment.

“It has been good having him around and then Ronan as well, I had a good connection with him while he was in Christchurch. I hadn’t seen him for a few years and we have had a good couple of nights catching up over a couple of beers, so it has been a lot of fun,” explained Bridge, going on to shed more light on his long-standing rapport with Roberston, the coach that numerous Kiwi fans want to see in charge of the All Blacks.

“He has been amazing. I had him for U20s and then I had him for two seasons with Canterbury and six seasons with Crusaders and we pretty much won everything, so you can’t take away the fact that he has been extremely successful. He has got this coming Super Rugby season with the Crusaders. He is looking at that first and I’m not too sure what he will get up to after that, we’ll see what happens.

“He has been really good to me in terms of more than a head coach role. In the greater scheme of things. I have been pretty fortunate in having some really good backs coaches as well when I was there. I had Leon MacDonald, I had Ronan for a couple of years, and I’d Andrew Goodman who is at Leinster now. They are three guys who have been really, really big in my development over the years.”

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The now ex-All Blacks wing Bridge flew under the radar when it came to making the pro ranks. He hadn’t made any age-grade rep teams and was set to go to Dunedin to enjoy the uni life at the age of 17 when a sliding doors moment materialised.

Campbell Feather, his old Lindisfarne College mentor, called to steer him towards club rugby in Christchurch and the teenager born and raised in Manutuke in rural Gisborne was soon gamboling up the ladder, taking Bridge all the way into the All Blacks. He was incidentally back home last week, catching up with his parents Crispin and Chick before emigrating.

“They love their footy, they have really enjoyed what I have been able to achieve over the last wee while. The whole farming community in Gisborne has really enjoyed it. I managed to spend a week at home last week before I came over and caught up with a lot of people. They all had really nice things to say and they are really happy I have got somewhere else to go to. A lot of people are planning on coming over to visit me. It should be good.”

His memories of starting off in the sport remain vivid. “Yeah, yeah, I probably even started before I was able to play. I have got two older brothers so I had always been mucking around with them and when I was four years old I was playing for the Ngatapa nippers, which is my home club, green and white jerseys, and I have been pretty much playing ever since,” he reminisced.

Pro rugby wasn’t the dream growing up, though. “Oh, I was pretty late in the piece. Like, I sort of played first-team rugby but didn’t make any rep teams or anything when at school. I then decided to move to Christchurch and played club footy. I wasn’t in the academy or anything, and then just from playing club footy, I sort of managed to make my way into a pre-academy and sort of went up from there. It worked out alright,” he quipped with a giggle before the conversation adopted a more serious tone. Why leave New Zealand?

“I’d a great time, I was reasonably successful with Canterbury and Crusaders. To get one Test with the All Blacks was amazing, let alone getting a few under my even though the last couple of seasons I probably haven’t played as well as I would have hoped. I sort of feel like I had a pretty good career while I was in New Zealand.

“In 2020 I had a few injuries and then post that didn’t quite get back into the form I would have liked to have gotten back into. But you know it’s leading up to where I am now and I just wanted a change of scenery, to experience something new. That is what I have got and that’s really exciting for me.

“It was the only one [offer]. I was off contract with New Zealand Rugby end of this year and the goal was to go to the World Cup next year. I didn’t make the squad at the start of the year and Montpellier approached me, so I started having conversations with them quite a while ago just to see what they had to offer. When I didn’t make the All Blacks squad I was like, ‘Oh well, they won Top 14 last season and it’s a pretty beautiful place in the world’. So I thought why not.

“It was a bloody hard decision actually at the time but sort of everything was leading towards coming overseas and the more I started having conversions with people about it, like my parents and whatnot, the more I started to come to the realisation that it was the right thing to be doing. Once I came to terms with it I just started to get excited about coming over here and experiencing a different culture and a different style of rugby at a great club in a really good competition.”

Any regrets, though? “Ah, it’s probably something I have to think about once I’m done with my footy career, to be honest. Yeah, once I’m done I will reflect back but now I’m still only 27, I have still got a lot of rugby to go, so plenty to look forward to.”

Bridge was in the happy habit of scoring All Blacks tries. Any favourites? “That’s a tough one. I scored a couple on debut for the All Blacks which is pretty amazing that whole experience. That would definitely be up there.” And Crusaders? “Ah, not off the top of my head. There is that tinny one where Sevu (Reece) threw that long-ass pass out to me and I dinked it through off the ground but that was just pure luck so I can’t really claim that too much.”

Bridge Barbarians
George Bridge strikes a photocall pose this week (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Barbarians)

Now about that new adventure in France, a deal to play in Montpellier, the city he has never ever been to. “(The negotiations were) over Skype, I have never been there. Yeah, it will be interesting, it’s exciting. I have been keeping tabs on the team and done a lot of youtubing and googling, youtubing the golf courses there and stuff, checking it all out.

“I move down to Montpellier on Monday so I’ll stop living out of a bag which will be good. I’ve got two suitcases and my golf clubs, that’s about it. I brought the clubs over and I have been chatting with Zach Mercer about it all over the last couple of nights, finding out that there is a big crew that plays golf in the team, so that is good to know. I’m a bit of a hacker but it’s good fun. I enjoy it.”

The language will be a hurdle. Learning French wasn’t something he considered at school. “It was an option but I didn’t do any (language). I wish I had. It’s early doors but I will be picking up once I am around it all day every day.

“It’s quite cool this week because there are quite a few French players in the Barbarians team and being around Luke Whitelock and (Lekima) Tagitagivalu, who have been there a couple of years. I have been having full-on conversations with them in French so that is making me want to give it a good crack and hopefully, I can be at that stage [fluent like them] at some time.

“I have had two weeks off prior to coming here,” he added about the prospect of his southern hemisphere season tipping straight into his new northern one. “I made the most of that and it’s alright. The novelty of a new place and a new team will sort of make it seem pretty exciting. It will get me through.”

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