In the first part of a series on New Zealanders playing in the Northern Hemisphere, James McOnie catches up with former All Black first five and fullback Nick Evans.
After playing 16 tests for the All Blacks, when he missed out on the Tri Nations squad in 2008 Nick Evans moved to England to play for London club Harlequins. Nine years later Evans announced his retirement from playing rugby at the end of the last English season. He played 206 senior games for Harlequins, scoring a club record 2217 points (30 tries, 309 conversions, 476 penalties, seven drop goals).
“I thought leaving New Zealand was hard, but leaving the game I’ve played since I was eight years old, and professionally for 17 years, is tough. But when you know, you know,” Evans, 36, said when he announced his retirement.
“This game has taught me everything, showed me things I could never imagine and introduced me to people that are not teammates but family.”
He is currently the backs and attack coach for Harlequins. He lives in London with his wife Sally and their three children: Olivia (12), Harry (4) and Billy (16 months).
Nick spoke to James about his new coaching career, peaking after leaving New Zealand, and punching above his weight.
You’ve retired from rugby early – why was that?
I did have one year to go but I kind of did everything I wanted to achieve, then an opportunity came to coach. I cut my teeth at the amateur level and got Wimbledon promoted from National League 3 to National League 2. I’m now backs and attack coach at Harlequins. I didn’t want to be someone who’s gone straight from playing to coaching at the professional level. Coaching Wimbledon was great – a good bunch of amateur boys, trainings twice a week, a few beers on a Thursday night, and a good curry or burritos. Everyone sticks around after training – the way it used to be.
You learn a lot about player management even at that level – knowing who needs a hug, who needs kick up the arse, who needs to be told they’re the greatest. You do need to massage egos.
If you could choose three moments that stand out in your career, what would they be?
- Getting my first All Black jersey in 2004. It was a bit of a whirlwind leading up to that – I went down to the Highlanders after doing my physio degree and playing for Harbour. I played in an All Black trial, had a good game and was picked to play against England. I got my first jersey from Sir Brian Lochore. I put the jersey on the bed and stared at it for 20 minutes and thought “this has just got real”.
- Winning the English premiership for Harlequins for the first time in 2012. The club had been going for 150 years. That justified my decision for leaving New Zealand. We played Leicester in the final and beat them 30-23.
- My last home game at The Stoop (Harlequin’s home ground) before retiring. It was weird because it put an end to it – 17 years as a pro rugby player. It was really nice to be able to do it on my own terms, to be there with my family, mum and dad were over, my wife and kids were there. It was nice to say goodbye that way.
You’re a qualified physio. How has that helped you?
It helped me bounce back a little bit quicker, just understanding my body not needing physios to explain things to me. I think the physios loved me – I was compliant when they gave me rehab. Hence why I lasted 17 years, because I understood what had to be done.
I have no real drive to be a physio now.
When you left New Zealand, was it just because Dan Carter was there?
I guess if you put it down to it, yeah it probably was. I’d played 5 or 6 seasons of Super Rugby. I was 28. At the end of the 2007 World Cup, I thought I’d played pretty well. They (the coaches) kind of said: it doesn’t matter how well you play, Carter’s going to play most of the tests. Reading between the lines: if they were going to change anyone, it was going to me. It wasn’t something I took lightly. I did a lot of research. The style, the ambition, running rugby of Harlequins sealed it for me. If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t have gone overseas. But I’ve loved every minute of it here.
What was the welcome like at Harlequins?
I was the only Kiwi there, but that was good. There wasn’t a chance to be clicky. I was out of my comfort zone. The lads took me under their wing – a few nights out in central London, working out what that was about.
When I started we had an old brick changing shed on a tiny field with deer and badgers. There were holes in the field, and we were doing weights in a barn with portable heaters. There were cold showers, and the cook had a smelly dog that ran around the place. But I got into what the Quins style was all about. It’s not up to Kiwis coming over to tell them how it’s done, or just coming over for the pay cheque.
You were English premiership players player of the year in 2012, so would you say you peaked in England?
100%, I think I peaked at 31 or 32. But I’ve never been in the game for individual accolades. At 28 I was a little bit naive as thinking this was the only way to win games. Even adapting to conditions from summer to the depths of an English winter – the marathon that is the season, 45 to 50 weeks for the year, you learn a lot about the game, and about managing yourself and not being up an intense for everything. Pick your moments that you’re really intense because you just can’t keep it up for 45 weeks of the year.
You think New Zealanders complain about a lot of rugby and training but at least they get breaks between competitions and seasons.
We’ve got a squad of 59 to 60 players over here, from academy players to All Blacks and British Lions. All different abilities.
Tell us about your Aussie Rules career?
At Westlake Boys’ High in 1998, we had an Aussie teacher. There was a group of us that played rugby who weren’t that interested in cricket so we went down and gave it a go.
We played panel beaters, who were 30 or 40 years old, smoking in the carpark. Because we we fit and could kick the ball, they stuck us in the middle and made us run around.
It was the perfect hangover cure and it made us bloody fit. It definitely put 10 to 15 yards on my kick. I got picked for the NZ under-21s and we went over and played in Australia. We were trying to tackle people and couldn’t get anywhere near them. I got asked to trial for the Sydney Swans development team but it was just as rugby was taking off, and I just had to make a decision and I chose rugby. The rest is history.
When you started rugby, I’m guessing you were spiral punting, now it’s a drop punt like Aussie Rules. What skills have been the hardest to develop?
Aussie Rules taught me how to drop punt properly. I had more control and accuracy, and the kick-pass across field started to to develop; catching the ball above your head and peripheral vision.
I once saw you clean out the Caveman Sebastian Chabal at a ruck. As a slim man, how did you approach the physical side of the game?
Yeah I was small. I had to be brave, everyone’s brave out there, you just couldn’t shirk from it. As long as I went low and wrapped hard, I could get away with it. I got less interested in defending as I got older. I got sick of the gym later in my career. But I did get pretty strong for my size. I definitely think there’s a place for the slimmer man. Look at Damian McKenzie – you can be 85kg if you’ve got the skill and the pace. The point of difference I was rapid. I had good acceleration. I could do the in and out and I could do half a sidestep… I wouldn’t call it a full sidestep.
What are the biggest challenges about playing in Britain?
Being away from your family – not being able to have your mum or your aunty to come around and help with your kids. That’s a tough thing being on the other side of the world.
In rugby, just being able to adapt to the game here. It’s a different mentality. You’ve got private owners of the club who invest money and they want results. The gap is closing in terms of style, but in the premiership we still play on muddy pitches which were hard grounds at the start of the season. You play in front of packed houses with crowds close to the ground. The fans are right on top of you. And they’re deathly quiet when you kick for goal. In New Zealand it doesn’t feel like anyone’s paying attention to you when you’re kicking. At Thomond Park, Munster, there’ll 30,000 fans and it’s deathly quiet. Then you get some drunk guy who yells out something like “ball bags” and then everyone laughs and you’re like “dude, I’m trying to take a shot at goal here”.
Have you done everything there is to do in London?
Probably not. We haven’t been to the zoo yet. We probably should take the kids to the zoo. Apparently it would take you 27 years if you went to every restaurant in London. If you’re not having a good time in London, then there’s a problem. There’s always something to see and do. And you’ve got Europe just over the channel.
What would you change about rugby today?
I think young guys spend too much time in the gym. There’s a time the body takes to grow and young guys trying to grow into their bodies ahead of time.
They’re taking copious amounts of protein, they take other supplements and they do a lot of gym work. Their muscles are getting bigger and that puts pressure on tendons and ligaments. Kids are taken out of school, put into academies, and a lot of players are breaking down.
Are we expecting too much of these boys at 18? A lot of it adds up to more injuries, 30 per cent of your squad can be injured at any time. I only think it’s going to get worse. And on the field, you’re running into two players rather than one these days. There’s not a lot of space.
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