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Patrick Pellegrini: 'All these fans going nuts is a great memory'

By Liam Heagney
Tonga's Patrick Pellegrini on his way to the try line against South Africa (Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Patrick Pellegrini introduced himself to a world audience in an incredible way last October. Just a few weeks earlier, he was hidden away in Coventry, performing in their Premiership Rugby Cup campaign. Then came the emergency call from France – could he get over to Croissy-sur-Seine ASAP? He did.

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Tonga boss Toutai Kefu had gone into the Rugby World Cup with just two 10s in his 33-man squad and when Otumaka Mausia pulled up lame in the days leading to their opener against Ireland, the decision was taken in the aftermath of that defeat to call up Pellegrini.

His time on the pitch across his three appearances was ultimately brief, just 21 minutes in total against Scotland, South Africa, and Romania in Nice, Marseille, and Lille respectively. However, what he concocted during his nine-minute cameo versus the Springboks in his fourth Test cap just days after his 25th birthday was magical.

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Jannes Kirsten speaks fondly about life at Exeter

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten tells Liam Heagney about how much he enjoyed playing at Exeter Chiefs.

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Jannes Kirsten speaks fondly about life at Exeter

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten tells Liam Heagney about how much he enjoyed playing at Exeter Chiefs.

The Tongans were 13-42 down on the scoreboard and Pellegrini just fresh into the action at the Velodrome when the Boks launched an attack from inside their half that came to nothing on the opposition 10-metre line as Manie Libbok couldn’t grasp a no-look pass.

Afusipa Taumoepeau, another Tonga replacement, dived on the loose ball and immediately flashed a pass to his left to the sprinting Pellegrini, who initially tucked it under his left arm before looking up after passing halfway and spiralling a kick over the head of Duane Vermeulen.

Four chasing players – two South Africans, including Willie le Roux, and two Tongans, including Pellegrini – were in the vicinity when the ball eventually landed just inside the 22. The bounce took out three of them, leaving the Championship out-half to say, ‘Thank you very much’, gather and race to the line to score a peach out of nothing. Bliss.

Six months have since passed and as great as his form has been in the English second tier, Pellegrini is still waiting for as sweet a bounce. “Not since then,” he chuckled to RugbyPass when the try was mentioned over a Zoom call. “But I’ll keep trying.

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“That’s how I like to play. Whatever is in front of me I just react to that and just take my chances. I don’t like to sit back and just let it unfold. I like to go and attack the game and just play what’s in front, off the cuff, do what I can.

“What I remember most about that try was just unreal running. Just in my head in slow motion now, when I was doing it felt all slow motion but it went so quickly. All these fans going nuts and just when you score, it’s 70,000 people just going crazy. That was just an unbelievable thing. That’s a great memory,” he said, going on to name-check the maestros that inspired his exciting playing style.

“I loved watching Quade Cooper, Dan Carter as well, and James O’Connor. I watched him a bit even though he was a bit full-back, wing, and 10. Those three players and then going along in my career, I love watching Richie Mo’unga play. Those would be the main ones.”

Born and reared in Sydney to a Tongan mother, it was the October 2022 game that took place in Scotland outside the Autumn Nations Series player release window that edged Pellegrini’s foot in the door. He had notified them about his eligibility and a few days of training with Kefu’s squad before that match resulted in his selection in the World Cup training squad.

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His debut came off the bench last July away to Fiji in Lautoka and a full 80 materialised a few weeks later against Canada in Nuku’alofa. It wasn’t enough to secure selection for France 2023 but he had done enough to convince Kefu to give a call if an issue arose.

It did and Pellegrini revelled in being at the World Cup less than two years after incredibly plying his trade with Sevenoaks in the London and South East Premier. “That first one in Scotland, it was for about a week in camp for that game. That was unreal. Then a couple of weeks before the (pre-World Cup) tour, I got the call that I was officially going, I can’t explain how I felt, it was just unbelievable.

“Just being in that environment with all those other boys, Israel Folau, (Malakai) Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, players you watched growing up, it was unreal to lean on them and learn, and then going back to Tonga, I had only been there a couple of times, going around and just being there in that environment I just loved it. It was such a cool experience.

“They were quite welcoming but it was tough, my first involvement with those kinds of players, you just want to sit back and learn, not try and say too much. Just learn because it is tough going into that kind of environment, especially as I was one of the younger players and playing in the Champ’.

“I didn’t really know anyone so it was tough, but they were all very welcoming as well. Especially the older boys, the more experienced ones, the ones you wouldn’t expect, they were the most welcoming and made you feel more comfortable there.

“Tongan roots were a big part of growing up,” he added. “All the aunties, we did do a lot of traditional stuff but not as much as those other boys. I can’t speak much Tongan if any at all. But it was cool to experience what kind of level they take it to with all their traditions. It was a really good insight into the more about the culture and everything like that.”

Then came the finals itself, gut-wrenching disappointment eventually followed by sheer elation. “They were only taking two 10s and then unfortunately Mausia got injured before the Ireland game so they needed a back up quite ASAP. I wasn’t too sure if I would get a game or what the game plan was for me but as soon as I was in there I was thrown straight in. ‘Yeah, you will be in the bench covering 10’. That was a bit of a shock but it was exciting.

What did he learn? “I have brought back a more level of professionalism I guess, just taking it a lot more serious and just the little things on and off the field, just doing more stuff. Just little things, even recovery or just watching a lot more film than I used to. Rewatching training, just watching a lot of games of the opposition and taking that into the weekend. Just watching film would probably be the biggest one I have brought back.”

Pellegrini’s rapid ascent had humble beginnings. He dabbled in both union and league until the crunch came around the age of 16. Union won his heart but his heart didn’t initially win union. Such is the cut-throat nature of Shute Shield rugby in the Sydney area that it is very hard to get noticed.

“When I was young I just wanted to play footy all the time so league was on Sundays, union on Saturdays pretty much growing up. Then going into U15/U16s I had to decide because it was getting too much and I ended up choosing union.

“One of my best memories growing up would be I have three younger brothers and we had lots of mates that lived in our area in Muroubra, south of Bondi on the beach there. We played touch footy pretty much every afternoon after school down in the park which was 50 metres away. That was one of the best memories growing up.”

As for the talent bottleneck, where he represented Waratahs’ age grade but no further, he added: “It is quite hard because there are just so many teams in New South Wales, so much competition and just one team [Waratahs].

“That Shute Shield comp, everyone is competing for that Waratahs spot so it is quite difficult given those circumstances. There wasn’t really much, so that is why I decided to go overseas. Tried hanging it out but thought it would be best for me to have a crack somewhere else.”

Sevenoaks down the English pyramid became his home from home. “One of my agents back then, he sent my highlights clip to their coach and they liked the video, got me over and it was all pretty smooth, they liked me. I had lived out of home since I was 18 so it wasn’t completely new but going across the water was definitely a shock to the system at first.

“It’s very different compared to Oz, that’s for sure. There are a lot more teams, so many more divisions and the conditions were a massive shock, playing muddy pitches, pouring rain, playing three degrees a lot of the time, you go to training and you’re freezing and it’s dark. That was a shock but definitely a good challenge that I really enjoyed. I got quite used to it quite quickly.

“The club made it really easy. Sevenoaks is a really good club and I did get really close with all those boys pretty quickly, to be honest. We kind of clicked straight away and when you are winning as well, we had a 16-game winning streak that season, I was playing good rugby, and had almost a try every game or something. I was just really enjoying my time there so it made it easy to stick it out and stay.”

Looking back, what fixture stood out most? “There was an away game against Dorking, it was Nat 3 and there were over 1,000 people there so for that level to have that type of crowd was massive. I scored a couple of tries, scored a try with a minute to go and we ended up winning on the bell pretty much. That was definitely an unreal memory.”

Next stop, Coventry. James Tyas, who had been doing analysis for Sevenoaks, was the go-between. “He knew they needed a 10 for the following season so he got me in for a training week and I thought that is my opportunity.

“It was a big jump, it was about three levels at the time from Sevenoaks to there but I knew personally that I could do it, I just needed a chance. I was in there for a few days, trained quite well, the coaches liked me and then a few days later they sent over a contract that I was stoked for.

“I called my parents straight away, straight on FaceTime to the family, let them all know and they were stoked, over the moon. I just felt like I belonged there at that time when I was at that training. It wasn’t any shock or scared, just played rugby and felt like I belonged.”

He does. Coventry are nearing the end of their second season with Pellegrini as conductor. Eleven wins in 16 games has them second only to leaders Ealing and their latest assignment is this Sunday’s trip up the road to Nottingham. “We’re on a roll at the moment, we had a few good wins lately. It’s going good the moment. Hopefully, it will finish well,” he enthused.

“There are so many talented players in the Championship. At Cov in the last year, you have seen four move onto the Prem, a couple have gone over to France and whatnot, America, San Diego. There is so much talent and the rugby is really good to watch. You see all the weekly highlights and some of the stuff that goes on, it’s just good rugby to watch.

“Especially at Cov, the fans are unreal. It’s just a great atmosphere, a great vibe around it. It’s so good. The crowd just builds every time. The more we win, the louder they get. They are packing it out almost every week now and they love it, we love it. The more people that are there the atmosphere is unreal. It’s so close to the ground you can definitely feel it when you are on the field.”

What’s next for Pellegrini? “I’m under contract at Cov for the next season. I do have a clause to get out if other clubs are interested, but for next year I will be here.” He likes the area. “I’m not as tanned, a lot more white. I don’t think much has changed, just miss home a bit.

“I did play a bit of golf but got a bit injured so I had to take a step back. I used to play a lot. It’s a bit harder now compared to back in Oz but I try and play now and then. I had got pretty good to be fair. The lowest I played off was six or seven.

“The fam got up last year at Christmas and were here for a month. They got to watch a few games which was really good. I have got a few mates that live in London as well so they come up and get to a game when they can, which is nice.”

That all sounds very wholesome. He signed off by delivering an uplifting message for any player stuck in a bottleneck and feeling their career isn’t going places. “Basically, just take risks. Just back yourself. I kind of always believed I would be playing rugby in the future.

“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, to be honest. I just always thought I would be a rugby player and just when opportunities come you have just got to take those risks even if you don’t think it might be the right decision. Just back yourself and believe.”

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Jon 23 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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