'That was the thing that they were all talking about, they've got something to prove': Western Force star's history-making journey
Byron Ralston may have scored one of the most iconic debut tries in Australian rugby history last Saturday, crossing for the opening five-pointer against the Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
But it was the significance of the try that transcends mere competition. Western Force fans have waited nearly three years – or 1092 days to be exact – to see their team back in Super Rugby, and Ralston’s 28th minute effort brought an end to the bitterness of exile for now.
After an impressive first half, the Waratahs scored 23 unanswered points to rain on the parade of the Force’s return and the winger’s first Super Rugby cap.
But while they lost the match, the Force’s eagerly awaited return to the big stage won the day, with the 20-year-old’s try the standout moment.
The try has been immortalised through photos and replays, which have been viewed thousands of times online and will be for many years to come.
Ralston admitted that he was proud to have scored the Force’s first try since they were removed from Super Rugby in 2017, even though its significance didn’t hit him right away.
“You obviously don’t go out there thinking that you’re going to score the first try but for it to fall my way was certainly a special moment,” Ralston told RugbyPass.
“I didn’t really realise the extent of it until after I went back to my phone and saw the media build it up.”
Ralston will have the opportunity to add more tries to his tally this Friday, having been named to start the Force’s second Super Rugby AU match against the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium.
But it isn’t just another match for the up-and-comer, who’ll take on some familiar faces in front of friends and family after growing up in Brisbane.
“It’s my second Super Rugby cap so I’m pretty up for it and obviously very fresh and very green for it. Last week was a big game and this week it’s just a bigger game so I’m just heading into it by trying to block out that external stuff.
“It’s certainly going to be an enjoyable feeling running out there in front of family, friends and what not, and playing against guys that I’ve played with at club level and played with at school.
“But to do that in the next level up is going to be even more special, especially in front of hopefully what will be a big crowd at Suncorp. It’s a special moment and one that I’m looking forward to, it’s going to be an exciting challenge as well.”
After coming through the Reds Academy, Ralston acknowledged that he may have a point to prove against his hometown Super franchise, but showed humility in saying that he’s purely focused on the task at hand.
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“A little bit [to prove] but not too much. I suppose there’s a little bit there but for me it’s more of wanting to perform for my own teammates and wanting to earn respect from within the group.
“It’s my second Super Rugby cap, I’ve only played a handful of NRC games, so for me it’s more about playing for my peers first and earning their respect by playing for the Western Force. There’s a little bit of that but it’s certainly not what’s driving me this weekend.”
Ralston was born in Darwin, later moving to Brisbane where he played for junior clubs Kenmore Bears and Taylor Bridge Bullsharks. But it was at high school where he took his game to the next level.
He captained the prestigious Gregory Terrace First XV in his senior year, before playing for Brisbane City in the Under 19s Rugby Championship in 2018, and later Queensland Premier club rugby for Brothers.
After starring for the Premier Rugby Minor Premiers last year, he finished as the competition’s top try scorer and appeared more than ready for another challenge.
That challenge came as the then 19-year-old was preparing for a Grand Final.
Just before the big dance, the Force called.
“I was literally preparing for the Grand Final for Brothers, then on the Wednesday night I got a phone call saying, ‘We might have something for you over at the Western Force in Tonga.’ I thought ‘Well, I’m about to prepare for a Grand Final.’
“It was pretty much pack your bags the Saturday before the game.
“I had a couple of beers back at Brothers and was on a flight to the Sydney International Airport at 8am to go to Tonga with the Western Force at an invitational World Cup.”
After meeting his teammates at Sydney Airport, he impressed and eventually became a regular for the Force in their most successful National Rugby Championship campaign to date.
After replacing feeder club Perth Spirit in the NRC for the 2018 season, they went on to win their first national crown as the Force a year later in emphatic fashion. They won the final 41-3, where Ralston started on the wing.
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He finished the season with seven tries in his rookie campaign, including a hat-trick against Melbourne Rising in round three, before being named as the Rising Star nominee weeks later in round six.
The Queensland-product felt that the experience of senior players helped the younger prospects transition through the grades, which set the platform for a dominant NRC campaign and promising start to Super Rugby AU.
“That was certainly awesome to be a part of and was pretty green as well by not having played at a level like that but to go into a team that was successful in their own right in Rapid Rugby.
“But then you walk in there, that was the thing that they were all talking about, they’ve got something to prove and there is something that they wanted to be. There’s a lot of chat that we want to be the best team in Australia, and that stemmed a lot from NRC.”
It was a game of two halves last weekend against the Waratahs, and the Force will look to rectify that with an unchanged starting side named to face the Reds.
Ralston is expecting a tough challenge from the forward pack in particular, who can feed plenty of ball to the exciting outside backs.
But it’s his old high school and Brothers teammate who he thinks poses the biggest threat.
“Harry Wilson, my mate there, 19 ball carries I think he had last week so he’s definitely their go to, dominant ball runner. They’re playing two sevens in Fraser [McReight] and Liam Wright in the back row, so that’s certainly something to look for on the ball and something we’re looking to negate.”
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