'Yeah mate, I can see potential in you' - The meeting with Brad Thorn that turned the fortunes of a 3rd XV prop onto the path of professional rugby
Zander missed out on the prestigious Nudgee College 1st XV in his senior year, instead running out for the seconds and even thirds.
Now 20, he’s since paved his own way to professional rugby where he became a regular member of the Queensland Reds matchday 23 in 2020.
In early January Zander made his Super Rugby debut in round one against the Brumbies, becoming the 1346th Queensland representative in a 27-24 loss in Canberra.
“Running out at GIO Stadium, just coming off the bench and being able to play for my State was unbelievable. It was a dream come true for sure,” Zander told RugbyPass.
But that dream seemed out of reach throughout high school, where he sat in the stands to watch the firsts rather than play himself.
Nudgee may be the most recognisable Australian schoolboy rugby factory, known for producing world class talent such as James O’Connor, former Wallaby captain Rocky Elsom, and former Crusaders and Fijian Winger Nemani Nadolo.
Onion TV documented the culture of the illustrious first fifteen with The Season a year after Zander graduated in 2017, showcasing the highly competitive nature of Nudgee rugby.
The prop admitted that he was disappointed not to have been able to don the blue and white hoops of the Nudgee firsts, but clarified that it wasn’t the be all and end all at the time.
“When I was at school, it wasn’t really a goal of mine [to pursue rugby], I just wanted to play at the highest level I could and play with my mates at school.
“I did the 1st XV preseason but ended up missing out because I didn’t get picked. But I really enjoyed playing seconds and thirds with all my mates.
“It was a little disappointing but I knew that I probably wasn’t up to the standard back then just because I wasn’t really mature in my rugby game. It was a little disappointing but it wasn’t the end of the world.”
After graduating from Nudgee in 2016, Zander continued his rise through the Queensland rugby ranks with club side Norths. After mainly playing colts at first, he later cemented his place within the Premier Grade squad which led to higher honours.
He was selected in the Brisbane City National Rugby Championship squad in 2019, where his scrum potential caught the eye of Assistant Cameron Lillicrap.
Lillicrap proposed a meeting with Zander and Queensland Reds head coach Brad Thorn, which gave him the opportunity to pursue State honours.
“It was midway through the NRC season, I had a meeting with Cameron Lillicrap and Brad Thorn. Thorny was sort of saying, ‘yeah mate I can see potential in you, and if you cut down a bit of the weight and put some muscle on, you’ll have a good future.’
“I worked massively on my diet. The Reds hooked me up with a dietitian and I went through that and got a meal plan from her. But also the conditioning training, stripping down the weight in the gym.”
He’s since looked to learn off the players around him at the Reds as he continues his incredible rise, which included a start against the Bulls in the final match before the coronavirus outbreak.
“Scrummaging alongside JP Smith, Taniela Tupou and Brandon Paenga-Amosa, I just try to learn as much off them every session because they’ve played at the highest levels of rugby that you can. It’s been awesome learning off them.”
The Reds are now three weeks back into their second pre-season of 2020, with Zander firmly focused on the seasons resumption in July.
“We’ve sort of been focusing on that at training, having no repacks because we’ve seen the New Zealand teams have been doing pretty well in that area. It’s a good thing because it’ll speed the game up a bit cause when there’s about two or three repacks of scrums it can really slow the game down.
“The game will be a bit quicker with the news rules that have come in and it’ll be a really high standard of footy because everyone is really itching to play and get out there.
“I’m extremely keen to get back and start playing again because it’s been a few months since our last game against the Bulls. I think everyone is keen to get out there and have a go.
“I’m super keen to get an opportunity against some Australian teams. It’s all local derby matches each weekend so it’s going to bring the best out of Australian rugby so I can’t wait for that.”
The up-and-comers journey just goes to show that it isn’t where you start but where you finish that counts.
Zander has been selected in the Reds squad for Vodafone Super Rugby AU, where he’ll look to add to his growing number of caps.
The Queensland Reds host the New South Wales Waratahs on July 3rd to kick-off the competition in Australia.
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