The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 international caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will regularly be shared on The XV.
Towards the end of his incredible rugby journey, Nathan Sharpe was so laid-back, he was horizontal. Literally. While his younger Australia team-mates might be bouncing off the walls in the changing room before a Test match, head-butting each other or being sick in the toilets due to nerves, Sharpe would be grabbing 40 winks in the corner.
The former Wallabies captain, a 6ft 7in lock who appeared in three World Cups in his 10-year, 116-cap international career, admits he could be too hot-headed in his early twenties, wanting to “rip people’s heads off”. But as he got older, gained more experience and less hair, he was able to switch the emotions on and off. He knew when to be all fire and brimstone and when a cooler head was needed.
As soon as you cross the line you’re in game mode, switched on, because you’ve done it so many times and you had that muscle memory.
Nathan Sharpe on his mindset in the latter stages of his career
“When I was younger, I’d spend the whole game day wasting so much energy, jumping up and down, getting ready to run on to the field and rip people’s heads off,” Sharpe tells The Rugby Centurions Podcast.
“By my last couple of years, I could get to the ground, fall asleep, wake up and then as soon as you cross the line you’re in game mode, switched on, because you’ve done it so many times and you had that muscle memory. As soon as you got into that arena, you knew exactly what was was on the cards, so it was quite a contrasting start and finish to my career. Talk to any of the guys that have been around or retired now and they kind of reflect a similar sort of feeling.
“It’s almost a compartmentalisation on the field. If you’ve got the ball and you’re in a position where a decision needs to be made, you’re cool-headed and calm. But then if you get into a scenario where it’s maul defence and you just want to get stuck in there, then you’ve got to switch that on and off. Again, the older you get, the better you get at doing it.
“I had a couple of games earlier on in my career, when I was in my early twenties as captain, and probably got a bit too emotive about it and tried too hard. I forgot about what the most important thing was, which was performing your role in the team first and foremost, and setting the tone for what the team needed. Towards the end, you were at that stage of your career where you are in control of what you’re doing and all you really want to do is help those around you and set the right platform for them.”
Despite playing in the 2003 World Cup final, winning the Tri-Nations in 2011, being awarded the John Eales Medal as Australia’s Player of the Year in 2007 and a bronze medal in the 2011 World Cup, after beating Wales in his 100th Test, the 43-year-old will always look back with regret on one game in particular, the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against England, when the Wallabies were edged out 12-10.
“I was lucky I won the Bledisloe Cup (in 2002, the last year the Wallabies claimed the trophy), won the Tri-Nations as well, they were great highs,” said the ex-Queensland and Western Force star. “But the biggest, the hardest, loss for me was the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against England.
“England played incredibly well that day but, on reflection, it was probably the best Wallabies team I played in through my career. We had Wycliff Palu at No8, Rocky Elsom was in form, we had George Smith and Phil Waugh floating around. Dan Vickerman, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan. Matty Giteau starting to come into his own, Chris Latham as well, so it was a good team.
England had been written off and maybe we read the papers too much. We turned up not hungry enough to get the job done.
Nathan Sharpe on the 2007 World Cup defeat by England
“That year, we did pretty well in the Tri-Nations and had an absolute slugfest with South Africa in Cape Town – I forget the full-back’s name (François Steyn) but he kicked a couple of enormous drop-goals from the sideline, like 50metres out – and they beat us (22-19). But they went on to win the World Cup, so had we turned up a bit smarter against England, we might have got home.
“England had been written off and maybe we read the papers too much. We turned up not hungry enough to get the job done, maybe with an eye to the semi-final the following week, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I don’t think anyone on that team really recovered from that in terms of the disappointment around it.
“For a couple of days afterwards, you’re just in a blaze of numbness. If you ask any team who get to the quarter-finals of the World Cup and bow out, it’s a very sobering experience because you’ve got aspirations to be at least contesting the semis and then winning the World Cup and you don’t want to be in that position.
“I remember in 2011, when we played South Africa in the quarter-final in New Zealand, the guys that were left in that team from 2007, there was a lot of discussion before that game between us, collaborating on, ‘There’s no way we’re going back to that spot, letting the country down and letting each other down like that’.” Which Sharpe and the Wallabies didn’t, triumphing 11-9 before falling to their old rivals, the All Blacks, 20-6 in the semis.
With England in mind, Sharpe also believes the man who handed him his Test debut against France in Melbourne in 2002, Eddie Jones, can right the ship following a dismal Six Nations, when England lost three games and finished fifth. He recalls how Jones masterminded Australia’s magnificent 22-10 victory in the 2003 World Cup semis against New Zealand.
Eddie’s just competitive. He wants to find that winning edge, he will never stop until he finds that. He’ll keep going until he gets that World Cup that he wants to hold aloft.
Nathan Sharpe on Eddie Jones
“That was a classic underdog scenario. We all believed we could do it but, make no bones about it, it took some masterful coaching from Eddie Jones and the way that he set the strategy,” said Sharpe. “He identified that New Zealand scored something like 83 per cent of their tries from counter-attack. So he just said, ‘Look, let’s just not kick it out. And if we do, just kick it as far in the stands as you can’. We were going to run it from everywhere.
“From the very first kick-off, we went side to side to side to side, and we just threw everything at them. It was a game that came off and it was a beautiful bit of coaching because we completely changed our approach to playing the Kiwis.
“In the Tri-Nations game before we played them in the World Cup, they smashed us by 50 points on the same ground, so everyone thought it was a foregone conclusion. It was a special date, you have won a big game when all of your best mates turn up to watch and they’re so excited. They’ve almost passed out from drinking too many beers from happiness so by the time I got around to them, they were three sheets to the wind, they weren’t worth talking to…
“Eddie’s just competitive. He wants to find that winning edge, he will never stop until he finds that. He’ll keep going until he gets that World Cup that he wants to hold aloft. So with England, you’ll see that he has got green shoots with a team that he could get there again. He’ll be looking at the next few years and, provided we all end up with a World Cup because of Covid, he will give it another red-hot crack.”
The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will be shared on The XV each week.
More Australia stories from The XV
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with friends or on social media. We rely solely on new subscribers to fund high-quality journalism and appreciate you sharing this so we can continue to grow, produce more quality content and support our writers.