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FEATURE How three refugees of England rugby landed Down Under after club cull

How three refugees of England rugby landed Down Under after club cull
1 year ago

When the careers of Zach Kibirige and Sam Spink fell off a cliff with the turmoil at Wasps, neither imagined a parachute landing them 14,000 kilometres away in Perth.

A blazing sun at Christmas, a crash course in Aussie quirks, playing in Super Rugby Pacific, dining at the best burger joint in New Zealand and singing ABBA… Where do you write scripts like this?

Kibirige’s flying feet on the wing are making a big impression for the Western Force while Spink is the club’s first-choice outside centre and is back for Sunday’s clash against the Blues in Auckland after a hamstring tweak.

Meanwhile, Saracens halfback Gareth Simpson made a sharp debut last weekend in Invercargill. He is on loan to the Force but his unexpected shot at Super Rugby was also born in the anxious aftermath of his former club Worcester Warriors being disbanded.

The trio of rugby refugees from England’s Gallagher Premiership have a natural bond so far from home and being united by the adversity that led them here.

Wasps Worcester
Wasps and Worcester battle it out in the Premiership in 2021, a year later, they went to the wall (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“This has been a blessing in disguise for all three of us,” Kibirige, 28, said.

“There was not really a chance of me playing in Australia. It had never been in my mind until the search for somewhere to play after the upsetting end at Wasps.”

Desk job instead?

“No. I’m petrified of the real world so I was looking for another club,” Kibirige wryly added.

The strange timing of being cut adrift in October when Premiership players are galloping into full swing opened up the possibility of looking Down Under.

Both Kibirige and Spink had shared in the emotional night at The Rec in late September when Wasps had beaten Bath 39-31 for the first win of the season amid the club’s financial woes.

I was fortunate as one of the younger guys without a mortgage and kids. I could go wherever. Some players and staff still aren’t sorted.

Spink sees the irony that he’s flown to the other side of the world to be wearing a yellow-and-black jersey again. It’s the alternate strip for the Force.

“The black-and-yellow colours seem to follow me. It’s school (Wellington College in Berkshire), my club at Wasps and now the Force. It’s something to get away from or it’s actually lucky. We’ll see,” Spink said.

Just 23, Spink felt the pain at Wasps intensely because it was the only club he knew and wanted to play for since he was 14.

“I’d grown up at the club with a brilliant group which built foundations from playing together at 14, 15 and 16,” Spink said.

“There was the sad part and then came the stressful ‘what to do next?’ part because there were limited options in England and France.

“I was fortunate as one of the younger guys without a mortgage and kids. I could go wherever. Some players and staff still aren’t sorted. I’m lucky I found the Force quickly after a good chat.”

Sam Spink of the Force runs the ball against Melbourne. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Spink’s physical, direct game and a neat step mesh nicely with what Force coach Simon Cron wants for his backline.

Stepping up at No 13 is a huge challenge in a competition where Test players like Len Ikitau (Brumbies), Izaia Perese (Waratahs), Rieko Ioane (Blues) and Braydon Ennor (Crusaders) fill the same slot and a host of hot-footed wingers and fullbacks are looking for holes out wide.

“I want to carry on the progress I made at Wasps into Super Rugby. It’s definitely a challenge to accept, around being physical, improving my defensive reads and making dominant tackles against some of the best attacking players in the world,” Spink said.

Simpson’s first big play was a perfect dab kick to the short side which the pacy Kibirige seized for last weekend’s try against the Highlanders.

“It’s not something we ever practised. You just see the space. Zach has become my best mate,” Simpson said with a laugh.

Spink has signed on for two years at the Force, Kibirige’s deal is for a season and Simpson wants to head back to Saracens with all the benefits from this loan stint.

“Growing up in Durban, I always looked up to Sharks like Rory Kockott, Charl McLeod and Ruan Pienaar as the halfbacks I wanted to emulate.

“When I started playing in England, I thought possibly that my chance to play Super Rugby was over. Now I do have that privilege.”

Spink has signed on for two years at the Force, Kibirige’s deal is for a season and Simpson wants to head back to Saracens with all the benefits from this loan stint.

“It’s just worthwhile getting different perspectives on the game and learning under different coaching styles to mould my all-round game,” Simpson, 25, said.

“I’ve come from the northern hemisphere with its more structured, kicking sort-of-game so to be able to add more attacking flair is something I want to take back.”

Gareth Simpson started at halfback for the Force against the Highlanders. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Kibirige is loving fast, firm fields under the sun – not heavy fields under grey skies.

“All three of us expected the rugby to have a little less structured than back home and that’s been the case. At the same time, that fast, free-flowing style with more open space suits my game,” Kibirige said.

“I only played a few games to start the English season. To go from no rugby to this new challenge of playing new teams every week in new places has re-energised me.”

He’s brought his daring too. He ran the ball out from behind his own try line against the Highlanders and those calculated risks are applauded.

Englishmen have ventured to Australian Super Rugby teams before with varying success. Notably, Danny Cipriani, Max Lahiff, Australian-reared Michael Lipman and Geoff Parling made the Melbourne Rebels home for a time. Jordan Olowofela scored a hat-trick of tries from the wing against the Queensland Reds during a loan stint at the Force in 2021.

The Force have had a history as mid- or lower-table performers since their entry to Super Rugby in 2006 but they are a beacon for what pride, hope and a fierce attitude can do to stay alive.

The Force rendition of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ after a 2021 win over the NSW Waratahs went viral for its passion rather than the pure vocal harmonies.

The club was jettisoned from Super Rugby only to be reborn when Super Rugby AU became the only viable model during the first Covid season in 2020.

The lads from the west have always celebrated wins well. In recent years, the tradition has been born to celebrate in the dressing room by singing a classic song or recent Top 40 banger. The occasion comes complete with song sheets if needed.

The Force rendition of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ after a 2021 win over the NSW Waratahs went viral for its passion rather than the pure vocal harmonies.

ABBA’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ was the raucous hit sung by Kibirige, Spink and Simpson after the win over Moana Pasifika in early March.

“Gareth hits the high notes best to be honest and Zach is always up for a sing-song. All three of us think we sound pretty good,” Spink offered with a laugh.

Zach Kibirige attempts to avoid the tackle of Suliasi Vunivalu. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

Spink has been getting his head around Aussie sayings and overused terms like “grouse” and “brah.”

As for banter, Kibirige throws it right back at his teammates.

“They try but they are just not that funny… I don’t think many Australians are,” Kibirige sparred.

He largely keeps quiet that he’s a Liverpool football fan because his club has squirmed through some very unfunny results this season.

With all those wide-open Perth beaches and rolling waves, Kibirige squirms too at the mention of being gung-ho in the ocean. He has a shark phobia.

“This is my worry. I dabble to waist height only. I’d blame myself if I was eaten by a shark,” he said.

He’s not shy himself when it comes to taking a good bite of local cuisine. The Force are currently based in Queenstown on NZ’s South Island.

Fergburger is a Queenstown must-do. The queues down the street tell you so. Kibirige went all in on the Ferg Deluxe which drips with prime NZ beef, streaky bacon, cheddar, tomato relish and more.

You get the hint. This trio are all in to enjoy every minute of their rugby Down Under.

Comments

3 Comments
T
The Late News 445 days ago

Well rugby in Australia has need some kind of connection with the NH to add some skills but also broaden the possibilities of pathways. Loans are common in the round ball game so why not rugby as well? Plenty of room in Australia for pace and skill!!

R
Roy 450 days ago

As someone who is living with a family of Ukrainian refugees, whose home and male family members are being hit with missiles daily, I'm shocked you are calling professional rugby players refugees.

My last company closed their doors thanks to an unpaid tax bill, I don't think that makes me a refugee, do you?

They lost their jobs, as have hundreds of thousands thanks to the economy and COVID and have been fortunate to find work albeit the other side of the world. I'm pretty sure they are living a good life.

We are not going to feel sorry for them

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