From Inverell to Tokyo: Peter Hewat’s rugby journey

Photo: SPA Images

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How many players could you name that have made their Super Rugby debut at the age of 27 or later?

In a time where the young bucks rule and every team is searching for the next superstar – the next Rob Horne, Quade Cooper or James O’Connor – giving someone their break in the big time at an age when most players are just about at their peak, and looking ahead to their next big contract or a possible sea change overseas, is not only rare, it’s also a risk.

But that’s exactly what current Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie did back in 2005 when, in his second season in charge of the NSW Waratahs, he took a punt on Peter Hewat. The hope was that this late starter would provide the thrust and control required from fullback to accommodate the power of Lote Tuqiri, and the guile of Mat Rogers in the NSW backline. In doing so, he would also be stepping into the biggest of big shoes in Waratah history, those of the departed all-time leading point scorer and Wallaby legend, Matt Burke.

No pressure then.

However, not only did Hewat survive, he positively thrived with the opportunity he had been given, exceeding all expectations and breaking records at will. He finished with 243 points from 17 games throughout the 2015 Super Rugby season, smashing Burke’s previous record and playing a major part in the Waratahs’ run to their first ever grand final. He topped the Super 12 point-scoring list, and his tally of 10 tries was also a Waratahs season record. He also took his international bow with two caps for Australia A, and captained his beloved Manly Marlins to within one win of the Tooheys New Cup title. It was an unheralded entrance to the big time, and all this from a player who came into that year with just two state caps and five points to his name.

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Celebrating another try for the Waratahs against the Blues in 2005 – Photo: SPA Images

The next year saw him consolidate his status in the Super 12 competition, registering 177 points – a record at the time for the most Super Rugby points in a season – and helping the Waratahs to the finals for the second year in a row. He was also awarded the Ken Catchpole Medal for his outstanding form in the 2006 Tooheys New Cup.

After being controversially overlooked for a spot in Eddie Jones’ Wallaby squad, he left Australia in 2007 for a new challenge in the Guinness Premiership with London Irish, coached at the time by fellow Australian and ex-Waratah, Brian Smith. And the move did nothing to curb Hewat’s attacking abilities.

In three seasons he has scored 17 tries and over 400 points, helping the Exiles to their first Premiership final last year, and to a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2008. But after a promising start to this season where they led the domestic competition before Christmas, Irish finally finished 6th following a poor run since the turn of the year, and Hewat now sets off for the Land of the Rising Sun and a stint with Suntory Sungoliath – ironically coached by Eddie Jones.

I caught up with ‘Hewey’ this week for an exclusive interview to look back on his achievements in the game so far, his journey from the NSW country town of Inverell to Super Rugby, the differences between playing the game professionally in both hemispheres, and a look ahead to the next chapter of his rugby journey.

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It’s often mentioned how late a starter you were in professional rugby, so what exactly is the story, and how did you end up in Sydney with Manly, and then the Waratahs?

“I only started playing rugby when I went to Nudgee College in Brisbane at the age of 15. My Mum and Dad sent me there to further my cricketing career [Hewat was a highly promising youngster and cricket was in the blood – his cousin is former Australian test player Rick McCosker], and I came out of there playing more rugby. Former Queensland Red and Wallaby Elton Flatley was also in my year.

“Out of school I played for Norths, and in my final years in Brisbane I played for GPS. I was encouraged to move down to Sydney in 2003 by Brian [Billy] Melrose, who was then coach of the Manly Marlins, and that is where things changed with regards to my rugby. I took it a lot more seriously and working with Billy helped my game. I had two good seasons with Manly, and I suppose Ewen McKenzie liked what he saw and was willing to give me an opportunity.”

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Leading the way for the Manly Marlins against Sydney Uni back in 2004 – Photo: SPA Images

You were 27-years-old when Ewen gave you the nod. Did you think your chance at the top level had already gone?

“There were times where I suppose I did think I had let the opportunity slip, and I knew that I had to make the most of the opportunity that Ewen had given me that year. I definitely wasted a few years, and it wasn’t until I moved to Sydney and the Marlins that I really started to put my head down and prove to myself I was good enough to play at that level.”

That first year in 2005 not only saw you establish yourself in the side, but you seemed to be breaking new records every week. It must have gone better than you’d ever hoped?

“It is surreal looking back, I suppose everything just fell into place that year. I haven’t really thought about what I did or didn’t do but I’m sure when I do have more time to sit back and reflect, I will have many fond memories and be very proud of what I achieved.”

The Waratahs lost that 2005 final, but I always felt that the 2006 team was better equipped to take on the Crusaders that year, and that they were looking the part until the unfortunate Wendell Sailor incident seemed to destabilise the side. Is that a fair assessment?

“I would probably have to agree with you. After having a taste of finals footy the year before, we wanted to make amends the year after and the way we lost the semi in 2006 was hard to take. We had gained the lead with not long to go, so for the Hurricanes to kick a penalty from halfway with only a minute or so left was heartbreaking.”

You were the top points-scorer in Super Rugby in 2005, second behind the great Dan Carter in 2006, and led the Australian charts by a considerable margin. Just how difficult was it to accept that then Wallaby coach Eddie Jones chose to ignore your talents – was it a case of right man, wrong time?

“I’ve never been one to dwell on the past. Yes it was frustrating not to be given an opportunity at that level, and there were certainly times when I felt I’d done enough to be considered. There were definitely deficiencies in my game and there still are, but I guess you could say that about everyone. Nobody is perfect.”

You were also a part of the successful Central Coast Rays team that lifted the one and only ARC trophy in 2007. What was that experience like and looking back, did you agree with the competition’s premature demise?

“I thought the ARC was an awesome competition. The guys at the Rays all bought into it, and they were some of the most enjoyable times I have experienced in my career. It’s a shame that the competition finished, as I believe it was exactly the kind of thing Australian rugby needed because it gave guys the opportunity to play at a higher level.”

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Playing for the Central Coast Rays in the one and only ARC season of 2007 – Photo: SPA Images

When you made the decision to go abroad, had you accepted that the Wallabies chance had gone, or did you secretly harbour a desire to go over for a couple of years and come back and try again under a new coaching structure?

“No, as soon as I left Australian shores in 2007, I let the dream of playing for my country go. I left when I was 29 so I knew that age was against me, and I knew that it was time to move on to my next challenge.”

What made you choose London Irish, and were there other clubs that came close to obtaining your services?

“I suppose I was lucky enough to have had a choice – there were a couple of other opportunities in France and Japan. The reason I chose London Irish was the style of rugby they played. We like to throw the ball around and play an expansive game, which suits my style. Another factor was definitely that they had a Southern Hemisphere coach in Brian Smith.”

You’ve been there for three years. Did you think you would be there that long, and did you envisage the progress that the club has made in that time?

“I definitely thought I would be at the club for at least two years. When I first arrived, I saw instantly how much talent and potential there was here. Historically, London Irish had finished mid to bottom of the table, and I couldn’t really understand why. In that first year we had a good run in the Heineken Cup and made it through to the semis, where we were beaten in a close game by the French giants Toulouse. Making it that far installed a lot of belief and confidence – something that was missing from the squad – and really pushed us to lift our performance to the next level.”

You left Australia as the Waratahs’ first choice kicker and a point-scoring machine, and continued that role when you started with the Exiles. But are you pleased that you’ve proven your value to the team for your all round play and not predominantly as a goal-kicker, which I think some people unfairly saw you as when you arrived?

“I hope that I offer more to a side than just goal-kicking. I kicked at goal for the first eighteen months I was here and then injured my knee near the end of last season. I then had a groin injury earlier this year so again, I didn’t kick. Now I’m fully fit again, I’m looking forward to getting an opportunity when I get to Japan.”

You seemed to settle well into London life. How important was that in your ability to settle with the team and play your best footy?

“There are obviously a lot worse places to live than London, and that was another key reason why I was keen to come over here. You have Europe on your doorstep, and I have been lucky enough to travel a bit and experience places I previously wouldn’t have imagined I would ever get to see.”

Will you look back on your time at the club as an achievement in terms of progress, or with a tinge of regret at not having gone further and lifted some silverware?

“A bit of both to be honest. Being involved in the latter stages of two big competitions were milestone achievements for the club, so I am obviously very proud to have been a part of that. But this year has been a little disappointing. We were looking to go a step further and win some silverware, unfortunately, we’ve lost some key players and have had a horror end to the season.”

Who do you think will contest the Premiership final, and which team has impressed you the most this season?

“I think Leicester and Northampton have been the form teams all year and will be tough to beat. Saracens and Bath are starting to hit form at the right time, so it is looking to be an exciting finals series. The best side I think we have come across this year would have been Leicester at Welford Road. They came out firing and the game was over at halftime.”

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Powering through the Leicester defence for the Exiles last season

Lote Tuqiri told me that in his time with Leicester Tigers he had learned to appreciate other areas of the game, such as the scrum and the rolling maul, because he was enthused by the reaction and understanding of the crowds in Europe. Have you had a similar experience?

“Being over here you definitely see different aspects of the game and come to respect forward play a lot more. As the weather isn’t great over the winter, fields aren’t conducive to running rugby, so things tend to tighten up. Once the grounds harden up, you really do see what individuals have to offer. There is a lot of talent in the English game, it’s just getting the correct conditions to showcase them. In regards to crowds they are extremely passionate. Supporters over here are very tribal and loyal, they travel all over Europe to support you and I have come to appreciate what it means to them.”

What is the difference between playing a Super Rugby final, a Guinness Premiership final, or a Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham in terms of atmosphere, sense of occasion and hyperbole amongst supporters, and which final would you rather have won?

“In terms of atmosphere it is hard to go past a packed Twickenham – it’s electric. On the bus on the way to the game the streets are packed full of supporters, and one thing I will never forget is when we got off the bus, there was a 50 metre guard of honour full of London Irish supporters clapping us into the ground. As I said before, our supporters are very tribal.

“With regards to results I would rather have won both, as it was the first time that the Exiles and the Tahs had made it that far. So it would have been great to be a part of making history with both teams.”

What are the fondest memories you will look back on from your time in England?

“I have a lot of fond memories from my time over here. On the field, the Heineken quarter and semi, and obviously the Premiership semi and final last year, have been great memories. I have been lucky enough to meet some great people from all over the world, and have been lucky to be at a club that likes to play a great style of rugby.”

What advice would you give to any other Australian player thinking of heading to Europe?

“I think an important factor in coming over here is the style of rugby the club plays, and you also want to be playing in the Heineken Cup if possible.”

You’ve played at fullback, flyhalf and on the wing, but which one is your favourite position?

“My preference moving over here was fullback, but having had the opportunity to play flyhalf last year, I have grown fond of that position and feel that that is where I will end up. Both positions are very similar. It has been a frustrating year in that we have had a lot of back three injuries and I have been forced to play on the wing. I was really the next best option but I hope my wing days are finished.

“It is a lot different playing wing over here than it is back home. You tend to be chasing kicks a lot more and things are probably a little more structured, whereas at home I could roam around a bit more and get into first receiver a bit. Put it this way, it’s not my favoured position but if I have to play there I’m happy to do so.”

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Hewat was part of the first Waratahs team to win in Canberra in 2005 – Photo: SPA Images

Looking ahead now – why Japan?

“Japan was always an option for me and something I have always wanted to do. When an opportunity came about to join a quality team like Suntory, I was always going to be interested in looking into it further. I still have the competitive drive to win silverware, and I can’t wait to take that to Suntory.”

Of course, the irony here is that you will be coached by Eddie Jones, the man who wouldn’t give you that elusive Wallaby cap?

“I’m not one to hold grudges. I’m looking forward to continuing to improve and I know Eddie can help me do that.”

You’ve worked under a few different coaches. Who’s had the most impact on your game?

“All the coaches I have played under have had an impact on me in different ways. Obviously, working with Brian [Smith] when I first arrived in the UK was really good for my game, and there were obviously a few adjustments to make given the switch from Super 14 to the Premiership. Also, for a front row forward, Toby Booth has a lot of innovative ideas, which I value.

“I owe a lot to Ewen [McKenzie] as he was the one who backed me at the Tahs, gave me an opportunity and believed in my ability when some had doubts. My time with NSW was an impressionable period in my career and I valued the input of all those involved. But the guy who has probably had the biggest impact on me has been Brian Melrose, my old Waratahs and Manly coach. He was the one who encouraged me to make the move down from Queensland, and the one who has had the most influence on my career as a whole.”

We know you’re off to Japan but you also mentioned you might be back at the Village Green in a few years. What does the long-term future hold for Peter Hewat?

“I would definitely like to play for a few more years yet. I was a late starter as a professional so I feel I still have a few years of playing left. With regards to getting back to the Village Green as a player, I think those days might be over. But I would definitely like to maybe coach back there one day. I always get down there to support the Marlins when I’m home, Manly Oval is where it all started for me so I am very appreciative of the club.”

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First published by heavensgame.com on May 5th, 2010.

 

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