Where are they now? Sam Payne
Photo: SPA Images
The recent announcement of an expanded Super Rugby competition seems to be light years away from the relatively straightforward make-up of the inaugural competition, back in 1996. The game had just turned professional and the Super 12, as it was then, ushered in a new dawn for rugby in the Southern Hemisphere with three Australian sides competing against nine from South Africa and New Zealand.
Former Waratahs halfback Sam Payne was one of those players whose career bridged both the amateur and professional spheres. Now back on the farm just outside his home town of Walcha, about an hour inland from Port Macquarie in the NSW Northern tablelands, he remembers the sea change involved in adjusting from one to the other.
“It was a huge change for people who were just playing rugby as a hobby, to then turn professional and be rewarded for that hobby,” he recalls. “It took a few years of transition. I still had a full-time job in 1996-97 so I did a lot of the training outside of work hours and there were a number of players throughout the teams in that position. I was a sales rep for Yalumba Wines during the day and then trained at night and I was very lucky to have an employer who was flexible.”
Born in Tamworth and raised in Walcha, Payne made his way to the big city to turn out for Eastern Suburbs in the Shute Shield before representing NSW Under 21s and joining the Waratahs at the age of 22. After filling the sizeable shoes of Nick Farr-Jones, he made his own mark for his state, holding the number nine jersey down for almost six years before a new challenger in Chris Whitaker came on board. When he left the Tahs in 2001 to head to France, Payne held the appearance record for his state with 91 caps, 52 of those in Super Rugby. He also wore the green and gold of his country on seven occasions.
“Looking back, it’s a lot of the friendships that you make in that period and the people you meet along the way that stand out,” he says of his time donning the Cambridge Blue jersey. “You’re obviously playing a sport you enjoy and representing New South Wales is a major achievement, and one which I relished. But I think I cherish a lot of those earlier games back around 1993 the most, when I was only 22 and pretty much the whole team were Wallabies and many of them World Cup winners.”
Having grown up on a farm, Payne was drawn back to his roots when he hung up the boots in 2004. “I’m a stock and station agent here in Walcha so we sell livestock and we also sell rural properties and residential houses as well,” he explains. “We’ve got a block of land with sheep and cattle on it which I run in my spare time so I still do a bit of farming as well and my wife owns a cafe in town. It’s good because it’s flexible and with three children, I can take days off pretty much when I like and run them off to sport and get involved in their lives. It’s a great lifestyle.”
Great but also challenging. “We had a pretty dry period here through December, January and February and we’re selling a lot of people’s livestock for prices less than they would normally accept so a lot of them have done it pretty tough in the last 12 months. But people choose to live on the land and you’re relying on something you can’t predict, which is the weather.”
One of many ‘boys from the bush’ to represent their state, Payne was particularly pleased to hear of the efforts of former team mate. now Waratahs chief scout, Tim Kelaher, in scouring the state for future Tahs. “The country produces some pretty talented kids and it’s a matter of getting them in the system and trying to get them heading in the right direction. I’m sure there’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t get an opportunity so I think it’s a great idea.”
Original version published in the NSW Waratahs v Lions match program on May 18th, 2014