Determined Chubb ready to unlock the next level
Photo: Darcy Tuppen Photography
So, you’re a loosehead prop making your debut for your new team, and you’re handed a start in the first week of the NRC’s sophomore season, knowing that the next 10 weeks or so could be your final shot at achieving the dream – a professional contract.
And then, only two minutes in, your best mate – who just happens to be on the other side of the scrum – goes off with a serious injury. When the revamped scrum subsequently disintegrates for the rest of the half, you get the call at the break to switch to tighthead – a position you haven’t played for a few years – and preparing to bore into your relatively virginal left shoulder, is 36-capped Wallaby hooker, Saia Fainga’a.
No pressure then!
That was the challenge facing Melbourne Rising prop Duncan Chubb back in his new side’s round one clash with Queensland Country. But, in keeping with the affable 27-year-old’s demeanour off the pitch, he stayed calm, focused on the job at hand, helped stiffen up the ailing scrum, and a hard fought 39-31 win later, found himself in the no.3 jersey the following week.
Barring one week ‘s purgatory on the bench after a below par performance against the Spirit – “ a very ordinary day in Perth” as he puts it – he’s gone on to be one of the Rising’s most dependable performers of 2015. Only Rebels regulars Jordy Reid, Ben Meehan, Jack Debreczeni and Jonah Placid have started more games, and it was no surprise to Rugby News when we caught up with him this week, to hear that he’s having an absolute blast.
“I’m loving it!” he confirmed. “I’d played tighthead before but not under the new rules and it’s tough but I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’m learning so much about scrummaging down here. Physically it’s more demanding and I’m doing a lot of weights as a part of the Melbourne Rebels program but it’s a challenge that I wanted and that I’ve taken head on.”
After eight years of Shute Shield rugby with his beloved Southern Districts, and an introduction to the NRC as a member of the NSW Country Eagles’ inaugural squad in 2014, Chubb isn’t exactly a new kid on the block in terms of putting his head in where it hurts week-in, week out. But for a student of the dark arts of front row play, access to a professional program and the levels of coaching knowledge on hand every day on the training paddock with Rising, has been an invigorating experience.
“My first day was the Monday after Souths lost to Eastwood in the Shute Shield semis,” he explains. “They pulled me out of contact and I did 45 minutes of passing with [Rebels head coach] Tony McGahan and [Rising head coach] Zane Hilton. I’d never done 45 minutes of passing in my life and just having these guys critique what you were doing was amazing.
“It’s something I haven’t had since probably Cam Blades was coach at Souths, having someone go through the footage with me and saying ‘You’re doing this well’ or ‘You’re doing that badly’ and literally every week I meet with ‘Choc’ [Hilton] and talk about what I’m doing. They’ll say ‘Chubby’, you’re losing your hips at scrum time’, and then you go to the video and watch it and understand what they’re saying and why and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s what he meant, I can fix that’. Whereas in club rugby, because there’s so many players and all the boys have jobs, no-one really has the time to give you that feedback.
“It’s very technical,” he continues. “For example, we played Brisbane City the other week, we’ve had a good feed, I’ve got a good engagement and got a really good shape, but I moved my foot a few inches and the whole weight of the scrum came through.
“At the higher levels of the game, you just can’t have any movement because as soon as you do it’s a pressure release and they are all good enough to take that, whereas in Shute Shield, you can move around a bit and not lose any ground. I guess what I’ve learned most is that there is stuff you can get away with at Shute Shield level that you simply can’t against guys who actually know what they’re doing because that’s their job.”
Born in Hong Kong, where his father picked up a contract for an accounting firm, ‘Chubby’ grew up with rugby in the veins. Dad Morgan was a combative prop who went on to captain the Hong Kong national side and his love of the game has passed down to his three sons, Duncan (the eldest), Lachlan and Callum. In fact, Lachlan currently plays at hooker for Hong Kong.
After the family moved back to Australia, Coffs Harbour to be exact, when he was seven-years old, Chubb’s first serious forays into the game came at Coffs Harbour Senior Education College. He actually played at flyhalf in his team’s under-16’s grand final but moved to the front row shortly after and rep footy soon followed with Australia A, CHS and New South Wales Schools sides.
At 18, he was persuaded to come down to Sydney and join Southern Districts, a club that was doing it pretty tough at the time but looking to build a talented young platform to take them forward over the next decade. It proved to be the start of a love-affair with the Rebels (Souths’ nickname) that he feels has shaped him as both a player and a person.
“I just love the place,” he beams. “I played the first year of colts and then my first 1st grade game a year later, around 2008. I was working for a building company as a landscapers labourer for the first year, got injured and moved into the office and did contracts and administration with them for around three years and after that, landscaping, gardening and any general jobs to get by. Apart from a six month stint in London in 2008 I’ve been down here pretty much ever since.”
Seeing how the club has turned itself around from a perennial cellar-dweller into a major player in Sydney club rugby has given Chubb the most rewarding moments of his career thus far.
“We won one game all year in that first year and maybe only one game in two years so it was a bad time for Souths,” he remembers. “From where we were then to the success we’ve had the last few years – two grand final appearances and a 2nd grade Premiership – it’s amazing, absolutely amazing.
“When we played the semi-final here against Sydney Uni a couple of months ago – and beat them – Forshaw Park was absolutely packed and it was rocking. Myself and hooker Liam Dwyer – who started with Souths around the same time as me – looked at each other and said ‘Can you imagine this eight years ago?’ The only thing better than what we’ve done would be actually winning a Premiership, that would be incredible.”
That progression at Souths was helped by an influx of talent, particularly amongst the forwards, and for an up-and-coming young prop, it was the perfect front-rower’s school in which to learn.
“We’ve had a lot of good ones,” he affirms. “My first year in 1st grade we had Dan Palmer, who made his Waratah debut that year, and he was one of the best tightheads I’ve seen going round. There was Nic Henderson, James McCormack, Guy Shepherdson – and then we had John Ulugia and Tetera Faulkner, so the hardest scrums you’d have were at training! I had Tetera absolutely killing me for two years and to see him go onto become a Wallaby was not surprising at all.”
While Dan Palmer stands out as a mentor – “He was a big influence because he was very scrum orientated and for an 18-year-old to play Super Rugby like he did was almost unheard of,” – it was the arrival of former Wallaby and Waratah, Cam Blades, that Chubb cites as having the biggest impact on his game.
“I can’t say enough good things about him. When he first came to Souths as a forwards coach, he had a truck business at the time and he was getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to make sure he got back to do scrum extras with us. I think he basically killed himself for 2-3 years and then all of a sudden people started noticing him and seeing how good he is – and he is really good. (Blades was recently named as an assistant coach at the Waratahs for 2016)
“I guess it helped me to have a guy who was a similar player to me, coaching me. We had a really good team and he would say ‘You don’t need to be one of those ball-running props when you’ve got guys like Sita Timani, Kane Douglas and Radike Samo, so make sure you scrum well. If you get a carry, do it and make sure you tackle well too’. Stuff like that helped me a lot.”
His propping partner for many of those years was Tim Metcher, a combination that anchored arguably the best front row in the Shute Shield between 2011-2014. It was as a result of that, that Metcher got his big chance with the Melbourne Rebels last year, and 12 months later, it was their friendship that paved the way for Chubb’s opportunity.
Having enjoyed the first year of the NRC with the Country Eagles, injury curtailed the majority of his club season and he found himself twiddling his thumbs and pondering his next move.
“’Metch’ messaged me jokingly saying ‘What are you doing for the NRC?’ and at that stage, I didn’t have anything lined up, so he said ‘Come down here’,” Chubb explains. “He texted the coach, Zane Hilton, to tee it up and I sent down my footage and the next day ‘Choc’ rang me and said ‘Come down’.
From Hilton’s point of view, he was more than happy to get a better look at a guy who could potentially cover both sides of the scrum, a positive boon for a head coach these days.
“That was always the attraction for me,” he admits. “The scrum has become an increasingly important part of the NRC but there is a general disparity between professional props and club rugby props that has led to quite a few collapses,” he says. “So, from our perspective, to have a guy like Chubby, who can potentially play across all three front row positions and do a good job off the bench at least, was a big plus for us. The fact that he’s been involved in every matchday 23 and started in every game bar one, shows that he’s done exceptionally well.”
After moving in with ‘Metch’ and his girlfriend in Melbourne, and impressing enough at training to get a start in round one, neither he nor his best mate could have foreseen the ensuing drama. Barely two minutes into the season, Metcher tore his hamstring off the bone and was stretchered off, while Chubb ending up donning his friend’s jersey for the rest of the season.
“Obviously, I wanted to play with ‘Metch’ rather than take his place,” says a rueful Chubb. “That was a big appeal too in coming down here, getting to pack down alongside him again because we’ve had a lot of success with Souths. He’s from Coffs Harbour as well and I lived with him for a bit when he first came to Sydney. We also worked together for two years so we’re pretty close mates and to see that happen so early in the game, and in the season, was pretty gutting.”
It may not have been the pathway he first envisioned but he certainly wasn’t about to back away from the challenge of mastering one of – some coaches will say ‘the’ – most important positions on a rugby field. Having done the hard yards in club land and watched plenty of guys he felt he had gone more than ok against, suddenly getting their chance in the spotlight, he decided to put his shoulder to the wheel and push one last time for that golden ticket.
“I think if you do anything for eight or nine years you probably want to freshen up with something new,” he offers. “I’ve been playing Shute Shield for a really long time and I’m the first to admit I’ve got a lot of work to do around the field but, with very few exceptions, it’s not that challenging at scrum time anymore. I see a lot of guys playing Super Rugby who I’ve scrummaged against and gone well against so I got to thinking ‘There’s no reason why you can’t do this’.
“I had a six month stint playing with my brother in Hong Kong earlier this year, and if I really wanted to go after money and do all that sort of stuff, I probably could have stayed there. But I saw a lot of guys last year get contracts and a big part of this adventure I guess was not wanting to die wondering.
“If I’m honest, before Cam Blades came to Souths, I was probably more concerned with how much I could drink rather than how much I could squat! But I’ve always wanted to test myself at the next level and I just thought if I came down here and did as well as I could, then anything can happen. I want to play Super Rugby, I think I should be now and I think I can, I’m just looking for an opportunity.”
Unfortunately for Chubb, there appears to be little room to manoeuvre for the Melbourne Rebels recruitment spots as it currently stands. But a clearly impressed Zane Hilton is more than happy to keep him around and in the mix as eyes start to turn towards Super Rugby 2016. While he – and the player – are aware that there are still a few rough edges to be polished, the natural ability, work ethic and determination Chubb has shown over the last three months have not gone unnoticed.
“We don’t actually have any spots free at the moment in Super Rugby but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to be in and around the Rebels squad in pre-season and see how he develops,” says Hilton. “At this level I think he’s certainly a tighthead but if he goes up to Super Rugby, he may need to work a bit on his size if he wants to stay at no.3 just because of some of the guys he’d be coming up against.
“He’s really made a huge sacrifice to come down here and be a part of our program. We were really up front with him from the start and said that we couldn’t offer him anything but we gave him an opportunity and he’s come down off his own back for no money and played some really good rugby. He’s certainly put the work in off the pitch and shown us that he wants to take the next step and bridge that gap between the NRC and Super Rugby.”
First things first though, the small matter of a winner-takes-all final round clash against the Sydney Stars on Sunday. Win and they can set their sights on an NRC title. Lose and it’s all over, red rover. Coach Hilton thinks his side are ready to step up and be counted, well, he’s pretty sure they are…
“Sometimes when you think they’re ready, they’re not and sometimes you go into a game worrying and they come out and astound you and play really well. I wish I could bottle those times when they are right and bring it out every week!” he laughs. “What I am pleased about is how our leaders within the group have stood up in the last three or four weeks and they’ll need to again on Sunday. If they don’t treat this like a final and go out and win it, then we probably don’t deserve to be in the finals.”
“It’s huge,” concurs Chubb. “Everyone is pumped for it and we know that we need to step it up a notch after a good effort last week. It would hurt to not be there at the end. We have a team full of quality players and we know we should be Premiership contenders. We all know the ability is there and when we put it all together it’s going to be exciting. I hope it happens on Sunday.”
Win or lose, and whatever happens from here on in contract-wise, Chubb certainly won’t die wondering.
First published by Rugby News on October 16th, 2015