‘Big Red Builder’ Allen toiling hard for the Rams

Photo: J.B Photography

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One of the true gifts of the NRC is seeing a relatively unheralded player come through, grab his opportunity with both hands and run with it for all he’s worth.

Being a regular observer of the Intrust Super Shute Shield every season, it’s no real surprise to me to see the likes of Jake Gordon, Irae Simone and Sam Ward shining at the next level. And when it comes to doing the hard yards in the battleground of the breakdown and bending the opposition line, seeing Michael Wells (ex-Brumby now Waratah), Sam Figg (Aussie Sevens) and Jordy Reid (Melbourne Rebels) excelling, is a confirmation of the talents for which they have already been recognised.

But when a guy like Western Sydney Rams loose forward Rhys Allen grabs the spotlight, not only does it warm the heart that an ‘older’ player can still get his just desserts for hard work and consistency of performance at club level, it is also a reminder that this third tier competition – blossoming nicely in its third season despite the persistent doomsayers – is the gateway to realising a dream for anyone with the drive and the cojones to go out and take it.

At 28-years-old, the flaming redhead with a beard to match is no spring chicken in terms of unearthing potential, but what he brings to the table, and it must have been a characteristic clearly identified by the Rams coaching team through his efforts for club side Eastwood, is a passion and desire for his footy, a punishing work ethic, and a willingness to push himself to the boundaries for 80 minutes, week-in, week-out.

With 74 carries in his five matches, accounting for around 11% of the Rams’ entire tally in what is very much a 23-man game, he sits behind only UC Vikings powerhouse Tom Staniforth on the competition stats – although he does have it over the Brumbies lock for run metres. Considering he has done so in a side that registered their first win only last weekend, that’s a pretty impressive haul. Even more so when you consider he is only in his first full season back from long-term injury.

NRC Rd 1 - Sydney Rays v Western Sydney Rams

The ‘Big Red Builder’ celebrates a try against the Sydney Rays – Photo: Getty Images

“In the 2015 season I was coming back from a knee reconstruction, only played the second half of the season and wasn’t at full fitness, and it took a bit of time to get the body working again,” the no-nonsense forward told Rugby News this week. “This year, I had a full pre-season, which put me in a lot better stead, but it had been about two years since I’d played before that.”

And it showed. Stepping into a backrow shorn of the irreplaceable influence of retiring club legend Hugh Perrett, Allen stepped up, nailing down a regular spot in the no.6 jersey and doing enough to register on the radar of incoming Rams head coach John Muggleton.

“There were a lot of guys who had been around for a while who took on the leadership roles within the team this year,” says Allen. “But with a couple of guys retiring and a lot of people trying to find their feet and where they now stood in the team, it was definitely a good opportunity for me to come in and try to make a mark.

“’Muggo’ saw me when we played against Parramatta and got in contact with me pretty quickly after that, and I signed with the Rams about halfway through the Shute Shield season.”

But this is not Allen’s first taste of representative football. In fact, outside Wallabies Scott Fardy (Rays), Paddy Ryan and Tom Robertson (NSW Country Eagles), and fellow Ram, Fijian Olympic gold medal winner Vatemo Ravouvou, I believe he is the only other NRC player to play test footy.

For Sweden.

Born in Sydney and raised in Eastwood, Allen had trodden a familiar path to the Woodies through junior feeder club Epping Rams. But it was an unfamiliar route that took him to northern Europe and an unforeseen stint with a country currently ranked 61st in the World Rugby rankings.

“I had some friends that were travelling around Europe for a year in 2009 and myself and another mate decided to go over and join them,” explains Allen. “We found a rugby club in Stockholm and a good little rugby community around them, and the plan was to go there for six months and play for one season. But I left four years later and my friend still lives there!

“You qualify to play for the country after living there for three years and I ended up representing Sweden about six times. It’s a lower standard than the Shute Shield, Swedes don’t grow up playing rugby and they don’t have the environment around them like we do in Australia, but they’re definitely very passionate and dedicated players.”

Rhys Allen_Sweden v Germany

Allen represented Sweden six times in what turned into an extended trip to Europe

His overseas adventure ended on an unfortunate sour note when he suffered a full ACL rupture and meniscus damage in an international against Poland towards the end of 2013, an injury that kept him out of the game for a year and a half. When he tore the same meniscus again in a 10’s competition in Hong Kong in March 2015, he thought seriously about hanging up the boots. But his determination to give it one more crack in his homeland has paid dividends.

Taking his baby steps back in 2nd and 3rd grade halfway through the 2015 season, he helped the Woodies lift the JR Henderson Shield, before making his 1st grade debut in round five of the Intrust Super Shute Shield this year. And here we are.

Perhaps driven on by the knowledge that it was his last shot at the big time, he has been able to raise his level of performance to face each and every challenge. A builder by day – going by the terrific alter-ego ‘Big Red Builder’ – the chance to cross swords with Super Rugby contracted players has pushed him to new heights.

“I would think that if you’re not wanting to play the best footy that you can, or play against the best players that you can, you’re not really having a decent go at it,” he reasons. “You’ve got to jump at every chance you get to play against these sorts of guys.

“It’s been a massive learning experience for me. It’s definitely faster, the changes in the laws help to speed up the game quite a bit, and you’re up against professionally contracted players whose job it is to train all week, every week, so the physicality can be a lot higher. But I’m loving the challenge.”

Rhys Allen_Eastwood v Souths_2016_SG

On the charge for Eastwood against Souths earlier this year – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

With little expectation around their chances this year, the Rams have shut a lot of people up with their performances, despite coming away with the chocolates only once. They look fit, well drilled, have a good set-piece with one of the best scrums in the competition, and have shown plenty of willing with ball in hand. They also seem to have fostered a pretty good culture and a tight-knit group.

“There’s a lot of guys in that team who are extremely good footy players and there’s a lot of young guys as well, and none of us wanted to be the punching bag for the rest of the competition,” says Allen. “We set our standards high, put our structures in place, and we’ve been able to put a lot of points on teams and give them a headache.

“‘Muggo’ and JP both come from an extremely professional background, and in that sense, they instil that into the players and they expect that approach from everyone. They’ve got so much knowledge to give us, and I think everyone recognises that fact, and in such a short space of time that we had as a pre-season and now between games, everyone is just trying to absorb as much as they can and our training sessions are really intense.

“There’s also a large Islander community within the group and they bring such a strong sense of family, and I think that has really helped everyone come together really well.”

After an opening day 20pt defeat at the hands of the Sydney Rays – a loss that still saw them offer plenty of promise for the weeks ahead – they went down by only 4pts to Brisbane City at Ballymore, by 6pts to Perth Spirit at Concord Oval, and by 4pts again in Canberra to the UC Vikings.

Having continually knocked on the door, they were in danger of losing their way when they stared down the barrel of a 38-12 scoreline after only 34 minutes at Concord against Queensland Country last Saturday. But a stellar second half fightback took the game to the wire, and after eight drama-filled minutes of overtime camped inside the Country red zone, referee Amy Perrett awarded a penalty try to a dominant home scrum, and the jubilation at the final whistle was palpable.

“The last three games we’d lost within a try, and in all three of those games we felt that we’d actually given it away, more than the other teams had earned it,” he says. “We made it pretty hard for ourselves against Queensland Country and it would have been easy to hang it up and say ‘We’ve been beaten by Super Rugby players again’. But nobody in that group is ever willing to take a backward step. They raised their standards and refused to let another one slip by and we hung in there to the end and came through.

“In those last few weeks where we had gone close, we still took a lot of confidence from the fact that we can score points when we need to. So even walking off at half-time and the score at 38-20, I thought that if we played to our structures and defended like we have been at training, then we could turn things around pretty well.

“We’ve been working tirelessly on our processes, combinations and structures, and we knew that if we could stick to those, and execute properly, that points would come, because we’d already seen that happen during the game. With a few minutes to go, it was all about keeping the ball in hand, and if we did that, either points or penalties would follow. And with the strong scrum that we have, getting the opportunity to pack down 20 metres out puts dollar signs in our eyes. To finally get the win was really good and a massive relief for everyone.”

Rhys Allen_Rams v Spirit_2016_Getty

Allen takes on Perth Spirit by himself – Photo: Getty Images

With the monkey off their backs, the Rams now have two games left to finish their season on a real high and see where it takes them. First up is Sunday’s trip to Melbourne to take on a Rising side with their own finals aspirations, followed by a last hurrah at Concord Oval against the high-flying Eagles. Both are tough challenges, but Allen sees no reason for fear to outweigh belief.

“They’re two hard games that we have left but I don’t think the boys will think too much about who we’re playing against, it’s more about what we can do. I don’t think we’ve got any other choice than to just go for it. There’s a pretty slim chance that we could possibly make the finals, we’d need to win both of our remaining games and some other stuff would have to happen. But that’s what this competition is about, giving it everything in the short space of time that you have.

“Jeremy Paul spoke in the week leading up to the Queensland Country game about desperation being the key, that little tipping point towards us getting the points at the end of the game, and that’s what we showed. Hopefully that will be a big confidence booster for us for these remaining two rounds. We’re going to have a real crack at it.”

Where that leaves Allen at the end of this particular adventure is up in the air. He hopes it is only the beginning of something bigger, but if it should prove to be his only dalliance with ‘the next level’ in Australia, he certainly won’t have died wondering.

“I’ve been building a house for my parents out in Oberon, near Bathurst, and I was driving five hours to training and back on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it’s been a pretty busy year!” he reflects. “But being 28 and knowing that my body is probably only going to get worse from here on in, I thought that I’d better grab the opportunity while it was there for me, so I just did what I could when I could and trained as hard as possible.

“’Muggo’ keeps saying that this competition is all about the opportunity for everybody to prove themselves to go up a level, or to stay at the level they are at. For me, I’m only one full season back after missing so much through injury, so I hope this experience isn’t a one-off thing. I’d like to take every opportunity I’m given and see where it takes me.”

Let’s hope the ‘Big Red Builder’ is around for a while yet…

 

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First published by www.rugbynews.net.au on: September 30th, 2016

 

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