Repatriated Meakes is a centre-piece for Spirit
If there’s one thing this year’s Buildcorp NRC has shown us, it’s that the gap between Super Rugby contracted players and non-contracted players has narrowed to the point where you could even cast an inquisitive glance at the talent identification programs currently in place in Australian rugby.
Far be it for me to question professional coaches and/or scouts who have forgotten more about the game than I’ll ever know. But when you see sides chock-full of Rebels, Reds and Brumbies respectively, not just losing but getting towelled up to the tune of 50-60pts by teams with a mere smattering of Super Rugby experience by comparison, you do wonder if some of those contracts were mailed to the wrong addresses.
But the accurate or inaccurate promotion of players from the non-professional ranks to the potential big time is not limited to the NRC. When you watch as much Shute Shield rugby as I try to do every season, there is often a few names on the end-of-season list of those who have progressed to the next level, that has left me scratching my head when I look back at those players that have been left on the shelf.
Take Billy Meakes for example. When he was last on our shores in 2013 in the colours of Northern Suburbs, smashing over the gain line at will, tackling everything that moved and often being harder on the ball than most flankers, he seemed set in stone to grab a spot in one of the five national ‘franchises’.
But no offers came, and young Billy soon found himself trekking to the other side of the world trying to convince a new audience of his undoubted prowess. And he did.
Now returned to his homeland after three years ‘up North’ and a successful stint with English Aviva Premiership side Gloucester, Meakes has finally got the Super Rugby opportunity his form warranted with the Western Force. Taking a well-trodden path for overlooked club players, he follows in the footsteps of guys like Steve Mafi (Parramatta & West Harbour) in getting their professional chance at home – or specifically, Perth – after being identified for their efforts overseas.
Currently tearing it up in the Buildcorp NRC for Perth Spirit, Meakes has – surprise, surprise – been a standout performer in a Spirit side that has slowly grown into a slick, cohesive and powerful unit. His undoubted joy at finally being a part of a professional environment in his own country has shone through in his form, and in his appetite for the competition. And while the frustration of the fact that he seemingly had to go overseas in order to get noticed still smoulders, he certainly made the most of his circuitous route to Western Australia.
“2013 was a big year for me, I had goals and aspirations to link up with one of the Super Rugby franchises and when it didn’t happen, yeah, it was definitely disappointing. I was pretty upset about it,” the 25-year-old admitted to Rugby News this week. “It was a tough decision to go to the UK but one I made due to the fact that I wasn’t getting an opportunity over here. I do feel like I had to go outside Australia to get a proper look in but obviously, it’s worked out pretty well for me in the end.”
Starting off at National Division Two side Clifton, a feeder club for newly promoted Premiership team Bristol, Meakes bided his time before opportunity knocked at sleeping giant Gloucester.
“It took a bit of getting used to at first but I was pretty fortunate that I started off playing in a pretty low level competition for the first six months, and that enabled me to find my feet,” Meakes explains. “It’s a very different style of rugby but I soon found it that it actually suited my game in terms of the physicality, and also the skill set that I’d learned here.
“Bristol let me train with them and had a look at me but they had a pretty big squad and after a few good performances for Clifton and a few injuries at Gloucester, I got the opportunity to go over there on trial instead and it went from there.”
Based in the South West of England, Gloucester, like their local rivals Bath, are a rarity in the UK, in that they are a rugby team that doesn’t have a professional soccer team to compete with in the same town. As a result, they have grown into one of the best supported clubs in the country, with arguably the most vociferous home support to be found anywhere an oval ball is being flung in anger, particularly in ‘The Shed’, a terraced standing area which runs down the whole length of one side of the pitch at their ground, Kingsholm.
It holds around 3,000 people and is the scourge of any visiting player but if you’re doing your job for the Cherry and Whites, Gloucester’s nickname, they’ll treat you like a hero. Luckily for Meakes, he performed well enough to win their hearts.
“The Shed is pretty notorious in England and they received me really well,” he recalls. “They were a great bunch and I think I landed on my feet when I ended up at Gloucester to be honest, I absolutely loved it. There is a lot of similarities between Premiership rugby and Super Rugby, but at the same time, they’re very different. Defence and set-piece is a huge focus in England and something that they spend a lot of time on, whereas, over here attacking rugby is probably the main focus, and skill set and using the ball and keeping it in hand a bit more. Very different but, given the conditions over there, you can see why.”
The highlight of his time at Gloucester was the club’s run to the final of the 2015 Euro Challenge Cup. It is a trophy played for between teams that missed out on a place in the Champions Cup, the old Heineken Cup, and it not only gave Meakes a chance to bed himself in as a regular starter, it also got his hands on some precious silverware.
Playing a starring role in seven of the nine games en route to the final, he scored a try in the semi-final against Exeter, before helping his side record a memorable victory over Edinburgh in the decider. Just don’t mention the red card…
“I feel like that red card’s going to follow me around forever now!” he laughs. (He was somewhat controversially dismissed for a dangerous tackle) “But that competition was just amazing for me. Every club treats it differently but for us at Gloucester, we treated it as an opportunity to give players a chance that probably weren’t playing in the Premiership every weekend. I was on the fringes and that competition gave me an opportunity to start in the first team, find my feet, build some confidence and build some combinations. To go all the way through to the final and eventually win it, was definitely a massive highlight in my career.”
After three years in the UK and an invaluable education alongside the likes of Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw and England backs Jonny May and Billy Twelvetrees, it was time to come home and fulfil his Super Rugby dream when the Western Force came calling.
“It was something that was on the back of my mind and something that I had been talking to my agent about intermittently over the three years I was there – just keeping an eye on Super Rugby. I always wanted to come back and play, it was just whether or not it was possible time-wise with the crossover of seasons and also, given the opportunity of a contract. When that opportunity did arise to come back, that was when I started considering it properly and it all happened really quickly after that.
“I’ve got no doubt that I’m a better player than when I went over there. When I signed with Gloucester it was my first proper full-time professional contract, and I think that’s what I needed, to be in a professional environment and learning from people around me. I got a full pre-season under my belt, surrounded by current and former internationals, and I just learned so much about the game – what it takes to be a pro and the ins and outs of a professional lifestyle. I think our whole backline at one point, besides myself, was an international, so it was great feeding off those guys and I still keep in touch with them weekly. Development-wise, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.”
But in what is a massive tick in the box for the Buildcorp NRC, and another example of exactly why this competition is so valuable, Meakes contends that if it had existed back in 2013, he may not have needed to go overseas to earn such an education.
“Before I left you had a bunch of players who were maybe playing for sides in the top half of the Shute Shield, that weren’t quite ready to go into Super Rugby, and just needed that level in between to learn and improve. That’s exactly what the NRC offers, a chance for the best club players and those Super Rugby players who aren’t getting enough opportunities, to put their best foot forward. It is the perfect competition that I needed back then to show that I was worthy of a Super Rugby contract.
“I’ve been asked a few times whether I would have stayed in Australia if this competition had been around. Obviously, I can’t give a definitive answer but it definitely would have made the decision a lot harder. It’s a great transition competition, it’s improving every year and I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about it. I love playing it and it’s offered a great transition period for me to get back into Australian rugby and prepare for Super Rugby.”
And he’s taken to it like a duck to water. Having played in six of Spirit’s eight games on the way to tonight’s showdown with NSW Country Eagles in Tamworth – he also started the game against Brisbane City but suffered a concussion after only four minutes – his numbers stack up pretty well against team mates with more minutes on the pitch.
68 carries, 312 metres gained and 52 tackles is a tally not to be sniffed at and while the stats can sometimes be misleading, anyone who’s taken the time to watch a Perth Spirit match would have seen the influence Meakes has had on proceedings. His head coach at Spirit, Dwayne Nestor, is certainly purring about the talents his star centre brings to the table.
“That guy is pure class,” Nestor told Rugby News after last weekend’s semi-final win over the Sydney Rays. “He earned my respect very, very quickly with the way he goes about his business and what he does, and you just have to watch him play, he is a quality centre. Con Foley has been outstanding for the Rays but I think Meakes is up there with the best 13’s in the comp.
“He’s definitely come back from the UK a better player, Perth Spirit have got the benefit out of it, hopefully the Force get the benefit out of it too. He’s a very good recruit for the Force, he’s going to be very valuable for that team.”
High praise indeed, but in a team that flattered to deceive in the first half of the competition, Meakes has formed a formidable centre partnership with Ben Tapuai, a cornerstone that has helped his side grow into their season. Their location in Western Australia comes with the obvious penalty of excessive travel, but Meakes believes that has been the making of a squad that needed time to gel.
“We have had a bit of a weird season but all this travelling to the East coast – I think we’ve been there five times this season – has actually ended up doing us a big favour and made us closer as a team,” he says. “Because there is such a big mix between Super guys and club guys, I didn’t know many of the names of the blokes before week one. But we’ve become a pretty tight bunch, we really enjoy our time together and I think it shows on the field.
“In the last three weeks we’ve had some really impressive wins, and the one last weekend against the Rays was almost a complete 180 from where we were when we played them at North Sydney Oval in round two. There’s a great feeling at the moment, we’ve got a great squad and an excited squad and we’re really looking forward to the final.”
In the bigger picture of course, the partnership with Tapuai promises much for the Western Force in the future. And in a side that is starting afresh with an influx of new players and a new head coach in Dave Wessels after the nadir of the last two seasons, that could prove to be a pivotal factor. Success in this NRC competition could also be a vital stimulus for a club that has picked up the unfortunate habit of losing in recent times.
“We’re all really looking forward to it. The appointment of Dave is exciting, he’s been around the club for a while and from the dealings I’ve had with him he’s been really positive. He was very disappointed with last year and he is driving us all to strive for success. We’ve got a really strong squad and a few new additions and I can’t wait to get stuck into pre-season.
“Dwayne [Nestor] oversees everything at the Spirit and he’s the head coach but Dave has been pretty involved with it as well, and he stated in week one that we were in this competition to win it, and I think we’ve shown that so far. I’ve got stuck into it and the brand of rugby that we are playing allows us backs to get so much more ball in hand. We’re getting so much confidence from our coaches just to have a go and try things, and we’ll try and take that into the Force season as well. It’s an attacking brand of rugby, it’s exactly how I want to play the game and one of the main reasons I came back.
“I think the NRC is really important in terms of the Force,” Meakes confirms. “Regardless of the actual rugby side of things, I think it’s just getting that mentality of winning. Obviously, the Force have struggled the last couple of years results-wise and it becomes a habit. If we can start to engrain that now, that mindset of winning and getting used to it, it will put us in a much better position leading into the pre-season and into the full season. We’re going out there to win it, and that will help us in the season to come.”
In order to do that, they will have to travel East once more to take on, not only the NSW Country Eagles, but hopefully a large and fervent home support from all corners of the rugby-loving bush. They will also have to turn around their fortunes having lost to the Eagles 48-24 back in round five.
“I think Tamworth will be absolutely awesome, not just for us but for the Eagles boys as well. I think there will be a really exciting atmosphere and we can’t wait to get there. We can take a few things from that previous game, our set-piece wasn’t where we wanted it to be that day and also, a few decisions went against us. But I think the main thing is just to focus on where we are now because we’ve come such a long way since that game.
“Our forwards have become a real weapon for us, it’s something that we lacked at the start of the season and it’s a credit to them because they’ve been working hard. Now we’ve got a really dominant set-piece in the lineout and scrum, it gives us backs a good platform to play off. We’ve got an all-round game plan now, hopefully we can get it firing on Saturday.
“I think it could be one of the best games of the comp so far and we’ve had some cracker games so that’s saying something. The Eagles like to play an expansive game, as do we, so if either team can sort their defence out I think they’ll go a long way towards winning!”
Welcome home Billy. Sorry it took so long.
First published by Rugby News on October 21st, 2016