Mixed blessings as Asquith departs for a new South Wales

Photo: Malcolm Chuck

And so, another promising young lamb, or in this case, Western Sydney Ram, leaves the flock in search of greener pastures. But while I can be nothing other than thrilled that Southern Districts’ utility back Paul Asquith has finally picked up a full professional contract, the news does bring with it plenty of nagging frustration that his well-deserved jump to the next level will take place on the other side of the world.

It’s certainly a great coup for Asquith to be offered a chance with the Scarlets, a team based in Llanelli, South Wales, considering that just six weeks ago they lifted the Pro 12 title to become the best provincial side in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy combined, and qualified for the lucrative European Champions Cup in the process.

But having watched the 23-year-old at close quarters for a few years now in both the Shute Shield and NRC competitions, it is a crying shame that we can’t find space in any of the Australian Super Rugby squads for a guy with an innate reading of the game, a gifted ball-runner who can comfortably cover 10, 12, 15 and the wings, a natural goal-kicker, and a burgeoning source of leadership having been handed the captaincy reins at both Souths and the Rams in the past calendar year.

That frustration is only amplified when you look at the host of non-Australian eligible players currently occupying some of those precious Super Rugby backline spots; Wharenui Hawera (New Zealand) at the Brumbies; Jackson Garden-Bachop (New Zealand) and Ben Volavola (Fiji) at the Rebels; Peter Grant (South Africa) and Marcel Brache (USA) at the Force; and Henry Taefu (Samoa) at the Reds. And that situation in itself, is one that undoubtedly brings the ‘Can Australia sustain five franchises?’ debate into sharp focus once again, particularly given the number of home-grown professionally contracted backs already currently plying their trade outside of Terra Australis. But hey, that’s an argument for another article.

Paul Asquith_Rebels v Hurricanes_2016

Asquith on a rare chance to show off his skills in a Melbourne Rebels jersey

Asquith did spend some time with the Rebels in 2016 of course, but was frustratingly afforded just three appearances in which to showcase his wares, and returned to Sydney club rugby understandably disappointed, but refreshingly upbeat about the whole experience.

“It was a huge positive for me being a part of the Rebels system,” he told Behind the Ruck this week before jetting off for his new adventure. “I was a little bit disappointed I didn’t get more game time, but being in a professional environment like that was massive for me, and I think I brought a lot of that back to Souths in terms of the training ethic and the off-field stuff like diet etc. I was really blessed with my experience down in Melbourne, I loved it down there and loved the culture and the whole Super Rugby thing, so I’m definitely not giving up on it.”

However, that dream will have to go on ice for at least a couple of years now, and while Asquith admits he wasn’t realistically looking too much further than his club and NRC duties this year, the offer from Scarlets was one he simply couldn’t pass up.

“I was reaching out a little bit overseas but not a lot, I was just focusing on my footy with Southern Districts,” he says. “I was hoping for another shot in Super Rugby, and I’ve been talking to Jeremy Paul from the Rams and looking forward to the NRC again. But when this came up, it was too good to refuse.

“The Scarlets had a player moving on from the club who was a centre, and they were looking for cover in that position. It was just lucky timing that they only approached me a couple of weeks ago and were looking for someone to come in pretty quickly, and I’ve got an English passport because my Mum was born in Essex, near London, which helped. I kind of had to make an on-the-spot decision, I didn’t want to risk missing out on it and nothing else coming up, so I just took it.

Regrettably, but also understandably, it was a decision made somewhat easier by the current uncertainty surrounding the futures of the Rebels and Western Force.

“I think I can speak on behalf of a lot of players who are playing in Australia and looking for a gig, when I say they want to be here and play here. But unfortunately, there is a lot going on in Australian rugby at the moment and those opportunities are just not there, and it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen with the removal of one team. If the Force or Rebels go, you’d think there would be a lot more players missing out on professional contracts, and they might have to look overseas. But they might add a few more to the rosters of the remaining four franchises and spread them around. No-one is really sure what is happening yet.

“Hopefully, once a few things get sorted out, there will be a couple of opportunities for some of those players that are on the fringes and playing Shute Shield and/or NRC to join up with some of the wider training squads and rip in and have a crack. But this opportunity was just too good to turn down right now, and hopefully it will put me in good stead for the future when I want to come back. It’s a two-year deal to play in the Pro 12 and I couldn’t say no to that. I’m very excited at the opportunity.”

NRC Rd 1 - Sydney Rays v Western Sydney Rams

A proud Asquith leads the Western Sydney Rams onto the field ahead of the opening match of the 2016 NRC season – Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

And it is some opportunity. The Scarlets have had to play second fiddle down the years to their Welsh rivals Ospreys on a national level, while Glasgow from Scotland, and the four Irish provinces of Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht, have all jockeyed for the positions above them on the Pro 12 ladder in recent times. But the arrival of kiwi coach Wayne Pivac back in 2014, has seen a steady improvement that reached it’s zenith last season with a dazzling run to the finals, some of the best ball-in-hand footy you could hope to see in the Northern Hemisphere, and the eventual dispatching of the heavily-fancied Leinster and Munster in successive weeks to lift a title they have only held once before, in 2004.

Those familiar with Welsh/European rugby may recognise more than a few of the handy names on their roster. Liam Williams (soon to join Saracens), Jonathan Davies and Ken Owens all featured for Wales in the 2017 Six Nations, and are currently in New Zealand as members of the British & Irish Lions touring party; Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Gareth Davies and Scott Williams have all racked up over 25 appearances for their country; John Barclay captained Scotland in their recent win over the Wallabies in Sydney, while former Crusader Johnny McNichol, and Werner Kruger from the Bulls in South Africa, add some international flavour to proceedings.

As a result, competition for places will be hotly contested, but with the club involved on three fronts – a 22-game Pro 12 season, at least six Champions Cup games, plus the Anglo-Welsh Cup – there are plenty of opportunities for game time. And while he would still ideally like to lock down one backline position as his specialty, Asquith’s impressive versatility may well pay dividends across what is a jam-packed schedule compared to the maximum 20 matches per year in Super Rugby.

“I’ve looked at some of Scarlets games from the last couple of years and the way they play, and I looked into their coach Wayne Pivac and his background,” he reveals. “I had a brief chat with him and he seems really good, and I like the style that they play. We spoke about their shape and how they like to run the ball, and what they’ve been working on the last couple of years, which has been about non-stop progression until they won it. It was very good to watch and it looked really fun.

Jonathan Davies_Lions v NZ

Jonathan Davies – voted ‘Lion of the Series’ by his team mates – will be one of Asquith’s new team mates at the Scarlets

“I think I’ll be covering centre, fullback, wing and 10, but I’ll know more once I get over there. I’ll be training hard at centre and fullback but they already have a lot of depth in all those positions. They have two really good centres and a good wing/fullback in Johnny McNichol, so it will be tough to get into that starting line-up. But I’ll be training my absolute best to do so, because I want to play as many minutes and games as possible.

“There’s a lot of games and a lot of chances to play footy, and that really suits me. I’ve been pretty lucky with injuries in my career so far and my body seems to be pretty resilient, so a long season with a lot of games is a positive. That’s why they have such big squads over there. I’m not going to set my expectations too high, it’s just a case of head down and bum up, and see where that takes me. I’m really looking forward to it.”

The only downside for Asquith is that his new role required immediate attention – he flew to the UK on Tuesday. Which in turn means he had to walk away from an impending run to the Shute Shield finals for his beloved Southern Districts.

Hailing from Kiama, a two-hour drive south of Sydney, Asquith joined up with the Rebels (Souths nickname, not the Melbourne version) back in 2012. He came up through the ranks alongside a batch of young talent that has gone on to make Souths a perennial title challenger, talent that includes/included Waratahs no.8 Jed Holloway, Brumbies scrumhalf Dewet Roos, Aussie Sevens rep and former Queensland Red Alex Gibbon, and ironically, the aforementioned Ben Volavola at the Rebels.

But that elusive maiden Premiership is still the elephant in the room.

Currently sitting in fifth place on the Shute Shield ladder, Asquith is bidding farewell just as Souths appear to have hit a rich vein of form. After an indifferent first half of the season that saw them claim just four wins from nine rounds, they have clicked into gear in some style over the last month, winning four from four and averaging just under 48pts per game. While Asquith will be a reluctant long-distance follower for the foreseeable future, he is convinced he leaves behind a side with the capabilities to break that title drought.

“We’ve had a pretty inconsistent year this year with player’s form a bit up and down and we’ve been trying different combinations, especially in the back line,” he observes. “But we seem to have clicked in the last three games, we’ve been training really well and the boys are really getting around the style that we’re trying to play. It is a tough time to be leaving, but luckily, with a 10, 12, 15 background, I’m probably the one player that has played the least consistently in one position. Everyone else has their own position more or less locked down now, so they’ve all played very similar combinations without me there and I don’t think they’ll lose much at all.

Paul Asquith_Souths v Parra_2017_JR

Asquith in familiar pose down at Forshaw Park, home of Southern Districts – Photo: Jessica Reading

“I think Rohey (Rohan Saifoloi), Apo (Latunipulu), Smarty (Luke Smart) – a few of those older heads have really stepped up and matured as players, and they’re really starting to lead some of the young guys like Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Pilzy (Eli Pilz) at halfback, and Jamie Verran, who has come over from New Zealand and given us a new perspective in terms of game style and play. That’s probably been the best thing that’s happened at Souths this year.

“We’ve played pretty similarly to the way we have in recent years but all our older guys are playing really well, and our young guys are stepping up and playing well around them and helping them play their best footy. Hopefully, the boys will have a bit of momentum leading into the finals because once we can get the best out of everyone, there’s not many teams that can stop Souths on their day. I think they can do it, but it’s going to be a big challenge and there’s some very tough competition out there. But if they can play the footy that they’ve shown they are capable of, then absolutely they can win it.”

While the Rebels continue their journey towards what would be a history-making achievement, their former captain can look forward to another bout of pre-season training ahead of the 2017/18 Pro 12 season kick-off in September. He’s also got a Northern Hemisphere winter to look forward to, and Llanelli’s average temperature isn’t exactly similar to Kiama’s. But he’s convinced that he can cope.

“It was pretty chilly down in Melbourne in winter, so that might be a pretty good stepping stone,” he jokes. “I’m not a huge fan of the cold and wet, but it’s in my blood, so I guess I should be better prepared than most!”

Wrap up and go well champ.

*********************

*Paul would like to extend a massive thank you to all at Southern Districts, and to the coaching staff in particular for their amazing support, and for what they’ve done for him along every step of his career at the club.*

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