‘Sticksy’ heads East for Hawke’s Bay graduation

Photo: Clay Cross / Sportspics

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You’re 24-years-old. You’re enjoying your best and most consistent season of footy so far. You’ve just played a pivotal role in helping your club side lift their first Shute Shield Premiership in 41 years, and your new NRC team – coached by the same guy that orchestrated said Premiership – are flying high at the top of the 2016 competition after three rounds.

As a result, rumours of appreciative eyes from the professional game are growing. But then…

BANG.

Those who were in close enough proximity at Rat Park on September 16th last year, swear they actually heard the moment when Nick Palmer’s hamstring tore itself savagely from the bone in his left leg, such was the severity of the injury. But while the Northern Suburbs and Sydney Rays second rower’s season was suddenly and cruelly ended, there were initial fears for his long-term prospects of a full recovery. Thankfully, he was able to take some solace from the experiences of others.

“It was pretty bad,” Palmer confirmed to Behind the Ruck earlier this week. “Two of the three tendons that attach to the bone were torn off, and the third tendon had a 40% tear to the muscle just below it. Initially I had my doubts, but I grew confidence in knowing a bloke like Lachie Turner, who suffered the same injury, could come back to professional sport – particularly in a highly explosive position such as wing.”

Cue nine long months of rehab, frustration and bloody hard work, before he was finally able to pull on the red and black jersey of his beloved Shoremen once more, against Penrith in round 11 of this year’s Shute Shield. But for a player whose star had been firmly on the rise, it was a tortuous time away from the game.

“The hardest part was remaining straight for eight weeks to begin with,” recalls Palmer – universally known as ‘Sticksy’. “I had to be either lying down or standing straight, which at 198cm tall was a challenge! Anything that involved twisting or bending was a no-no, I couldn’t even sit in a chair. I had to be very disciplined to ensure my actions didn’t limit my recovery.

“It was a real blow right when I was starting to get some confidence in my game,” he admits. “The first few weeks after the injury were tough, as could be expected. But I always told myself it could have been a lot worse.”

Sydney Rays v NSW Country Eagles_Lineout NRC_2017_CC

Palmer snags a lineout against Waratah Ned Hanigan for the Sydney Rays against NSW Country Eagles – Photo: Clay Cross / Sportspics

Considering the extent of the injury, the time out of the game, and what he’s had to do to try to get back to where he was before his sporting world turned upside down, just to see him back on the field is a gladdening sight. But as soon as Palmer began to feel things were clicking into place again in his club colours, the desire to test himself at another level resurfaced. And an offer from across the Tasman that had been lying dormant for a few months, was simply too good to pass up.

“I’m feeling pretty good and I’ve been getting more confidence week by week. The leg gets sore from time to time but that is all part of a return from an injury like this,” he says. “I had only really contemplated the possibility of playing in New Zealand towards the back end of 2016. But then with the hamstring injury, I wasn’t sure if it was still a possibility. But my agent had been putting the feelers out for lock opportunities in the Mitre 10 Cup, and luckily, Hawke’s Bay were in the market for one.”

Currently competing in the Championship, the Mitre 10’s second tier, Hawke’s Bay is a club based in Napier, on the East coast of New Zealand’s North island, just over a four-hour drive from the capital, Wellington. They have produced a number of All Blacks down the years, the most recent alumni being Brodie Retallick and Israel Dagg, while this year’s squad should see Palmer going into battle alongside a bevy of Super Rugby talent in the shape of Ihaia West (Blues), Ash Dixon (Highlanders), Brad Weber (Chiefs) and Ben May, Ricky Riccitelli and Mark Abbott (all Hurricanes).

Ihaia West_Hawkes Bay

Blues flyhalf Ihaia West will be one of Palmer’s new team mates at Hawke’s Bay

For Northern Suburbs head coach Simon Cron, someone with an intimate knowledge of the New Zealand club scene given his Cantabrian heritage, it was a move his talented young lock simply had to make.

“Sticksy’ had a massive 2016 and developed into a dynamic player with an enormous work rate,” observes Cron. “He showed what a modern-day lock can do on the field and obviously, the way he plays sparked some interest from NZ, and he came to me back in February and discussed an option that had arisen with Hawke’s Bay through his agent.

“He was still five or six weeks away at that time from returning from his injury – it turned out to be longer. But as a club, and as a playing group, we are extremely supportive of our players evolving, and one thing that was holding ‘Sticksy’ back was balancing rugby and work. He battled to hold his weight on in-season as he worked such long hours, and here was an opportunity for him to go full-time for three months and experience what it is like to be a rugby player, day-in, day-out.

“Hawke’s Bay is a very good program, and they are working closely with the medical team here at Norths to make sure ‘Sticksy’s hamstring is looked after, and that he comes back to us after a successful experience. We understand his decision to take the opportunity and also know he will return to Australia as a bigger, stronger athlete, who has been able to apply his skills on a full-time basis.”

Nick Palmer_Norths v Gordon_2017_CC

On the charge in his last appearance for the Shoremen in 2017, the derby win over Gordon a fortnight ago – Photo: Clay Cross / Sportspics

An apprenticeship in arguably the toughest club competition in world rugby, is a path that has proven fruitful for burgeoning Norths’ talent before of course. Ben Matwijow was another standout operator in the Shoremen set-up identified by Cron for better things, and his two stints in the Mitre 10 competition in both 2015 with Canterbury, and 2016 with Taranaki, played a large part in his promotion to Super Rugby with firstly the Reds, and then the Western Force.

Still only a fortnight into his new adventure, Palmer is naturally more than happy to follow in the footsteps of his good friend and former locking partner.

“It was definitely a good career move for ‘Maj’, and I would love to follow suit, play some good rugby here, and see where that puts me regarding higher honours,” he says. “I want to win our division and contribute to the success of the place. Personally, I’m hoping to be pushed to a new level.

“I’ve settled in nicely and hit the ground running with training every day. Napier is a really nice place, clean and pretty, and I’m living right on the beach. The weather has been ok, cold but not too much rain so far. But that gives me a great chance to focus on my rugby!”

While the axe is still hanging over the heads of the Force or the Rebels in Australia, the impending chop for one of them ensures that opportunities for a pro-career for young rugby players like Palmer, are going to be even harder to find. This will inevitably lead to even more home-grown talent heading overseas as a result, an unpalatable situation for everyone with a genuine affection for the game in this country, but perhaps a necessary evil.

“I’d imagine most of those guys who haven’t picked up a spot at another Australian franchise will look to head overseas,” says Palmer. “It is disappointing on a number of levels that a side has to be cut, and it does make it harder now to crack into the system. But the decision is out of any of the player’s hands, and I’m a believer in not getting hung up on that which you can’t control. It just means that player’s need to work harder and perform better if they want to make that step up, and hopefully as a result, we do see the standards across the country go up.”

Nick Palmer_Norths v Gordon_2017_PC

‘Sticksy’ – Photo: Clay Cross / Sportspics

What the loss of a Super Rugby ‘franchise’ does do however, is amplify the importance of the NRC in continuing to offer those club players a taste of the next level before they start looking farther afield. And despite watching another of his young protégés forego a season of second tier rugby in Australia in favour of a rugby graduation in NZ, it is a competition that Simon Cron believes in and supports in a big way.

“I back the NRC as a pathway for our players unreservedly,” he affirms. “Having coached at the Rays last year, and seeing a number of those players be big influences in the Shute Shield this year, it is a competition that can only continue to grow. I thought last year’s NRC was the best yet, and a real leap forward in terms of quality and depth from the previous seasons, and I’m looking forward to seeing the same thing this year at the Rays, as well as seeing all the other talent across the competition.”

Before all that gets underway in September, we have a thrilling denouement to the Shute Shield season to look forward to over the coming weeks, with any one of the six teams likely to fill the finals spots seemingly capable of going all the way.

A man who bleeds red and black, Palmer will be an avid follower of Norths’ attempts to retain the Premiership title they won so deservedly in 2016, and he leaves behind a side slowly turning the corner after a horrendous mid-season run of one win in eight games. The bulk of that run just happened to coincide with the loss of coach Cron to the Aussie Under 20’s for the Junior World Cup, and the impromptu Super Rugby call-ups for both Will Miller and Hugh Sinclair at the Rebels. But the events weren’t mutually exclusive.

“The coach, captain and vice-captain are all crucial to setting standards and ensuring that they are met, so it did play a part,” offers Palmer. “However, we still had plenty of quality in our leadership roles to be able to handle losing those guys. We just went away from our standards and didn’t execute our processes.”

Can they still go back-to-back?

“Definitely. As we saw last year, any of the semi-finalists on their day are competition winners.”

From his coach’s perspective, the departure of Palmer certainly doesn’t make that challenge any easier, and his absence will be keenly felt for everything he brings to the Norths family. Well, perhaps not everything.

“He is a huge loss for us, not only in his on-field performances but for his off-field cultural impact as well,” says Cron. “He is a big part of our crew, and we will miss his pre-game vomiting!”

Go well Sticksy!

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