Passionate ‘Sticksy’ stoked with dramatic Super Rugby debut

Photo: J.B Photography

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He already has one of the biggest smiles in Australian rugby, but the grinning dial on the face of NSW Waratahs’ lock Nick Palmer was as wide as the Harbour Bridge after he made his Super Rugby debut against the Stormers last Saturday night.

All in all, the Tahs introduced eight new faces to the Cambridge Blue jersey at Allianz Stadium, four of whom have roots in Australia’s ‘First State’. But you’d have been hard-pressed to find a prouder New South Welshman than Palmer at full-time, after he’d come off the bench to play the last 13 minutes of a bruising encounter decided by Ned Hanigan’s try after the bell.

“It was really, really special,” he beamed to Behind the Ruck. “I was born and bred in New South Wales and getting to make your debut for your state, and winning a game like that with a score in the corner after the full-time siren, and with the crowd really pumping, it was very special. I can’t really describe it.”

With a game that ebbed and flowed in terms of momentum all evening, still very much in the balance when he got the nod to warm up, the hardest part for Palmer was maintaining his composure, such was the adrenaline coursing through his veins.

“I was just trying to ride the game as best I could, and keep the nerves and the emotions down because you can waste so much energy on the sideline getting into the game,” he said. “I was speaking to Jed Holloway as well, who has been in that bench position a few times over the years, and he just said ‘Mate, just play it cool and follow the game, but don’t yahoo and carry on too much because you will waste a lot of energy’. But it was really hard not to on some of those tries because they were pretty special!

The faith that the coaching staff had in their debuting lock was evident by the extra role he also assumed in the side after replacing Wallaby Rob Simmons.

“I came on with Ned in the second row and got to call the lineout, and I think we won all our ball with a couple of clean ones off the top, so that was nice,” he smiled. “But it was the toughest 13 minutes of footy I’ve ever played! It was exhausting, I was knackered after it, but at the same time, it just went so quickly. It was a really fast game and physical as well, definitely a step up from what I’ve played previously.”

Ever the workhorse, he managed four carries, two tackles and a lineout win in that 13 minutes. But that will come as no surprise to those that have followed ‘Sticksy’s’ progress over the last few years.

In his last piece for Behind the Ruck in July of last year, we covered his fledgling move across the Tasman to Hawke’s Bay, as he set about rebuilding his confidence and furthering his rugby education after the frustration of 11 months on the sideline with a particularly nasty hamstring injury.

If you’d like to check that article out too, please click here

He suffered that setback just months after playing a starring role in Northern Suburbs’ first Shute Shield Premiership in 41 years, where his dominant set-piece efforts, huge appetite for work, and on-field leadership, were hallmarks of his game. At the time, he had been lighting it up for the Sydney Rays in the NRC and dreaming of somebody in Super Rugby to come and knock on his door, so to see that opportunity snatched away so savagely was heartbreaking.

Sydney Rays v NSW Country Eagles_Lineout NRC_2017_CC

Palmer (no.5) jostles with Ned Hanigan in the 2016 NRC. They came on for the Waratahs together on Saturday – Photo: Clay Cross / Sportspics

Conversely of course, to see the sheer joy and excitement on his face last Saturday after finally achieving that dream, despite missing almost an entire year of rugby, was heartwarming. But the sense of positivity and relief from all associated with the Waratahs was palpable, in the aftermath of such a dramatic, and vital, opening round win against tough opposition.

Tied at 17-all at the break, neither side could break free from the other enough to forge a dominant gap in the second half either. And with the clock ticking over 80 minutes and the Stormers just needing to hold their own lineout and clear to touch, anything but a 27-all stalemate seemed somewhat unlikely. But the home side had other ideas, and when the visiting hooker overthrew they pounced, the combative Hanigan barging his way over in the corner after good work from Hugh Roach, Jed Holloway, Jake Gordon, Bernard Foley and fellow debutant, Harry Johnson-Holmes.

For an in-depth review of the game, please click here

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But for a squad that only earned the right to belt out the team song on just four occasions in 2017, it was just the start – and the tonic – they needed ahead of a tough two-week road trip, which begins with a clash against the Sharks in Durban in the early hours of Sunday morning (12.05am AEDT).

Palmer firmly believes that the way in which they handled the closing stages of the game, finding a way to win against one of the stronger sides in the competition when their scrum was under severe pressure, will stand them in great stead for the weeks and months to come.

“They had a really good scrum, and I guess you expect that from South African sides with plenty of Springboks, but we definitely have plenty of things to work on,” he admitted. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on our scrum, and we obviously need to do a bit more, because the three things we measure ourselves on is top quality ball off the set-piece, getting over the gain line in first phase, followed by quick recycle for the next two. So if we don’t get that first bit right, we can’t give the backline the chance to get over the advantage lines. That’s a big emphasis for us.

“The Stormers were quick off the line and hitting low, so you needed to put on a tough front to try and get through that, and the speed of the game was pretty quick too, a few turnovers here and there and the ball was gone out wide and you were off after it. But we left two, maybe three tries out there in the first half, so there’s 15-plus points right there and the ball game if we score them, and that would have taken a lot of pressure off us for the second half.

Waratahs v Stormers Rnd 2 2018

Palmer (centre) and Damien Fitzpatrick (right) prepare for collision – Photo: J.B Photography

“We were good through the forwards but they really manned up on us towards the end, and I think at times, we needed to earn the right to go wide by going through the middle a bit more. But gee, when our backs got the ball it was pretty impressive. The catch-pass was good and the flair out wide was really good to watch, so if we can get the piggies going forward and get those backs front-foot ball, we should be able to light it up a bit.

“We just had to play our processes and our patterns, and we’ve been emphasising since the start of the season for each of us to follow our process and trust our role, and the outcome will take care of itself. I think we did that and came up with a nice little try in the corner. We’ve got some big cats running out wide, and that’s exactly what we needed at the end there, a big, fast forward to crash over the line, and Ned was like a train wasn’t he?”

One down for ‘Sticksy’ in the Cambridge Blue then, and hopefully many more to follow. But while he is all too aware that he has only just reached the peak of a mountain he must continually climb, his team mates know that they too have only crossed the first of many hurdles in what will be a gruelling, arduous competition against some of the best players in the world.

“You’re dealing with confidence. When you win one game and then two games it starts becoming infectious, so if we can get a win over in South Africa, it would give us a really good feeling,” Palmer observed. “You’ve always got to strive for better things, never be content with where you are, and try to raise the bar.

“The standard for this year is that after a win, we celebrate for 30 minutes and enjoy each other’s company. Once that’s done we put it to bed and move on to the next game, that’s our philosophy. This will be my first time to South Africa. I’ve only been to Bali and New Zealand in terms of world travel, so this will be the furthest I’ve travelled. Bring it on!”

If Palmer’s excitement could be bottled and shared, the Waratahs’ chances of a first win in the Republic for two years may just go up another notch or two…

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SHARKS v NSW WARATAHS (FoxSports 505, Sunday March 4th, 12am)

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