An enforcer and a gentleman: Here’s to you, Rob Horne (Part One)
Before you read this article, please consider making an online donation via the Rob Horne Fundraiser page here. All monies raised are going towards his ongoing rehabilitation, and young family. Thank you.
There are certain moments in a life of watching live sport that just stick with you. In terms of rugby, the more obvious ones are usually an exhilarating length-of-the-field try, a derby win over your arch-rivals, a memorable grand final victory and the trophy celebrations that follow, or a prop going 50 metres and diving home to the shock of everyone, including his or her self.
But in such a collision sport, the perhaps uncomfortable truth is that nothing quite gets the heart racing, or the crowd squealing with delight, like a brutally beautiful, bell-ringing tackle.
My fading memory has probably clouded many such scenarios now. But of my time here in Australia, there are two that still stand out clearly above any others. Oddly, both are from 2008, and both occurred at the soon-to-be demolished Allianz Stadium in Sydney.
The first was when NSW Waratahs flanker Beau Robinson lined up the late, great Jerry Collins off a high ball, and folded the Hurricanes and All Blacks legend in half. The second was just a few weeks later, when an 18-year-old debutant called Rob Horne came off the bench for the Tahs against the Blues.
At just over 6ft tall he wasn’t exactly diminutive in stature, but he was still a relative bag of bones by comparison to the majority of established muscled-up professionals he was now sharing the field with. However, he quickly showed that the reputation for fearless defence he had garnered through his junior footy wasn’t misplaced, and he earned the immediate respect of the Waratahs faithful with a seismic hit on Benson Stanley that almost sent the burly Blues centre backwards across the Tasman.
The Tahs won the game 37-16, Horne started the following week against the Western Force in Perth and scored his first Super Rugby try, and kept his spot for the rest of the season as New South Wales eventually went down in the final to the Crusaders. It was the arrival of one of the toughest, bravest and most selfless players Australian rugby has ever seen.
At midnight last night AEST (3pm Saturday afternoon in the UK), Horne walked onto the famous old turf at Twickenham Stadium in London to present the match ball for a game between Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers, that was being played in his honour.
As most readers will now be aware, some ten years after he burst onto the scene so vividly for the Waratahs, Horne has been forced to prematurely hang up the boots after suffering the most devastating of injuries whilst playing for Northampton, against Leicester, last April.
Enjoying a stellar first season with the Saints on an individual level, despite the club’s struggles in the Premiership, Horne was named as captain for the East Midlands derby – the most-fiercely contested and supported clash in English rugby. But just 13 seconds after kick-off, a trademark thunderous charge into the opposition ranks from a skipper keen to lead by example, ended with a lengthy delay and Horne carried from the field on a stretcher.
Most assumed it was a nasty head-knock, and with little news forthcoming in the ensuing days from any relevant party, the rumour mill went into overtime. But no-one in the game was prepared for the shock of Horne’s immediate retirement due to severe nerve damage, damage that has left him with permanent paralysis in his right arm and constant chronic pain. He explains his situation in a moving video below.
Horne was one of my favourite players before he left Australia, but elevated himself to legendary status in my eyes when he then joined my hometown club Northampton. As a rugby fan, and supporter of both the Waratahs and the Saints, the situation he now finds himself in is upsetting, unsettling and downright unfair. But unfortunately, we can’t change it.
What we can do is celebrate his career, and by doing so, give his situation as much exposure as possible in order to help raise funds for the life he now needs to carve out for himself, and his young family. To help me do that, I’ve called upon a few of the guys that played alongside him or coached him to provide memories, anecdotes and tributes. So, here’s to you, Rob Horne…
Growing up in Lugarno, a suburb of St George situated south of Sydney’s airport, and an area more renowned for producing Dragons and Kangaroos than Waratahs and Wallabies, Horne’s pathway to a professional career in the 15-a-side code wasn’t as clearly defined as it was for those who came through the private schools system in the city’s rugby hotbeds in the north and east of the harbour. But he happened to have his first coach right on his doorstep.
Southern Districts’ current flanker/utility back Luke Smart lived in the same street as the young Horne, and had a rugby-loving father who would prove to be a significant influence on the future star in his midst.
“We used to play touch footy in the road for hours and hours with all the kids in the neighbourhood, and he was so good that it often became Rob versus two or three others,” recalls Smart.“My Dad coached us at Oatley Juniors from the age of six all the way up to under 16’s, and I remember us playing and then staying all afternoon to watch the three grade teams whilst we just hung out and kicked a footy. We idolised the grade players and thought they were so big and intimidating.
“We played club, rep, zone, school rep, state and schoolboys together, along with a number of other super talented young kids including future NRL player Chase Stanley, and future Brumby and Melbourne Rebel, Afusipa Taumeopeau. My Dad drove success and high standards, and we all worked together and pushed each other, winning many state championships and tournaments over the next few years.
“Rob always played 10 at club level but shifted to 12 for all of his rep footy. He was a grass-cutter with lethal speed, and he was very lean, small and agile. Players would be scared to play against him as he would often just appear from nowhere and steal tackles from them. Other Mums did not like seeing him against their sons!
“By the CHS (Combined High Schools) tournament at Camden in 2006 where we played for Sydney East, Rob was much bigger and stronger, and he became a superstar after getting out of the gym. One of my favourite memories was a game against Mid-North Coast, when he ran the crash ball at 12 so hard at his opposing player, that during the tackle the bottom half of his jersey was ripped off. We had no replacement to fit him, so he continued to play with his six-pack showing, receiving multiple cuts and slaps. He still scored a double and won us the game!”
As his coach, Smart’s father Bruce witnessed the early promise, and subsequent progress of Horne’s talent, from a ringside seat.
“From a young age Rob showed great potential and understanding of the rugby game,” he says. “Once he reached Under 8’s, where tackling in Australia was allowed, his enthusiasm for the defensive game was evident. He would literally run from one side of the field to tackle an opponent on the other side. His tackling prowess and speed off the mark at this young age was beyond anything seen for his age, and indeed older players as well.
“This set him apart from most players and followed him into his adult years. His reliable defensive ability became one of his most valuable assets during his progress in adult rugby, he never shirked his duty no matter how large the opposition.”
One game in Horne’s junior career stands out for his former coach, watching him take on the ultimate boy-wonder at the time, Kurtley Beale, for CHS against GPS (Great Public Schools) in a trial.
“Rob was inside centre whilst Kurtley Beale was no. 10 for GPS,” recalls Smart senior. “Beale’s reputation at these trials preceded him and was certainly tested that day, and a very memorable game ensued. Firstly, because CHS beat GPS – a rarity – and secondly, because Rob continually rushed up so quickly in defence that Beale had no room to move, nor pass the ball to his 12. He was almost at a loss.
“This was definitely a most pleasing game to see Robert’s skills at such a high level. He proved his rugby career could soon be around the corner.”
Horne was subsequently chosen for the Australian Schoolboys team for the next two years, and awarded the Bronze Boot as the best Aussie Schools Player in 2007. Having also won pretty much every tournament they entered with the hugely successful Oatley side – including a national competition up on the Gold Coast, he and several of his team mates, including Smart junior, headed down to Southern Districts to join their colts set-up.
Given his NRL-biased locale, it is no surprise to learn that the skills Horne showed in union were easily transferred to another code. Turning out for Hurstville United Juniors, at the time coached by recently deceased St George and Illawarra Dragons legend Lance Thompson, Horne was also a pretty handy league player, and was faced with a choice of code when he reached 16.
“All of a sudden on the Saturday I was playing for Southern Districts and on the Sunday for St George, and it came to a point when I was 16 where you can’t keep it up,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2010. “It is too physically taxing. I thought I had to make a decision because I can’t keep doing both. I was playing rugby first, and I saw myself more as a rugby player playing league.”
League’s loss was very much union’s gain, and after just 18 games in colts, and before he had barely swum in the deep end of grade footy, he went straight from school and into the Waratahs Academy at the end of 2007.
A keen observer of Horne’s progress back then was former Waratahs prop Cam Blades, who would soon cut his coaching teeth as an assistant at Souths before becoming head coach in 2012, and leading the Rebels to their first ever Shute Shield grand final.
Horne’s rapid ascent at an early age meant that Blades rarely got the chance to utilise the services of the gun talent that grew up on the club’s doorstep (he only donned the Candystripes grade jersey on 13 occasions), although he did get to deal with him on a daily basis further down the track as Waratahs’ assistant coach in 2016/17. But whenever he could get him down to Forshaw Park for a run-out in clubland, it was a rewarding experience.
“Almost straight out of school, ‘Horney’ went to the Waratahs Academy and then into the Waratahs proper, and that was around about when I started with Souths,” Blades told Behind the Ruck. “So he wasn’t around a lot at club level, but when he was he obviously made a big impact.
“He wasn’t an extrovert as a player, he was pretty straight up and down. But what he did, he did really well, and he was pretty consistent with that. He was a real student of the game and a really intense individual that brought a lot of professionalism to the table, so whenever we could it was great to have him on board.
“He had that inner resolve about him, he was highly driven and motivated, and he had a lot of sting in defence, which obviously brings you respect from your peers. I actually think he could have easily been a backrower. He was a hard ball-runner, had that raw, physical edge to him, and he had the all-round game knowledge to go with it. He was really comfortable with how he saw the game, and I think that helped with the positional shift he made later in his career.”
Just several short months after being welcomed into the New South Wales fold, Horne was running out in front of 27,000 at Allianz Stadium (those were the days!) against the Blues for his Super Rugby debut. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one to remember his immediate impact on that game with great fondness.
“My best memory of Rob Horne was his debut game against the Blues,” former Waratahs and Wallaby team mate Wycliff Palu told me. “He came off the bench and was opposing Benson Stanley, who was a hard hitting centre. I think it was a five-man lineout and I was defending out in the backs, and I just remember ‘Horney’ shoot out of the line and put this hit on Stanley, and that was his first involvement in the game.
“I just remember thinking ‘F**k!’, he laughs. “He was only 18, but you knew he was a special player, and it always gave me confidence when playing alongside Rob.”
In 2007, the Waratahs had finished a lowly 13th in what was then a Super 14 competition. But in what we retrospectively like to term as a ‘transitional’ season, head coach Ewen McKenzie had blooded several talented young guns that went on to forge impressive careers, such as Kurtley Beale, Dean Mumm, Dave Dennis and Lachie Turner.
The fresh injection of talent continued at the start of the 2008 season, with Sekope Kepu, Luke Burgess and Tom Carter amongst several new faces drafted in to help resurrect the state team’s fortunes. Carter, a relative veteran of the game by comparison at 25-years-old at the time, was himself just learning the ropes at the next level. But it was a season-ending injury to his centre partner Ben Jacobs that opened the door for Horne to come in and shine.
“I remember watching him play for CHS in 2007 and thinking he is destined to be a genuine superstar,” says Carter. “He was the best schoolboy I saw outside of Kurtley Beale.
“Ben Jacobs ruptured his ACL against the Blues and Rob came on at 13 and replaced him. We won 37-16 and it was probably the start of the run towards the finals. The following week against a Force backline containing Simon Staniforth, Ryan Cross, Drew Mitchell and Cameron Shepherd, Rob started and scored a try. He was the 18-year-old ‘Iceman’ and the key ingredient to the Waratahs finishing second and making the final.
“Outside of his brilliant contact skills, he had electrifying speed over 20 metres which assisted me greatly defensively. We defended narrower on the inside that year to help KB [Beale] out, and I remember being very concerned about my lateral speed and agility, which was similar to the turning circle of the Titanic.
“But Rob was the glue that kept the midfield connected to Lachie Turner and Lote Tuqiri. Pound-for-pound, I think he’s the toughest to play the game.”
Carter’s analytical eye for detail in his team mates and the opponent’s he faced on a weekly basis, was one of his strongest traits. And his opinion of his former centre partner-in-crime, is glowing.
“‘Horney’ was the ultimate competitor, with an incredible self-belief and wisdom beyond his years, and an unbending desire to be the best version of himself. He had the remarkable capacity to make great reads in defence and close from 13, or soften and drift over to adequately cover the overlap. Outside of the great Luke Inman, he was the best defensive centre that I ever played with.
“His fearless defending, electric footwork and great fend were always a feature of his game,” Carter continues. “But probably his most underrated skill was his late footwork at the line when attacking, and his ability to always offset the defender and sit them down. He was a deep thinker and a great student of the game, and his analytical brain was later used when he became vice-captain of the Wallabies and adjusted to playing on the wing. He is one player that you will always remember on and off the field for his character, and for the value that he added to the team.”
END OF PART ONE – In Part Two, Horne’s professional career kicks on with the Waratahs and then the Wallabies, despite suffering a litany of injuries along the way. There’s two World Cups, a Super Rugby title, and a move to the Northern Hemisphere to test himself against Europe’s best.
Header photos: Supplied (1), SPA Images (2,3,4,5,6), Getty Images (7)