An enforcer and a gentleman: Here’s to you, Rob Horne (Part Two)
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This is the second part of the tribute.
If you missed Part One please read it before you continue!
After his impressive debut season for the Waratahs in 2008, Horne got further recognition at national level through a stint with the Aussie Sevens, and then the Australia U20’s team, and returned to cement a starting role with the Tahs the following year. The only thing that prevented him from going on to become a genuine superstar was his body.
The downside to being plucked from school and fast-tracked into pro-footy was the wear and tear it took on his young frame, especially given Horne’s uber-physical approach to the game. As a result, his first few seasons in the professional arena were dogged by injury and long absences from the Waratahs squad, mainly with troublesome hamstrings.
Reflecting on those early setbacks in an article for The Australian in 2014, he said “I got my first opportunity when I was 18, and people develop differently at different times. I’ve always been quite skinny, I’ve never been the biggest kid, and I was playing against men and essentially my body wasn’t quite there yet.”
“I picked up a few back-to-back things, which knocked me around and definitely affected my game. I’ll never go out there and not give everything I have, but everything I had wasn’t what I could do. It wasn’t my complete capacity. At the time, you think I’m going to give everything I have. But when you do want to sprint – because, geez, I’ve done three hammies, it’s in the back of your mind.”
Despite the time on the treatment bench, Horne still forced his way onto the full test scene with his Super Rugby form, and made his debut in green and gold for the Wallabies against Fiji in 2010, aged 20. He had earned six caps and was in contention for a spot in the 2011 Rugby World Cup squad, when a reoccurring elbow injury aggravated in round three of that year’s Super Rugby against the Crusaders, ruled him out of action for another frustrating four and a half months.
As it happens, the only time I got to interview him face-to-face was after his first game on the comeback trail from that injury, a rare outing for Southern Districts against Gordon at Chatswood Oval. As he told me, his place on the plane to New Zealand was “out of his hands”, but he did eventually get the nod, and started the Wallabies’ first pool match of the tournament against the USA, only to sustain a facial fracture in his first collision of the match.
Typically courageous, he carried on to play 47 minutes and score the opening try. But he was ruled out of Australia’s subsequent games until their semi-final loss to the hosts, where he played the final quarter off the bench, and backed that up with 71 minutes of defensive solidity in a hard-fought 21-18 win against Wales to secure the Wallabies a third place finish.
Such persistent levels of misfortune in terms of injury could have broken lesser players. But the one thing that resonates from all the former team mates I spoke to, was his dogged determination to keep going, overcome all the obstacles in his way, and reach the summit.
“I reckon Rob would have to be one of the toughest, most resilient players I’ve played with,” says Adam Ashley-Cooper, who played alongside Horne for both New South Wales and Australia. “He suffered injury after injury early on in his career that kept him out of the game for long stretches, yet the bloke was never phased, never gave up on his goals, and ended up back in the Wallaby gold and Waratahs sky blue for long periods of time.
“I remember sharing these long stretches of play throughout seasons later on with Rob, in admiration of his journey and the persistence and fight he showed to brush the early curses of injury. He was a brilliant defender, probably one of the best I’ve shared the field with. Technically sound, and brutal in his collisions, he put his body on the line every game, regardless of how busted or beat up he was. He would lock down that midfield then return to his wing in attack to make it look all too easy.”
After several frustrating years for the Waratahs as a team, with a semi-final appearance in 2010 all there was to show for their efforts since falling at the final hurdle in Horne’s debut year, the arrival of Michael Cheika in 2013 heralded a new dawn for the historical-underachievers of Super Rugby.
Under Cheika, the Tahs were relentlessly drilled in pre-season to reach new heights of fitness, and the combative aspects of the game, specifically the tackle contest, promoted to new levels of physical expectation. Horne’s training regimen, natural aggression in contact, and refusal to ever take a backwards step, marked him out as a go-to totem for the new coach in the mentality he was trying to foster across the squad.
”Last year it was like he [Cheika] wanted to break us down and then he can rebuild on us individually and as a group,” Horne told The Sydney Morning Herald before the start of the 2014 season. ”What he has probably done is made us all think about our own game and what we do best, and to just get absolutely everything out of our own ability, which can then lead to the team getting everything out of itself.
But it was an unpredictable positional change that year that proved to be a masterstroke for both player and team. Having played his entire professional career in the heat of the battle at 12 or 13, Cheika shifted Horne out to the wing, and the results were there for all to see.
He played in 16 of the Waratahs’ 18 matches in their dazzling title-winning season, scoring four tries along the way and creating numerous opportunities to shine for the array of attacking talent alongside him in the shape of Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Alofa Alofa and Peter Betham.
“His role in the 2014 Waratahs Premiership shouldn’t be understated,” affirms Paddy Ryan. “He had a huge year locking down the midfield defence to allow KB, Izzy and Bernard room to roam the field looking for opportunities in counter-attack. He also scored a heap of tries, regularly getting the ball on the chalk in seemingly impossible situations. There are some great tributes to this on YouTube.”
For Ryan, who actually played alongside Beale against Horne for GPS in that loss to CHS all those years earlier before becoming team mates on rep duty, his achievements at the next level were no surprise.
“I can still remember my first interaction with Rob,” he smiles. “It was on the No.1 field at Joeys [St Joseph’s College, Sydney], and we were training for NSW Schoolboys. We were doing a live scrimmage where two teams were playing each other, and someone had made a line break and passed me the ball.
“The only thing between the line and myself was this seventy-odd kilo bloke from Georges River High School called Rob. I can remember myself momentarily scoffing as I lined him up and ran straight at him. But the next thing I felt was a bony shoulder under my belly button, before my feet momentarily left the ground and I landed hard on my back. I can distinctly recall the sniggering as others cleaned out at the ruck.
“I was about 110kgs at the time. Two years later Rob was playing for the Waratahs.”
Not only did he play a pivotal role in the New South Wales’ maiden Super Rugby title success that year, his performances also earned him a Wallaby recall. Having played off the bench in the second test against the British and Irish Lions in Melbourne in 2013, he hadn’t had a look in from incoming coach Ewen McKenzie since he assumed the reins from Robbie Deans at the conclusion of that unsuccessful series.
But as Horne told The Courier Mail in June 2014, a revamping of his training methods, and a more reliable body as he completed the journey from boy to man, paid off handsomely.
“I went away and worked extremely hard,” he said. “I know that is something everyone says, but I improved my fitness out of sight. I guess that’s been a factor in a number of things. I am not feeling vulnerable with my body anymore. I am able to contribute through the whole game, not make an effort, have a rest and then make another effort.
“This is the best I have felt. The past few seasons I have really enjoyed my footy, and I fully believe it has contributed to getting my fitness up and playing the way I like to play.”
His form continued its upward curve through the 2015 Super Rugby season, Horne adding six tries to a Waratahs’ title defence that fell short at the semi-finals to eventual winners, the Highlanders.
And with Michael Cheika moving up to take control of the Wallabies with the impromptu resignation of McKenzie, he found himself a constant spot in the matchday 23, and by the time the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicked-off in England, he had the starting no.11 jersey on his back.
But after playing the full 80 minutes in the opening win against Fiji, fate dealt him another cruel blow at the game’s showpiece event. A shoulder injury sustained just 11 minutes into the 33-13 humbling of the hosts at Twickenham ended his tournament, and robbed him of a potential appearance in a World Cup final, where the Wallabies went down 34-17 to the All Blacks.
Another season in the Cambridge Blue jersey of his home state in 2016, brought up a personal milestone of 100 NSW caps against the Chiefs. Considering all his injury-enforced absences in the preceding eight years, it was a pretty impressive achievement, and one that Horne didn’t take lightly.
“For me, to be able to play 100 NSW games, I feel really privileged because a lot of guys, most guys, don’t get the chance,” he told The Daily Telegraph at the time. “I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to stay in Sydney and play for a team that I have always felt connected to.”
But prospective suitors from outside Australia were starting to circle. The previous year he had turned down a sizeable offer to head to Ireland and play for Munster, while the Warriors in the NRL had been sniffing around for a possible code-hop before that.
His decision to turn down the cash from Munster and stay with the Waratahs was a family one, the offer arriving just five months after his first child. But the seeds of intrigue had been sown, and when Northampton Saints came calling in early 2017, the timing was right, and he headed north at the end of the Super Rugby season after 114 games and 29 tries for the Waratahs, and 34 tests and four tries for his country.
Signing a three-year contract at the age of 27, his signature was a coup for a Northampton side that had become champions of England for the first time in 2014, but had struggled to reach similar heights in the three years since.
“Rob has played at the highest level of the sport for nearly a decade,” Saints Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder told BBC Sport. “He’s going to be a real asset for us, both with his quality of play and his leadership experience in what is a crucial position.”
Ironically, Horne made his Saints debut in the highly-charged East Midlands derby against Leicester, as Northampton romped home 24-11 over their arch-rivals in front of 15,000 raucous and passionate home supporters at the club’s iconic Franklin’s Gardens ground. And yes, that is journalistic licence at play.
It was a solid if unspectacular beginning to the next chapter of his career as he adjusted to his new surroundings, but littered with the promise of even better things to come. And he soon had his new head honcho waxing lyrical to The Guardian after a two-try effort in the 40-25 win over London Irish this time last year.
“I thought today he was outstanding, he was tough as nails,” purred Mallinder. “His carrying for his two tries – he was always going to score them, he saw the line and he wasn’t going to be stopped. He’s given us that little bit of composure and punch in defence.”
But things didn’t go so well for Mallinder himself, and with the team heading south on the Premiership ladder at an alarming rate off the back of eight straight losses in all competition’s, the Director of Rugby’s decade-long tenure at the club was brought to an abrupt end just before Christmas.
Assistant Alan Dickens was made interim head coach for the remainder of the season, with veteran Aussie coach Alan Gaffney coming on board as DoR to oversee proceedings until a suitably high-class replacement could be found for the start of the following campaign.
Horne could have been forgiven for wondering what on earth he had walked into. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the vision of a stable, successful club that he had been sold when putting pen to paper. But amidst all this turmoil and uncertainty, it was Horne’s fine form that provided some semblance of consistency and solidity for the team, and offered the disillusioned Saints faithful a lifeline of hope that the corner could be turned.
He really started to hit the heights after the New Year, smashing anything that moved in an opposition jersey with trademark brutality, acting as a fulcrum for a backline trying to break free from it’s kicking strait-jacket and remember how to express itself with ball in hand again, and rediscovering the happy knack of crossing the chalk.
He notched four tries in successive league games through February and March, and by the time the return derby against Leicester came around on April 14th this year, he had racked up eight tries in 21 appearances in total. Meanwhile, the club had announced the impending arrival in the summer of hugely-successful Hurricanes coaching guru Chris Boyd, and several high-profile player signings were also in the offing, with Welsh flyhalf Dan Biggar already confirmed.
In short, things were looking up, and with three games to go to put the season to bed, thoughts were already turning to the possibilities of the following year under Boyd, the impetus from some fresh blood, and just how much better Horne could be with a year in English rugby under his belt.
There were even murmurings amongst the faithful of him being captaincy material, and that particular avenue of exploration was about to get an initial examination with his awarding of the skipper’s armband in Dylan Hartley’s absence, for the crucial derby.
But just thirteen seconds and one selfless charge at the heart of enemy territory into the game, his career was over, and the rest of his life was only just beginning.
Sport is a fickle beast, and there are just as many down’s than up’s, if not more, to be experienced when taken across an entire career at the highest levels. But as this look back at his journey to the peak of his profession attests, Rob Horne has been forced to endure more than most along the way, and to see it ended in such a tragic manner does bite harder than should be possible.
What we have hopefully gleaned through the anecdotal evidence of those who played alongside him, coached him, or reported on him over the last 10 years, is that on the field of battle, this is someone with the heart and courage of a lion, and with the depths of fortitude coursing through his veins that most mere mortals could only dream of attaining.
And that away from the persistent and all-invasive glare of life in modern-day sport, and the hyperbole that surrounds it, he is just a quiet, well-mannered and respectful family man, with humility oozing from every pore.
As childhood neighbour and early team mate Luke Smart puts it, Horne was “always humble, friendly and just a kid who loved the beach, his family and playing footy on weekends.”
And boy, was he good at that.
An enforcer and a gentleman. Here’s to you, Rob Horne.
Header photos: Supplied (1), SPA Images (2,3,4,5,6), Getty Images (7)