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Greg Growden
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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.
Greg Growden writes ...
Australian club rugby has 'canastas'
Greg Growden
September 2, 2013
Nick Cummins keeps his eye on the ball, Talybont Campus, Cardiff, Wales, November 27, 2012
Nick Cummins is one of the biggest personalities in Australian rugby © Getty Images
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During a depressing Australian rugby period, there has thankfully been two moments of relief: the first saw Izzy or Isn't He Folau say "He Is", committing himself to the Wallabies and New South Wales Waratahs; then came the timely reminder the club scene can still provide the talent and the characters like the menacing "Honey Badger" that make the troughs of demoralising Test series defeats by the British & Irish Lions and the All Blacks almost sufferable.

At a time when the Australian Rugby Union is distracted by the folly of a third-tier competition, including the sure way of going bankrupt via an Australian Rugby Championship, or proving they are completely loony-tunes by adopting a ridiculous Super B-competition next year, the Sydney club finals have shown there is already a vehicle in place to push through those players with the forte to go the next level.

On the weekend, it was back to one of Australian sport's most important breeding grounds - Coogee Oval- a tough suburban venue where the only nicety is the sea breeze bouncing off Wedding Cake Island. Countless notable Wallabies over the past 50 or so years have ripped their knees, thighs and everything apart on the hard cricket pitch as they learned the basics of Randwick Running Rugby. The Galloping Greens are no longer the force they once were, and a superior Southern Districts team revelled in an easy Shute Shield elimination final triumph.

Among the teams were vibrant youngsters, experienced Wallabies, numerous performers of in-between ability, all wanting to do something; there was a lot of scatty play, some good play, and plenty of what representative coaches look for. There were also moments of extravagance, including recent Wallabies winger Nick Cummins succeeding in a madcap acrobatic leap to score for the victors.

 
Club rugby deserves greater support, especially from those perched in ivory towers. Hybrids, made-up teams, don't have the same appeal.
 

Cummins is the perfect example of what the club scene can produce. Growing up in a strong rugby league area of Brisbane, his elder brother beckoned him to Bundaberg at the age of 16 to help the local rugby club, the Buccaneers, win the grand final. A Randwick scout was in the crowd and approached Cummins to ask if he was interested in trying out for their Colts team. A few years later, Cummins took the gamble and headed to Sydney.

"I decided to put my life on hold and see what came of this," the Wallabies training squad member said. "It was a case of either going into the mines, the army, or Randwick. I went for Randwick." From there, he became a member of the Australian Sevens team, and Western Force picked him up in 2007. Last year he played for the Wallabies, winning his first Test against Argentina in Rosario. He also moved clubs, leaving Randwick for the Shire. Through this rise, Cummins has become a cult hero - not surprising as he is a rare gem of an out-there character in an environment in which the dumbing down of player personality is encouraged. It has a lot to do with his nickname- the "Honey Badger"- as in the cobra-eating weasel.

Some years ago, Cummins went as a back-up player on a Wallabies tour of South Africa. He struggled appreciably at several training sessions, including one in Cape Town where he was nearly knocked out by a goalpost. As we later fled Bloemfontein, the Alcatraz of the international rugby world, Cummins sat next to me in the front row of a rubber-band plane. Robbie Deans was one of the first to walk past. "You've got to ask him how he got the nickname Honey Badger, Deans said before laughing uproariously. "It's a classic."

I didn't get the chance. A weary Honey Badger, obviously relieved to have escaped Bloem and head back to civilisation, immediately fell asleep.

We had to wait until Rosario last year for the reason.

Australia's Nick Cummins dives over to score a try, England v Australia, Twickenham, England, November 17, 2012
Nick Cummins made a name for himself with a fine try against England at Twickenham © Getty Images
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"The real story is that I watch a lot of Animal Planet shows plus YouTube, and enjoy watching animals hunt each other. I saw the honey badger, and became fascinated. It is just so aggressive and will never say die. One of the stories which inspired me is that it is documented that a honey badger killed a male lion in a one-on-one battle. What happened was that he clawed the canastas off the big fella, going the old one-two. The big fella walked around the corner and fell over. The honey badger got up, shook himself, and just trotted off. For me, that was outstanding."

You get the scene. Rugby's Honey Badger is different. He's now even the centre of a Facebook site, which chronicles his best lines. They include: "If I get a gig, I'm gonna go off like a cut snake"; and "Before reaching the ahhh teenage years I had straight blonde hair... then ahhh ... me voice dropped and ahh the curls popped outta nowhere." As for playing against the Lions, Cummins said: "It's massive, once in a lifetime. I'd be 37 or something for the next one and I'd need four facelifts and a bum tuck to be a shot. I'm excited at the chance."

Such enthusiasm was there for all to see on the weekend, which is not surprising because all representative players love returning to their premiership club. Why? Because club rugby actually means something. It has "canastas". It also deserves greater support, especially from those perched in ivory towers. Hybrids, made-up teams, don't have the same appeal.

Sekope Kepu was one of the Wallabies on display at Coogee Oval © www.seiserphotography.com
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