Before the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship had even started for 2015, the name ‘Ned Hanigan’ was on my radar. Four rounds in, and I’m a bona fide fan of what this young man can do on a Rugby field.
Writing for The Roar a month out from the start of the season, I spoke to all nine NRC clubs and asked them to nominate for me a Super Rugby-contracted player, and an un-contracted player they expected to really shine for their team in this year’s competition.
NSW Country Eagles coach, Darren Coleman, threw up ‘Ned Hanigan’ in two separate conversations we had in the build-up.
“Ned Hanigan would certainly be one; he’s a real class act that’s for sure. He was MVP for Australian Under 20s [at the recent World Rugby Under 20s Championships in Italy], and he’ll be a class addition at lock or at six,” Coleman said in one chat.
“We’ve got him as a lock/flanker. He’s still colts age, good lineout brain, mobile, good country boy from Coonamble. He’s someone we’ve earmarked going forward,” he told me another time.
I go to see it for myself in Round 1, when I was on deck with the Fox Sports live stream broadcast for the Eagles’ match against the Greater Sydney Rams at Merrylands RSL Park. All the attention was on the return from injury for Wallabies and Brumbies lock Sam Carter, but it was hard to miss the tall kid with the curly hair protruding from the head tape packing down beside him.
Returning from a knee medial ligament injury, Carter got all the lineout attention from the Rams, but this kid very cleverly kept calling the throw away from the international lock. “There’s always a place where you can win in a lineout,” Hanigan told me this week, for www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au, and here he was managing the lineout operation - and Carter’s jumping workload - like a seasoned pro.
If I didn’t know Hanigan was only 20, I wouldn’t have believed I was watching a player that young. And when you speak to him, it’s the same. Just like he plays older than he is, he sounds older than he is, too. But there’s certainly no hiding the country roots when you speak to him; if the country twang wasn’t obvious enough, when he says the plan to beat the Sydney Stars in Tamworth tomorrow is to go “up the guts, and into them,” it’s absolutely confirmed.
Never mind ‘sticking to our systems’ or ‘letting the process dictate the result’; it’s good old fashioned country honesty.
“Up the guts, and into them.”
The old head on young shoulders becomes apparent when he starts talking about the pace of the NRC game, coming on the back of his first full season in first grade with Randwick this year. I was keen to find out how he found the step up in class from club rugby to the National Rugby Championship.
“Yeah, it’s just a lot quicker,” Hanigan said. “I think the contact and the discipline of players is similar - obviously the contact is greater - but the pace at which the halves get to the ruck and flick it on to the players coming around the corner, or onto the 10, I think is the noticeable change.
“And I think the game itself. Scrums have got a time limit on them, conversions have got a time limit; all that just quickens up, so I think the speed is probably the main thing.”
Similarly, one of the common talking points among forwards last season, and particularly lineout forwards was that because there are often six and eight more lineouts per NRC game over and above the Super Rugby match average, the repertoire of lineout calls was often exhausted well before full time.
I wondered how Hanigan found this aspect of the game, coming through the ranks and the junior representative rungs as quickly as he has.
“Yeah, it’s an interesting one, actually. Because you’re having so many more lineouts in a game, the people you’re playing in the week coming, they’re seeing more of what you might be doing in certain areas, and I think you sort of adjust based on the opposition a bit; how they set up, and who their main jumpers are, and things like that.
“There’s always a place where you can win in a lineout, it’s just a matter of whether you pick the right place, I suppose.”
The Ned Hanigan story is one of a rapid rise, with the Coonamble boy coming down to Sydney in 2008 to attend famed rugby nursery St.Joseph’s College Hunter’s Hill for year 7 having never played rugby, and culminating in his Australian Schoolboys selection in 2013.
He contemplated heading back to Coonamble after school but conceding, “the footy sort of kicked off a bit,” he stayed in Sydney to play with Randwick. He played in Randwick’s Premiership-winning Colts side and NSW Under 20s in 2014, and again this season, as well as being picked in the Australian Under 20s for this year’s Junior World Championships in Italy, where he was outstanding.
Despite some interest from the Melbourne Rebels, and deciding he needed to “knock off as much Uni as possible,” he stayed in Sydney and joined the Waratahs Extended Playing Squad for 2015. “And here I am training and playing with NSW Country.”
“She’s all a go,” he says with typical country understatement.
Packing down with Wallabies lock, and country lad Carter - from Quirindi, up in that same broad northwest region of NSW as Coonamble - was something of a treat for the young Eagle, who says he learned a lot through the actions of the international lock.
“He’s a very humble man, Sammy Carter. He’s not one to tell you what you’re supposed to be doing, but he just gives you little tips along the way and he’s always open to talking through a decision you might have made, or if you’re going to ask advice.
“I only packed down with him for two games, but in those two games... I don’t know, as a young bloke looking up to a fellow like that; just him being there is an experience, but the opportunity to learn from him, yeah, was really good.”
And playing in Tamworth tomorrow represents something of a homecoming for Hanigan, who will get to play in front of many familiar faces who wouldn’t necessarily have seen a lot of him at this elite level.
“Yeah, there’s a bit of a crowd coming in. Because Dad and his brothers grew up out there, people will see the name ‘Hanigan’ and take a bit of an interest, just as will be the case for a lot of boys in the Country Eagles. So yeah, it’ll be good. I think there’ll be a few faces there that I haven’t seen in a while.”
TOMORROW - Buildcorp NRC Round 4: NSW Country Eagles at Ray Chillingworth Oval, in Tamworth. Tickets at the gate, or via www.nswcountryeagles.com, with Adults $15 and kids under 16 free. Streamed live on www.foxsports.com.au from 3:00pm AEST.