One of the real surprises in the run up to the opening round of this year’s Buildcorp National Rugby Championship was Queensland Country unveiling 19 year-old scrumhalf James Tuttle as their skipper for 2015.
Albeit the change was forced by Anthony Fainga’a’s injury, but in a side that still included his twin brother Saia, highly-regarded prop Haydn Hirsimaki, backrower Ed Quirk, and even evergreen no.8 Radike Samo, the choice of Tuttle seemed somewhat left-field.
It seemed pretty left-field for Tuttle himself, who admits he was taken aback when he got the word from Country coach, Jason Gilmore.
“Yeah, it came as a bit of a shock,” Tuttle told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week. “Initially, ‘Gilly’, our head coach, had me in our Leadership Group, along with Eddie Quirk, and Saia and Anthony Fainga’a, and then when he was saying that it was looking like Anthony would be out with a foot injury, he said he was going to look for me to take the Captaincy reins.”
“With ‘Quirky’ not being available for the first few weeks, and not knowing what was happening with Saia and the Wallabies, Gilly thought that if he could get someone into the role that was going to be there most of the time, it would be more beneficial to for the side.
“But yeah, it was definitely a shock. But I’ve grabbed it with two hands, and I’m really enjoying it so far.”
Tuttle admitted that he was initially daunted by the prospect of leading the side with so many senior Reds teammates, even agreeing that Radike Samo is old enough to be his father. “They’re all on board and really supportive. They’ve been a great help,” he said.
Tuttle had captained the 1st XV in his final year at Nudgee College, in 2013, and was school vice-captain as well, so once he got over the initial shock, Tuttle said that leading the side very quickly became second nature to him.
He was similarly shocked to get the call up for the Reds’ tour of South Africa earlier this year too, coming in the midst of a period where the Queensland no.10 jersey appeared cursed.
“The trip was great though. I was sitting at home on the Saturday morning and got a text from the team manager and Richard [Graham, Reds Coach], saying, ‘don’t leave the country’, and not really saying much else. Then I got a call about an hour later telling me I’d be on a flight that afternoon down to Sydney to link up with the team before the left for South Africa.
“It was great experience, both footy-wise and culturally, going over there and seeing a part of the world I hadn’t been to before. And then learning over there what it takes to perform as a group, and what they do off the field when they’re away on tour,” Tuttle said, of his experience.
Though he toured as cover for both scrum and flyhalf, Tuttle said his focus is very much now on the Reds no.9 jersey - at the behest of the coaches - where an opportunity arises in 2016 with the departure of Will Genia after the Rugby World Cup.
And on that front, he’s been playing very well in the Country no.9, too, though he was more pleased his side was able to break through for their first win of 2015, beating the Greater Sydney Rams 37-31 last weekend. Like many pundits, Tuttle similarly thought Country had been going better than their table position indicated.
“Yeah, losing our first two games by less than ten points each, we thought were thereabouts but just disappointed in a few areas of our game,” Tuttle said. “But great to get the win last Saturday, and now it sort of sets us up for our next two weeks before our bye.”
“So we’re really got to work hard now for these next two weeks, because where we sit on the competition ladder, there’s a group of about four of us who are all pretty tight on points. (Country, in 7th place on five points, are only three points behind 4th placed Melbourne.)
“If we can get the win this weekend against Perth, it sets us up really nicely for NSW Country the following Thursday night.”
Queensland Country has a bye after the NSW Country game, meaning they could be playing for semi-finals berth over the final two rounds.
Before all that, however, Country must get over Perth, and Tuttle agrees that the Spirit side chock-full of Western Force players only get more dangerous the longer they go without a win in 2015.
“Yeah, definitely. They’re got a few players back now, they had Junior Rasolea back last week, and they were really good in the second half against the Vikings, just going down by three points at home, so they’ll be a massive challenge this weekend; they’ll be very hungry for a win, so we’ll have to be at the top of our game. We won’t take them lightly.”
The scrum contest will be interesting with both Country and Perth showing at different points in the competition that their scrum set piece has been right up there with the best in the competition.
But beyond that, Tuttle is really looking forward to pulling on the jersey in Rockhampton, and says that the team is growing into the responsibility that comes with wearing the navy blue of Queensland Country Rugby Union, and particularly in their 50th anniversary season.
“We definitely are. We played up in Townsville last year against Sydney Stars, and had our biggest win, and had a great crowd and a great reception from everyone up there, and we’re expecting the same up in ‘Rocky’ on Saturday, which will be great playing at six o’clock.
“But the boys definitely do lift when they’re out there in the bush. It was great in Toowoomba (in Round 3), and we stuck with [Brisbane] City for most of the game before they just got away at the end there.
“It does add a lot more meaning to the jersey, playing for Queensland Country in the country, and representing those people out in those areas, the boys are really looking forward to Saturday night.”
Queensland Country host Perth Spirit at Rockhampton’s Victoria Park at 6:00pm AEST, following a big day of Central Queensland Rugby Union Grand Finals. Adults $15 at the gate and via www.redsrugby.com.au