Today is Qantas Wallabies and Melbourne Rebels flanker Sean McMahon’s 22nd birthday and he couldn’t think of a better present than taking the field tonight at his home ground, AAMI Park.
“The coaches will pick the side,” said McMahon earlier this week, “and if I get the opportunity then I will take it with both hands. I just have to continue to do what I'm doing, push the other boys as hard as I can at training and bring that physicality that I'm known for . . . bring some aggression to what I usually do.”
Controlled aggression is exactly what is required by the Wallabies tonight, to match England’s fired-up attitude in Brisbane. Although McMahon made his debut against Wales in Cardiff back in November 2014, at the age of just 20, last Saturday in Brisbane was his first taste of test Rugby in front of a home crowd. He’d love more tonight.
“I love AAMI Park as a stadium,” he says, “and it's going to feel like the crowd is right on top of you, especially with a sold-out crowd. It will be an exciting game and I can't wait to maybe get the possibility to play there.”
To date McMahon has played just seven Tests, including two in last year’s Rugby World Cup, against Uruguay and Wales. It would have been a lot more but for two reasons – Michael Hooper and David Pocock.
McMahon plays open-side flanker, a position that is blessed in Australian Rugby with world class talent. So he has had to bide his time, putting in impressive performances in Super Rugby and training up a storm, hoping that Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will give him the nod.
“I’m a pretty upbeat funny bloke when I’m off the field mucking around but once I get on to the training pitch and on to the field it’s a flick of the switch,” he says. “It’s basically just getting on and having a crack.
“It’s the way I've been brought up . . . to always put 100 per cent in. It’s the only way I know how to do things. I haven’t been brought up to stand in the shadow of someone else. I am not comfortable with that.”
But that is exactly what McMahon has had to do.
“You always want more minutes in the gold jersey but you have to earn those minutes,” he continues. “They are two elite players. What I have been doing is trying to learn from them and to build my game. I will do whatever I can to maximise my potential.”
Now “Cheik” may well be looking his way. Following the injury to Pocock in Brisbane, McMahon was always a chance to step into a new look backrow as the Wallabies try to keep the series alive in Melbourne. His powerful charges could be just what is needed to give the Wallabies the edge in the crucial breakdown battle tonight.
But the home team also must maintain their discipline, the heavy 15-8 penalty count playing a big part in the Wallabies demise in the first Test.
“There were a lot of penalties on Saturday night and they were slotting them through,” acknowledges McMahon. “We can't give them those opportunities and we have to be better disciplined.
“I don't think they did anything out of the ordinary to draw those penalties -- it's Test Rugby and it's always going to be physical. They are always going to go over you so we have to do the same thing back.”
Brisbane born McMahon is a product of the ARU’s Pathway to Gold Program. He’ll never forget the John Eales Medal presentation night in 2014 when he won both the Buildcorp NRC Player of the Series award, for his performances with Melbourne Rising, as well as the Australian U20s Player-of-the-Year.
It was his efforts for both those teams which earned him a call-up to the Wallabies end-of-year tour that season, and ultimately his Test debut against Wales two weeks later.
But his Rugby career almost stopped before it even began. McMahon is eternally grateful to two brothers from Brisbane - Anthony and Brett Picone – who introduced him to Sevens at the Noosa Sevens in 2011.
The Picone brothers included the 17-year-old in a hastily assembled Newstar team from Brisbane, that also featured current Wallabies squad member Samu Kerevi as well as Junior Rasolea, Pama Fou and Stephan Van De Walt.
“At the time nothing was really working for me footy-wise, no-one was interested,” recalls McMahon. Indeed, his sporting prospects had looked so bleak, McMahon had filled in the forms to join the Australian Army.
“Mum was panicking, she didn’t want me to join the army,” he says. “I had filled out the forms and had them ready to send in. They were ready to go. They (the Picone brothers) asked me to come down and play this tournament. If nothing comes of it, there’s no harm done.”
Something did come of it. Amazingly McMahon’s team won the tournament, beating the Australian national team 25-24 in the final, with a try on the whistle.
“That was my first Sevens tournament,” says McMahon. “The lungs were cutting up, and beating the Aussie Sevens boys, that was just amazing. The coaches were stoked about it.”
Another to be impressed was then Australian Sevens coach Mick O’Connor, who included McMahon in the Australian side for the World Sevens series tournament on the Gold Coast two weeks later, where he became the youngest ever Australian Sevens player.
It also meant that McMahon had to pass up his Schoolies celebrations.
“All my mates are having a great time,” he said at the time “but I would rather play for Australia.”
The 1.86m, 100kg Rebel would become a prominent member of the Australian Sevens team for the next three years, even travelling to Moscow for the RWC Sevens in 2013.
“If it wasn’t for Sevens, I probably wouldn’t be playing Rugby,” he admits. “Sevens probably brought that mentality that when you are buggered, you just keep running and running and running until the whistle. Because in Sevens if you stop, someone is going through and it’s on you. You are going to let a mate down.”
McMahon puts his combative “take no prisoners” style down to Sevens and the other big factor in his early sporting days, Rugby League. He played league for many years with the junior Broncos.
“I definitely thought league was the big thing for me to chase after,” says McMahon. “One of my cousins, Brent Tate, was with the Broncos, and I was looking up to guys like Gordon Tallis.
“But mum sent us to St Josephs College Nudgee, and Rugby became my game,” he said. “That was what I was chasing.”
But McMahon never lost that “hard-hitting” style, a trademark of the 13-man code.
“I have definitely brought what I learned in league,” he says. “You just have to go in and go for the shot. You might knock yourself out but you still go for it. Just that aggressive attitude.
Some people don’t like it maybe, but that’s how I was brought up.
“You either go all-in or not at all. You’ll get hurt if you go in at 50 per cent. I’ve had chats with Michael Cheika and he’d say ‘just keep doing exactly what you’re doing’.”
The coach will be giving him a similar message before he runs out tonight.
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