THE greatest moments in life can be tinged with sadness. Sometimes when you peel back the veneer of triumph you will find tragedy. So it was for Qantas Wallabies and Western Force star Dane Haylett-Petty when the thrill of his Test debut in June was tempered by the absence of a devoted father.
His father Norm, the man who had done so much to help him reach that day, and who would have been prouder than anyone to see him run out in the gold jersey, died in January after a battle with cancer. Norm was a remarkable character in himself.
A retired Lieutenant Commander in the South African Navy, he brought his family . . . wife Margie, daughter Sarah, and sons Dane and Ross . . . to Western Australia from Durban in 1999. Once in Perth he started up a couple of businesses - African Heritage Gourmet Foods in Duncraig with wife Margie, selling Biltong, Droe Wors and other African delicacies, as well as Cricket Direct, a sporting goods business in Wangara.
Along with selling sporting gear, he helped produce cricket bats for visiting South African Test cricketers, like Justin Kemp and Shaun Pollock.
“He was a massive Rugby and cricket fan,” recalled Haylett-Petty to rugby.com.au recently.
“He was amazing . . . for my confidence. I could never have a bad game in his eyes. He was always pumping me up. He played a massive role in my career and I'm sure he'd be very proud.
“Something I was hoping to do before he passed away was pull on that gold jersey. Unfortunately I didn’t get there in time, but I'm sure he's watching and enjoying.”
Haylett-Petty needed plenty of support as he chased his Test match dream, since for a long time it seemed well out of reach. After impressing at the Hale School in Perth he was selected for the ‘Australia A’ Schoolboys in 2007 and the next year he made history by when he became the first WA player to be offered a contract by the Force.
He made his Super Rugby debut in May 2008 against the Chiefs in Perth, at the age of just 18, alongside other Wallaby stars like Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau, James O’Connor, Digby Ioane and David Pocock.
The Force had one of their best ever seasons winning seven matches under then coach John Mitchell and along with three appearances for the Force, Dane earned selection for the Australian U20 team at the Junior World Championships, where he scored a record equaling four-tries against Canada – a record that still stands. He also made his debut for the Australian Sevens team.
But his career at the Force seemed to stall over the next two years – not surprising with so many other stars in the outside backs – and he made just one appearance the following season.
The 2010 season was better for him, playing eight matches and scoring his first Super Rugby try against the Hurricanes, but by then Haylett-Petty had made up his mind to try his luck overseas and he signed with French glamour club Biarritz.
It was a huge decision for the then 21-year-old to leave friends and family and head to the south-west of France. But the decision to re-locate was not just about Rugby, but about experiencing something different.
“I heard it was a great place to live and play,” he said back in 2011, “but I think it exceeded all my expectations. I really enjoyed my first season in the Basque country. It’s a beautiful place!”
Back then playing for the Wallabies was the furthest thing from his mind.
“For now I’m really enjoying myself in Biarritz,” he explained at the time. “And I’m keen to stay and play Rugby here for a while. Then I wouldn’t mind spending some time playing in South Africa for a season or two of Currie Cup or Super Rugby. Especially if I could live in a beautiful place like Cape Town or Durban.”
In fact, his next stop was Japan where he spent a season with the Toyota Shokki Shuttles under former Force hooker Tai McIsaac. But by 2014, Haylett-Petty, still only 24, was ready to return home – and this time something was different. He had clearly gown as a player in his years in France and there were more opportunities in the Force backline.
He made his first appearance in his favourite fullback spot in the 28-16 upset win over the NSW Waratahs in Perth and he scored his first try for the Force in four years against the high-flying Crusaders in Christchurch.
Dane went on to play 33 matches in the next three seasons, being one of the Force’s most consistent players, and it wasn’t just on the field where he was having wins. He found time to open Nourish and Feed – a healthy drive thru, also in Duncraig, with sister Sarah.
Then in June, following injuries to Henry Speight and Joe Tomane, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika finally gave him his chance.
“I like what he's got to offer as a footballer,” explained Cheika. “When I've seen him come into the camp and train with the lads, I feel he's been able to step up with the level and the speed of the game. He's attacking, he wants to make a break, he wants to take responsibility for the ball in the air, which I'm sure he'll see plenty of.
“He's not carrying fear into the game and I like that. He's prepared to back himself and go the distance.”
It’s been a tough baptism of fire for Haylett-Petty, having the rare distinction of losing his first five Tests, but despite the run of poor results he has stood out, with the UK Telegraph rating him as “one of the finds of the series” against England, “having impressed in each of his first three caps.”
If anything Haylett-Petty says the losses have made him a better player.
“The biggest thing was for me is to play my game and just try and bring my strengths to the Wallabies,” he says. “There's been plenty of testing times this year but the fact that I've been able to come out the other end gives me confidence for whatever lies ahead.”
It’s been a long time coming for Haylett-Petty as he runs out tonight to play his first home Test here in Perth. As he does, the memories of his dad Norm sitting in the stands watching him will be close to his heart.
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