\"He just disappeared\": Wallaby veteran Ben McCalman on why he walked into the sunset

Wed, Jun 26, 2019, 3:43 AM
Stu Walmsley
by Stu Walmsley
Ben McCalman is back on the family farm near Warren. Photo: Stuart Walmsley/RUGBY.com.au
Ben McCalman is back on the family farm near Warren. Photo: Stuart Walmsley/RUGBY.com.au

As you enter Nevertire on the Mitchell Highway in western NSW, a billboard advertises nearby Warren as the ‘last town with a bloke’s name for 200km’.

It seems an odd thing to spruik about this small farming community of 2,700, nestled on the Macquarie River 120km north west of Dubbo, and you wonder if they might be better off advertising it as the home of 53-Test Wallaby Ben McCalman.

Because this is where you’ll find the bloke they call ‘Big Dog', the dependable and unassuming back rower who made ‘that’ tackle on George North to help save the pool match against Wales at the 2015 World Cup.

A bloke who played finals in the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups and had plenty of good rugby left in him before a shoulder injury ended his playing career in early 2018, and he returned without fuss or fanfare to life on the land.

But it certainly wasn’t Warren Shire Council’s curious tourism initiatives which brought the 31-year-old back to his home town, more a sense of responsibility to his family, and a deep love of a rural way of life which helped mould the raw country kid into a humble champion. 

Because Ben McCalman is, and always has been, a farmer.

He also happened to play rugby, extremely well, but he’s the first to tell you that he’s now back in the place where he belongs.

That place is currently several thousand acres of dust 70km north east of Warren, inhabited mainly by mobs of despondent looking sheep, as western NSW continues to endure one of the worst droughts in living memory. 

Since he returned to the family property in December 2017, the area has received only one sixth of its average rainfall, and that was after a brutally dry year in 2015.

“It hasn’t really rained properly since I’ve been home,” says McCalman, who spent his entire Super Rugby career at the Western Force until the franchise was axed in 2017.

“A lot of the older blokes that I’ve spoken to, they reckon it’s the worst one (drought). 

“They’ve said that we’ve had drier times, but you’d always get a two or three-month break, a big storm and you’d be right a while - you could stop (hand) feeding (sheep) for a bit.

“But it’s just a matter of holding on and feeding stock with grain now, keep them ticking over.”

McCalman and his two brothers Andy and Bill would normally have just finished sowing around 3,000 acres of oats, wheat and barley, but the lack of Autumn rain means there’ll be no winter cropping season again this year. 

Too far from the Macquarie River to irrigate, it’s dryland farming in every sense of the term, but McCalman knew this was what his post-rugby life might look like. 

It’s what drove his quiet but remarkable journey from an eight year old at Macquarie Emus to schoolboy prodigy at Kinross Wolaroi in Orange, and ultimately playing an integral part in Australia’s campaign at two Rugby World Cups.

He’s stoic, quiet and capable; qualities locals will tell you he shares with father Duncan, who tragically passed away while McCalman was completing Year 12 at Kinross.

“Ben could have gone one of two ways when that happened,” says best mate Ryan ‘Ratty’ Burge, who attended St Mary's Parish Primary School in Warren with McCalman, then high school at Kinross, before the two lived together for five years in Perth.

“He could have said; ‘this is all shit’ and rebelled, but the path he went down was focussing on his career, channeling that into becoming the best he could be, and a few years later he was in a Wallaby jersey.

“It was very tough (when Duncan died). I remember the exact moment he told me, which classroom we were in. 

“His old man was a legend, Dunc was a bloke who would travel hours to go and watch Ben play, and went all the way to London to watch Australian Schools.” 

Part of what McCalman earned in his career with the Western Force, Wallabies and a season with Panasonic in Japan went into buying extra land when he returned to Warren, to help make the family farming operation viable, and his brothers and mum Jenny were never far from his thoughts wherever he was around the world.

“He’d play a game on the Friday night for the Force, then catch the red eye home so he could help Andy and Bill on the farm, then come back to Perth on the Tuesday,” says Burge, who coaches Sydney University’s third grade with ex-Wallaby kicking guru Chris Malone.

“Andy came home from uni in Wagga to the farm when Dunc died, and Bill was still pretty young, so Dog (Ben) wanted to get home and help out, see his mum.

“But in the long run him playing footy helped everyone out, they were able to buy Widgeree, and he was always going to go back there when he was done.”

Universally known in rugby circles as ’Big Dog’, a nickname which originated in a year eight physical education class at Kinross, Burge remembers the teenage McCalman as someone who always commanded respect, but quietly.

“We were a pretty tight group, we still are, but Dog was always the bigger one so that name just sort of stuck,” he says.

“But it fits, and that’s probably why it’s still around - he’s probably one of the most humble quiet achievers you'll ever meet.

“When he was in Australian Schoolboys he would never wear the kit around, some people would really prance, but he never made a note of it. Even in Perth at the Force he’d never do that.

“He was one of those blokes at school that everyone looked up to, everyone wanted to be like Big Dog.” 

These natural leadership qualities were no doubt what led then Force head coach Dave Wessels to name McCalman his on-field captain ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season, an honour the Big Dog was never able to physically fulfill. 

Having suffered injuries playing for the Wallabies in 2016, McCalman required surgery on a dislocated right thumb after a training injury in January 2017, and picked up another injury in his return off the bench during the Force's round-seven win over South Africa’s Southern Kings.

The rest of the season was a frustrating mix of medical confusion and media conjecture, both over the injury and the Force’s future, with Rugby Australia’s decision in August to discontinue the franchise’s licence leaving McCalman and his teammates in limbo.

But, after six months of rehabilitation and uncertainty, he fought his way back into the Wallaby squad via the Perth Spirit in the National Rugby Championship.

A strong performance off the bench in October against the Barbarians in Sydney, coupled with a hamstring injury to Jack Dempsey in the same game, won McCalman a spot on the Spring Tour and he was finally rewarded with his 50th Test cap against Japan in Yokohama. 

He came off the bench in the 29-21 victory over Wales and 30-6 defeat to England, before starting the 53-24 loss to Scotland, but departed Murrayfield thirteen minutes into the second half having broken his shoulder.

And that was it - fade to black. 

As rugby went on summer holidays, a week later McCalman was back in Warren, on the farm, where he remained for the final year of his flexible Wallaby contract in 2018.

McCalman had been talking to the Waratahs about pulling on the sky blue but concerns about the shoulder injury kiboshed a move before it even got off the ground. 

It was a disappointing end to a career which deserved far more public acknowledgement.

But in very much the Big Dog style, McCalman is typically pragmatic on how it played out. 

“I probably thought it (retirement) would be a year or two later, but I still got to play (professionally) for nine years, so I got a pretty good stint in there,” says McCalman, after loading a mob of sheep just outside Warren.

“I didn’t get to play a lot in the last few years, I think total minutes was something like six games since England in 2016.

“Seeing the Western Force fold my last year of playing (was hard), then being named captain and not actually getting to captain the side, but this would have definitely been the year I’d have stopped playing in Australia.” 

A fit McCalman would have been a huge asset for NSW, and no doubt been deep in the reckoning for a third Rugby World Cup in Japan this year.

Returning to Panasonic afterwards, too, would have provided a more gradual and lucrative progression to post-rugby life.

“There was an opportunity to come back and play in the east (in 2018), which would have been a good transition as well, being closer to home before actually coming home full time,” he says.

“I would have liked to have played for my home state at the end of my career, it would have been a nice way to finish up in Australia.

“That’s the beauty about Japan, as well, which I potentially would have done.

“You’re getting home for three months, so you’re getting a taste of being back on the farm, whereas I sort of came straight back into it.

“The World Cup in Japan would also have been pretty special, they do it pretty well over there.”

Even if this ideal scenario did play out, you get the feeling McCalman would have quietly wandered off in a westerly direction once it was all over, without so much as a media release or a wave goodbye. Retirement press conference? Forget it.

But Wallaby fans won’t soon forget his consistency throughout those 53 Tests, his reputation as a hard-carrying back rower who always made metres in contact, or some remarkable big-play feats at the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups.

Like coming off the bench in that epic 15-6 pool victory over the Welsh four years ago, with Australia reduced to 13 men, executing a perfect held-up tackle on George North in the 63rd minute when the hulking centre seemed certain to score. 

Or stepping up at the final hour to replace David Pocock at No.7 in the pool match against Ireland in 2011, despite having never played in the position as a professional. Or scoring the decisive try in the third-place play off victory over the Welsh at Eden Park.

But it’s Victoria Park in Warren which is currently the centre of McCalman’s rugby world. That's the home of the Pumas, reigning Western Plains premiers and a social bunch of farmers, jackaroos and whoever else can be coerced into having a run on a Saturday.

“Warren have been in three grand finals in the last ten years, and they finally won last year, and they’re excited the season’s kicked off again so they can get a bit of a break from the drought back home on the farm,” says McCalman, who has also been rolling the arm over in the local cricket competition.

“It’s definitely important, even with the cricket side we’ve got, a lot of the older blokes have said; ‘if I didn’t play cricket, what would I do?’

“Just sit at home on the farm every weekend?

“Obviously the older fellas can’t play rugby in town, as much as they’d want to, but they enjoy getting out and watching it.”

 That’s also been the extent of Big Dog’s involvement with the Pumas thus far, now that keeping his shoulder fit for farming is the main priority, but he hasn’t ruled out a mentoring role at the club in the future.

“Being involved with coaching is something I’d be interested in, I just didn’t feel like doing it last year because I probably wished I was still playing,” he says.

“I might try to do a bit this year or later on, get a bit more involved with it.

“Not that they really needed my help last year, they beat Coonamble in the final and we all went and watched that. They had a great turnout there.”

He might have always been a bushie, but McCalman admits the sudden shift from city-dwelling professional athlete to remote farm life was something of a crunching gear change. 

The involvement in Warren’s sporting clubs provides a crucial break from the drought-affected property, there have been weekly trips to complete a woolclassing course at Dubbo TAFE, and he’s planning a trip east to catch up with his former Sydney University teammates.

“A lot of my school mates from Orange are actually from around here, and some have moved back out here, as well,” says McCalman, who has also been asked to make a coaching cameo for the Students by ‘Ratty’ Burge.

“You don’t see them every day, but most weekends or every second weekend there’s a couple of us catching up.

“It’s different, but I also like being in the one place, as opposed to being in a hotel room every weekend.

“You have every movement for the next two weeks mapped out for you (when you’re playing), what you’re doing every day, and where you’re doing it. 

“You can actually lose track of what day or date it is out here - unless there’s a specific job - like; ‘we’re loading sheep on Sunday’.”

Also providing some comic relief from the drought was a recent visit from former Force and Wallabies teammate Nick ‘Honey Badger’ Cummins.

The unlikely friendship between the quiet farmer and the winger-cum-reality TV star is proof of the binding qualities of sharing a rugby pitch, and Cummins sought refuge in Warren after he controversially decided to leave match-making program The Bachelor on his ‘Pat Malone’.

“We put him to work doing some fencing,” says McCalman, who insinuated he may have been more of a hindrance than a help.

“It was a laugh, anyway. He showed everyone in Instagram, so he think he got a bit of a kick out of it.”

Other involuntary hired hands on the McCalman ranch have included the likes of David Pocock and Bernard Foley.

“We were selling a few sheep that day, too, so he was over in the yards drafting a few up,” McCalman says of Foley, the Waratahs and Wallabies fly half.

“He calls himself a bit of a farmer, so it was good to see him out here.”

Pocock is only a month younger than McCalman and the pair packed down in many a back row together for the Force and Wallabies, and also for Australian Schools on a tour to the UK and Ireland in 2005.

“He’s honestly one of my favourite people to play alongside, he was someone who I would trust with my life, he’s that kind of bloke. So dependable,” Pocock tells RUGBY.com.au.

“You know that whatever goes down he’s going to be there, and that extends well off the footy field.

“He was a quiet country kid (back in 2005) but, when he did speak up, everyone listened.

“I never felt he was quiet because he was shy, it was more because if he didn’t have something to say, he just wouldn’t say it.” 

So sudden was McCalman’s departure from professional rugby, Pocock reached out in early 2018 to find out what had become of the Dog. 

“Mate, he just disappeared,” he says.

“He was planning with his brothers and working towards it (going back to the farm), but I would have loved to have seen him keep playing.

“You think back to something like the game against Wales at the last World Cup and he was inspirational, that performance, and that’s the kind of player he is.

“To be his age and see him have to retire like that - I would have loved to have seen him get a few more years and retire on his own terms - but he seems to have gone back to what he wanted to do in the first place.”

Pocock carries a hard won reputation as one of the best back rowers in the game, but he recalls following in McCalman’s footsteps to Panasonic in 2016 as far from easy.

“I went to Panasonic the year after he’d been there, and they were big shoes to fill,” Pocock says.

“Everyone just wanted to talk to me about Benny McCalman and how great he was and how well he played, how many tries he scored, how many metres he made.

“He’d made a pretty big impact in one season, and they were very keen to have him back.” 

And the Big Dog would have happily returned, if it weren’t for his broken shoulder.

He might not be preparing for a third World Cup, but watching McCalman efficiently shepherd stock into a semi trailer with brother Andy, there’s no doubting he’s sheep-yard fit.

Consistently strong lamb and wool prices have been a saving grace for many graziers in western NSW throughout the drought, off-setting some of the cost of feeding stock with fodder and grain.

As McCalman points out; ‘it’s a bit hard to shear a cow’, and he classed all the family’s own wool for the first time during shearing earlier this month, just as father Duncan used to.

“Growing up we were always in the sheep yards or the woolshed, if we were shearing, so I’ve always been around it,” he says.

“Some farmers get contractors in (to do the shed work) and they’ll just bring the sheep to the yards, whereas dad was our wool classer, so we were always in the shed.”

Each property has its own unique stencil to mark the bales of wool so they can be identified during transport and sale, and it was a significant moment when McCalman sent off his first ‘clip’ as a qualified classer.

“We’re now continuing to work on the farm where dad always worked, and to be able to expand and buy another place two or three years ago is something we’re proud of,” he says.

“I always knew I was going to come back here - but I’m lucky that I got to go away and do what I did with rugby as well - and that the farm’s still here now.”

This gratitude is typical of McCalman who, by his own admission, hasn’t watched a lot of top-level rugby since returning to Warren, but said he’ll be tuning in for the World Cup and might even make a last-minute pilgrimage to Japan.

“Yeah, definitely. The time zone’s almost the same, so it should be easy to watch,” he says.

“I’ve got mates that are heading over, so I might even jump in with them.

“Obviously I wish I was still fit and playing and, if I was playing well, a chance to be there.

“But I’m excited to see the guys in action, and there’s a few young blokes coming through who are pretty handy.

“Hopefully they go well.”

Sheep successfully loaded, we return to Warren in McCalman’s dusty ute, and stroll into the town’s cafe on Dubbo Street for a bite to eat. 

“What can I getcha, Ben?" the middle-aged female proprietor asks.

I’m caught off guard and realise that, in four years, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone use his actual first name.

McCalman is no 'Big Dog' to people out here, and you get the feeling that’s just the way he likes it.