The NSW Suburban Rugby, or ‘Subbies’ as it is more commonly known, has had it’s share of celebrity cameos through the decades.
Despite being a tier below Shute Shield and Sydney grade rugby, and being a firm stronghold for the beer-as-hydration traditions of the game, there’ve been a few star names pop up in one of Subbies’ many divisions.
Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau turned out for Balmain, and France cult figure Sebastian Chabal even made a celebrity appearance for the Muzzled Wolves, too.
Former Samoa and Wasps hooker Trevor Leota once played briefly for a Sydney club with a agreed ‘fee’ of him having a rum-and-coke in each hand at all times during the post-match function.
In the late 1970s, Wallabies John Hipwell and Greg Cornelsen once emerged from a gym and agreed to join in a Souths-Old Ignatians game about to start at the Sydney Sports Ground no.2, with one in each team.
But all of those appearances were big name players stepping down from an elite level into Subbies.
But precious few had ever used Subbies as a stepping stone UP to the elite levels of professional rugby.
In the amateur era, when Test players could still be picked from Country teams, Simon Poidevin played as a student for his University of NSW side and also the Wallabies in the same year.
And Fiji forward Semi Qatavi rose from Subbies to the Waratahs in 1999.
Now deep into the professional era, however, the distance between Subbies and the pros has grown so far apart it may as well be Earth to Mars.
But not for Charlie Gamble.
The Waratahs flanker, who will start at no.7 for NSW in their trial against the Highlanders at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night, has one of the more incredible back stories in an often colourless age where missing a schoolboy rep team qualifies as interesting.
Just two years ago, Gamble was playing Subbies rugby for Petersham Rugby Club in Sydney, who compete in the Kentwell Cup competition.
It is the highest level of all the NSW Suburban Rugby divisions - and Gamble was a standout star in a premiership-winning “Shammies” side - but it was still a long, long way from the Waratahs and Super Rugby.
“And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that experience,” Gamble told RUGBY.com.au.
The path that led Gamble to park footy in Camperdown begins in his native New Zealand, where he grew up a schoolboy star at St Bedes in Christchurch and was drafted into the Crusaders academy system at the age of 18 in 2014.
It was a dream come true for a lifelong Crusaders fan but the plusses of being able to learn from the likes of Richie McCaw, Matt Todd and Kieran Read came with the frustrations of trying to progress in the world’s best domestic franchise.
"I played in the Crusaders Knights, which is the B side they put out, and they kind of made it for guys who weren’t in the Crusaders 23 that week to get some game time,” Gamble said.
"And we’d go down and play the Highlanders B or the Hurricanes B and things like that. Sometimes my team was full of guys like Richie Mo’unga, David Havili, Luke Romano, these guys.
“But there was a lot of depth in the Crusaders academy and the no.6, 7, 8s in the Crusaders squad have been some of the best in the world in the last decade, so it was tough to crack it.”
Young and immature, Gamble admits he "dropped the head a wee bit when things didn’t go my way” and by the age of 21, he’d started falling out of love with rugby.
Gamble and partner Annie decided to make a change and move to Sydney.
“We came up with the decision that it would be good for us to move abroad, and get out of my comfort zone. Not to just develop as a player but to develop as a person as well," Gamble said.
"I knew a handful of people in Sydney but not many, so it was a fresh start. We had to learn in life and grow up a bit. And once I got that sorted, things just flowed from there.”
Gamble had been contacted on Facebook by a recruiter for Petersham and the club helped him get a job as a delivery driver.
He had had email contact with Easts coach Pauli Taumoepeau as well, but Gamble decided that diving straight into the pressure a semi-professional training schedule at Shute Shield level wouldn’t be helpful as he and Annie tried to find their feet in Sydney.
So Subbies it was. The rumour goes Gamble didn’t know Petersham weren’t in the Shute Shield but the 23-year-old laughs and shakes his head.
"I did my research and I knew it was below Shute Shield but I thought “why not?”,” Gamble said.
"I knew Subbies wasn’t the best but it was a good platform to make that move and keep playing footy, and settle myself in Sydney and get to know the area, and for my girlfriend and myself to get into new jobs and all that.
"I knew when I went down that it wasn’t the highest competition but it was to get back and enjoy myself and enjoy my time in rugby, without the pressure involved.”
Gamble played a trial against Hunters Hill two days after arriving in Sydney.
"Straight off the plane, it was about 34 degrees, I was like holy moly,” he said.
"I could tell straight away it was a different brand of rugby, they were all out there enjoying themselves, throwing themselves around, not too physical.
"But like anything, you throw yourself into it and you have got to understand you only get out of it what you put in.”
First-grade subbies is not a mug’s standard - there are plenty of ex-grade players who gear down to Kentwell Cup due to work and families - but Gamble was still a class above.
And despite having a get-out card that no-one would have begrudged him using, the moustachioed flanker played out the whole season.
And he loved it.
"You would play the game and then go for a sneaky beer at the Lady Hampshire. It was great to socialise with the boys,” Gamble said.
“That’s rugby right? You come over to a big city like Sydney knowing no-one and then you join a rugby club and now you have 50 to 100 mates, just like that."
On the back of their dominant flanker, Petersham won the Kentwell Cup and Gamble won every award possible.
He was presented with the NSW Suburban Rep Player of the Year at NSW Rugby’s Matt Burke Medal night in 2018, in front of Waratahs guys he would be calling his teammates a bit over a year later.
"I still had goals for myself that I wanted to achieve and we ended up winning the competition, and so I came out of the season really happy,” he said.
"We ended up winning the competition and it really helped me fall back in love with the game again, and not take it for granted.”
Petersham only train two nights a week but Gamble had continued to hit the gym and do fitness every day; his passion to be a professional football having not diminished.
Contact with Taumoepeau resumed mid-year and Gamble agreed to join Easts in 2019.
"I always had in the back of my mind that I still had that footy dream. You grow up in New Zealand and you start playing at 5, so you never lose that passion,” he said.
"Coming over here it was for a change of scenery and to develop as people, but the footy was always there.
"Once I finished the job with Shammies and won the comp, my focus turned to getting ready for the next year (with Easts) and upping my training.
"I knew about the Shute Shield and knew it was an extremely good comp, so if I didn’t come in with my best I would be in trouble.”
He needn’t have worried. Gamble continued to be a dominant force in the back row for the Beasties, and went on to play for Sydney in the NRC as well.
Gamble switched from a New Zealand agent to an Aussie one and after getting some encouraging news that he was being looked at by the Waratahs, late in 2019 he had a coffee with his manager.
"We were sitting at a cafe in Redfern with a contract offer (from the Waratahs) with him,” Gamble said.
"I guess I had been around Super Rugby players since I was young, and knew all the Crusaders guys and done pre-season training, so I knew in the back of mind if I went back and put in the hard work and really focussed on it, it could eventually come.
"I didn’t know how fast it would come, and it came very fast, but obviously when that happened I was lost for words and so excited just to rip into it.”
Gamble signed with the Waratahs in October and after a lung-busting pre-season, the flanker has been named to start for the Tahs in their opening trial against the Highlanders.
With Will Miller moved to Canberra, Gamble and Junior Wallaby Carlo Tizzano will joust for the role of back-up to NSW captain Michael Hooper.
Gamble has been around superstars long enough to know he would be wasting his first shot as a contracted professional by settling for a bit-part role, however.
"Obviously I had Matt Todd and Richie McCaw ahead of me back at the Crusaders and I did a lot of learning under them,” Gamble said.
"Hoops, well he probably is the best no.7 in the world now, and it is so good to be there learning off someone of his class and his talent.
“But you just have to mentally put in your mind that you don’t want to just be here to sit back and play a back-up role.
"It is only better for the team and myself and him if I give it my best crack and push him as hard as possible
"You have to put your hand up and give it a hard go.”
Pushing the Wallabies captain for his starting Super Rugby spot is a million miles from running out for Petersham on a quiet Saturday arvo, but Gamble said without his time in Subbies, he isn’t sure he’d be rubbing shoulders with Hooper at all.
"I look back at 2018 and I think it was the biggest year in my life, and my career,” Gamble said.
"Just the decision to move over here and get out of the comfort zone, and knowing in the back of my mind, that short-term and long-term, I was still chasing a Super Rugby contract.
"I made a lot of big decisions and I developed myself as a person and a player.
"It got me to where I am today. No doubt."
The Waratahs play the Highlanders at Leichhardt Oval tonight at 6.45pm in their first trial. The game will be streamed live on RUGBY.com.au and NSW.Rugby.