Irae Simone didn't leave New Zealand until after high school. As an 11-year-old, he told his family he wanted to play for the Wallabies

International
by Christy Doran

At the tender age of 11, Irae Simone told his family in a homemade video that he wanted to play for the Wallabies.

Fair enough if you're Australian, but slightly curious if you're from New Zealand and spent your entire childhood living in the Shaky Isles. 

Born in south Auckland, raised in Auckland and schooled in Auckland, in a country that bleeds All Black, it's fair to say that Simone was the black sheep. He even partnered All Blacks centre Jack Goodhue in the midfield at his Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland.

Just over a week ago Simone was reminded of that video by his parents, who still remain in New Zealand, after being announced in Dave Rennie's 44-man Wallabies squad for the upcoming Bledisloe Cup Tests across the ditch.

"What’s funny is that my parents in an old video growing up, they asked me 'what team would I want to play for' and I said, 'the Wallabies'," Simone told reporters from the Hunter Valley on the first full day of Wallabies training.

"I looked up to a lot of players in the All Blacks, but I’ve never wanted to play for the All Blacks, and my family are huge supporters of the Wallabies.

"Being shown that and being told from my parents what I said back then, it’s crazy, I still have to pinch myself that I’m here.

"I’m pretty grateful to have this opportunity. I’m just going to take it all in, enjoy this experience and hopefully get a few games under myself."

The reason for his early love of the Wallabies?

Brumbies and Wallabies great Matt Giteau.

"I’m not going to lie, my favourite player was Matt Giteau," the 25-year-old said.

"Just in terms of his skills, his mindset, just how he approached the game, he’s a player I’ve always looked up and then you had the greats like (George) Gregan.

"Back then, the Wallabies were at their peak."

Indeed, when Giteau burst onto the scene in Australian rugby the Wallabies were the world champions, they beat the British and Irish Lions and they had a grip on the Bledisloe Cup too.

Given the All Blacks' Bledisloe stranglehold since, it's unlikely as many youngsters growing up in New Zealand will share the same special status that Simone had for the Wallabies.

But the first-time Wallabies squad member, who on Saturday helped guide the Brumbies to their first championship since 2004 by claiming the Super Rugby AU title, is hopeful that the new dawn under Rennie sees the Wallabies once again rise to the top.

"It’s fair to say they’ve dropped down a few over the past couple of years but I’m with a special group here that’ll take it up again," Simone said.

"There’s something special brewing in this group and hopefully we can turn that into a winning mindset and win a few games."

Like Giteau, who switched between fly-half and inside centre during his glitering career with the Wallabies, Simone is a second playmaker and has grown from strength to strength at inside centre since moving down from the Waratahs to the Brumbies.

He credits dropping eight kilograms as one of the reasons for his improvement since moving to the nation's capital, where he now plays at 102kgs.

While Matt To'omua and James O'Connor shape as the favourites to wear the No.12 jersey, Simone shouldn't be ruled out of the equation.

He's a bigger body in the midfield and has a balanced game between carrying the ball, passing it and putting boot to ball, and if young gun Noah Lolesio is included it's more than possible that Simone could too.

Simone said the fact no jersey was guaranteed heading into the Bledisloe series was an exciting proposition and that he would let his actions on the field do the talking as he attempts to win selection for a maiden Wallabies debut.

"I’ve got to lead by action," he said.

"You can talk as much as you want, but if you don’t show the coaches at training how much you want it; that will put you in the best position to get into the team.

"There’s not a position that’s secured at the moment and I know that 12 is up for grabs. I will be going for that No.12, I know there’s a few boys there but my eye is up for that jersey.

"That was one of my goals at the start of the year, so I’m not going to give it up too easy to those boys, I’m going to make them work for it."

It seems extraordinary this late in the year, but the Wallabies only gathered as an entire group for the first time on Monday afternoon.

New coach Rennie - also a New Zealander - spent the first evening building the foundations of the new culture he wants the Wallabies to carry forward.

Simone is one of 16 uncapped players in the Wallabies' 44-man squad, while another 13 players have played less than 10 Tests.

On Tuesday morning the Wallabies hit the ground running in the Hunter.

Without giving too much away about the new direction Rennie wants to take the Wallabies in, Simone said the breakdown and an up-tempo game were two key areas that were paramount under the two-time Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs. 

"He’s fit in really well," Simone said.

"A lot of boys have a lot of respect for him so far. You’ve got to give respect to earn respect and he’s one of those people that leads by his actions. 

"I’m liking the style that he wants. It’s just quick footy. We want to play up-speed, with a lot of tempo, a lot of good skill, just playing smart footy and on the back of that we want to be physical, we want to be dominant around the breakdown. We just want to be physical, that’s all he’s after and that’s what everyone’s got to to buy into, and then play with a lot of skill and good footy."