'He'll bring people back to watch': The sevens star who could become the 15th Indigenous Wallaby

Thu, 03/12/2020, 09:00 pm
Christy Doran
by Christy Doran
Maurice Longbottom can bring the fans back and become the next Indigenous Wallaby, according to former greats. Photo: Getty Images
Maurice Longbottom can bring the fans back and become the next Indigenous Wallaby, according to former greats. Photo: Getty Images

“It’s a crap game. I hate it.”

That is how Maurice Longbottom responded when Brendan Williams – the Indigenous Australian who was voted ahead of the legendary Jonah Lomu as players’ player at the 2001 Sevens World Cup – strolled over to the rugby league-loving back after a game of OzTag at Heffron Park and asked him whether he had thought about playing rugby.

Williams shrugged his shoulders, nodded his head and left him with one thought.

“OK, bra, I just thought you’d be good at it,” Williams said.

A couple of months later, Longbottom had changed his tune.

“It’s the best game ever, I love it,” he told Williams, who had only just returned from overseas having called time on a phenomenal 15-year career in Italy.

Now, four years on, Longbottom is one of the most prodigious talents in Australian rugby and will lead the Aussie Sevens’ charge at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after re-signing for another year.

It’s a massive boost for Tim Walsh’s men, who have shown signs of improvement in recent years but still don’t have the consistency to match it with the best in the world.

As Williams says, “They’re just robotic. There’s no flair and ad lib with the sevens these days. There’s too much structure there, they don’t like to play the game like the Fijians and South Africans and play what you see it and have fun and enjoy it, and I’m watching it and it’s just like playing a PlayStation and I’m controlling everything.”

Longbottom is the exception, and it’s what has made him, like Springbok Cheslin Kolbe in recent times, a prized good.

A recent cameo in the Shute Shield, where he tore up the Sydney competition after being shifted from halfback to fullback, has given hope too that the Wallabies will soon be able to add a fifteenth watering hole on their Indigenous strip.

“He’s an absolute gun,” former Wallaby and Randwick’s director of rugby Morgan Turinui tells RUGBY.com.au.

“The times that we put him in the backfield he was that irrepressible you just had to pick him there.

“I see no reason why he couldn’t do it at Super level initially and then who knows from there.”

Want proof?

Just ask Southern Districts.

It was back in August when the fleet-footed Sevens star put on his dancing feet and tip-toed his way from the left side of the field to the right, leaving the opposition clutching at thin air, to set-up teammate Dylan Pietsch.

“He’s one out of the box, mate,” Wallabies great Glen Ella told RUGBY.com.au.

“They don’t come like him often.

“He’ll bring people back to watch him because he’s so exciting.”

It was just three years earlier that Longbottom rung Ella, whose Sevens Carnival allowed him to be spotted by selectors, to tell the famous back turned attack coach that he had been asked to join the Australian squad for the Munich Sevens.

“I said, ‘what are you going to Munich for?’” Ella recalls.

“He said, ‘there’s a sevens tournament there’. I said, ‘fantastic, this is better than going to Mascot Oval to play rugby league, isn’t it?’”

While Longbottom is now an internationally recognised player and “loves the game”, his initial opinion of the game is exactly what Rugby Australia is hoping to rectify.

"I think it shows that we've got to open more player pathways for Indigenous rugby players," Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan told reporters last month, when asked what it meant that the Wallabies were showcasing the jersey without Indigenous representation.

"But what it also says is that we're very committed to an inclusive culture.

"We're very proud of our Aboriginal and Indigenous heritage, and we're going to promote it proudly."

And it’s not just talk that Rugby Australia is serving up.

As Longbottom himself says, “There was a Dream Big Tour that went around Australia where they were going to Aboriginal and remote areas and getting them to do some training and then they picked a wider squad to play at half time at the Sydney Sevens.”

Williams, however, wants to see much more done.

While the former fullback – known as ‘Dingo’ to his contemporaries – acknowledged more was being done to unearth talent, he said Rugby Australia had to continue to head to the outback and rural areas to compete with the NRL and AFL.

“I went out last year with them as well, so we went up to Mt Isa and up to Cairns, going out to these remote areas was fantastic not only for me to share my knowledge but just to see community and see these kids,” Williams told RUGBY.com.au.

“All they know is rugby league and some of the kids have never seen a footy, and just to expose that out there is just great, it’s a great opportunity.

“Our goal and our motto was to find gold under the smallest rock and we went out to these communities and we found some gold out there because we went to them instead of them coming to Brisbane or to Sydney, and that’s the thing about Australian rugby, they need to go out more. Not many kids have transport and the money to get there. I think there should be more.”

Williams himself stumbled into the game.

Had it not been for a good friend of his playing for Eastwood at the time, rugby would likely never been exposed to Williams’ extraordinary broken-field running ability, where he helped Australia claim bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

A year later he was taken over to Petrarca Padova by Michael Cheika.

He came back for a year to play for the Waratahs and helped Australia make the Sevens World Cup final, but had he stayed he would likely have played for the Wallabies too.

Ask anyone who saw ‘Dingo’ play and their eyes light up.

That same flicker in the eye occurs when you mention Longbottom’s name.

Walsh isn’t surprised that Longbottom, as well as others like Pietsch and Lachie Anderson, are attracting attention from Super clubs.

“These sevens players are just very good rugby players,” Walsh said.

“A lot of them a fully focused on sevens, but it was proven in Shute Shield that every player that went back to play stood out and garnered attention from Super clubs.

“There’s always that ‘he’s too small kind of thing’ but how often do you hear that and that player goes on and does something.”

Funny that, those same knockers were saying Kolbe was too small just a few years ago.

In 2019, the pint-sized winger was the most lethal and electric back, who could stop and start on a dime, in the world.

Those same characteristics are said about Longbottom, the free-running Indigenous back who was tearing up defences playing for the Wombats just a few years ago.

“I think every single year from Munich to now he just adds different elements to his game,” Walsh added.

“If you looked at him two years ago, his defence was very weak and his contact skills were average, a fly in a bottle comes to mind, but he’s turned that into a real strength.

“He’s turning the ball over, he’s taking space, he’s using his body height, positionally he’s picked up great experience around how to manipulate defence.

“His marginal gains have been around his leadership on the field in situations where he wants the ball and he’s heavily marked and he still wants it, and we’ve always said he’s probably the hardest person to defend in sevens but if he has the ability to draw one or two defenders or if he’s heavily marked if he can pass 15 metres left and right off balance then it just opens up the field for someone else to go through.

“He’s got a repertoire that have developed over time.”

Not so surprisingly either, Longbottom’s development continued at the Galloping Greens.

Watched by the likes of Bob Dwyer and Ella, as well as Stephen Hoiles and Turinui, Longbottom is walking a path that many Indigenous Australians have walked.

“He’s at the best club and that’s where it all started back in the day, the running rugby,” Williams says.

“With the Ellas back in the day, Lloydy (Lloyd Walker), myself, Andrew Walker and (David) Campese, and the game was to play rugby and they did it with the backs and that’s where they scored the majority of the tries around the fullback area, Glen Ella always scored there.”

Better still, Longbottom has a new found appreciation of the XV-person game too.

“ I was a bit standoff-ish going to play and I played a bit of nine and I enjoyed it but then I got the chance to play fullback and that’s when I really started to enjoy my time playing with Randwick,” he says.

“I didn’t think I would like it that much.

“It actually did open a few doors for me, but I said before I started my sevens campaign I was pretty set on staying with the sevens until the Olympics.

“But I really enjoyed it, it opened some doors and it really opened my eyes as well.

"It’d be something I’m interested in, looking forward to getting into a Xvs team and, down the track, maybe even a Wallabies spot."

His eyes aren’t the only ones that have been opened.

Yet it’s his initial comments, made only half-a-decade ago, that should continue be one of the focuses of Rugby Australia.

Spread the game, for gold is to be found under the smallest rock.

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