The world of the young Tate McDermott was still twisted with heartache when Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper was making his Test debut in 2012.
Maroochydore Surf Club was the young McDermott’s first love before the ocean ripped away his childhood innocence in terrible circumstances.
Memories of the surf mate who didn’t have the chance to live his sporting dream are always inside McDermott, who gets the chance to live his on Saturday night.
Starting a Test at halfback for the first time against France in the series-decider at Suncorp Stadium is the grand stage.
Concentrating on rugby became part of his healing after tragedy struck the 2012 Australian Surf Life Saving Championships at Kurrawa Beach on the Gold Coast.
McDermott was just 13 and watching the Under-15 board race at Kurrawa when childhood friend Matthew Barclay never came out of the challenging surf.
“Matty and I grew up together as real good mates on the boards and ski and our families would travel together to carnivals,” McDermott told me in quiet tones when he first broke into the Queensland Reds.
“I was watching his race from the beach that day and it’s still very hard to believe.
“That was kind of a turning point for me to give up surf lifesaving and concentrate on rugby.”
The first pay-off was wearing Australian colours in rugby sevens in 2017 when his jinking, veering, changes of pace and opportunism were perfectly suited.
He’s always been a snipe-first halfback and the best Queensland Reds’ wins of recent years have invariably had a McDermott moment.
It might be a quick-tap try, a sidestepping run through the tall timber to set up one or a delayed pass at the line to put a big backrower or winger into a hole.
Two strong second half cameos to open this series against the French have earned his start on Saturday night. It’s not rotation. It’s on merit.
When McDermott studied Wallabies’ halfbacks for running role models, he sized up Will Genia but also Luke Burgess. He’s also done sessions this season with Sam Cordingley, a 22-Test halfback before he became the Queensland Rugby Union’s General Manager of Professional Rugby.
“To me, sniping around rucks is what all the good No.9s do,” McDermott said.
“I never played league but I watched a lot of Billy Slater and I just wanted to be a runner of the ball.”
The balance of the Wallabies’ attack will be interesting on Saturday night.
When the experienced James O’Connor was at the rudder at flyhalf for the Reds this season, McDermott’s role was more one of feeding him to have play initiated off No.10.
When O’Connor was injured, the Reds used McDermott, from halfback, as the main trigger for their attack and he found a rich vein of running form.
With 21-year-old Noah Lolesio at flyhalf against the French, you can expect McDermott to feel comfortable initiating a lot of the play.
McDermott’s pass does need to keep improving or rather lengthen so he can snap a cutout pass to put a runner through a gap while a decoy draws a defender.
Last year, he hooked up with Genia for some valuable lockdown lessons with that very aim.
“Getting more out of my pass and those game management things about when to quicken things up or slow them down were two of the biggest areas we worked on,” McDermott said. “When I start to fatigue I’ve got to finish off that pass from the left to the right side. I keep working on that.”
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At 22, McDermott is an upbeat, open and engaging young footballer. Being in camp with the Wallabies this year and last has also enabled him to forge good relationships with Nic White and Jake Gordon.
He spars with White every time they play against each other but the senior Brumbies halfback now also phones him with encouragement at other times.
The McDermott-Lolesio halves pairing is the fifth in the nine Tests of Dave Rennie’s reign. Injuries to O’Connor and White have inflated that number but it’s getting to the Cheika-esque stage.
In Test rugby’s land of the giants, fans love a big play from a tiny underdog. The scene is set to see what McDermott and the Wallabies can do on Saturday night.