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How Josh Mann-Rea inspired a High Court judge

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When Justice Geoffrey Nettle was sworn in this week in Canberra as the 50th High Court Judge of Australia, he offered an explanation why he was the oldest ever to be appointed to the post.

"Josh Mann-Rea," he said, without further explanation, although he gave a clue: the swearing in ceremony was in Canberra "where these things are better understood" and it was a name that would mean little to his Victorian colleagues.

Josh Mann-Rea is the oldest Wallaby to debut in 56 years. He went from being a coal miner to a Wallaby footballer and was the third-string hooker on the last spring tour. Injuries to other rakes meant he was the ninth in line to become the Wallabies hooker.

A Brumbies player, he debuted for Australia last year against Argentina aged 33 years, less than two years after almost retiring from the game.

Justice Nettle, aged 64, is the oldest High Court Judge appointed, a fact he acknowledged in a speech of thanks following glowing tributes on Tuesday.

He described how he "vaingloriously" took news of his appointment last December as a compliment, until one of his colleagues pointed out to him that he had taken longer to get appointed there than any other Judge in the history of a court. His Honour agreed and offered by way of mitigation: "I draw inspiration from Josh Mann-Rea's example."


Many in the audience would have missed the meaning.

Nor did His Honour disclose that as a young man he was an enthusiastic rugby player in Canberra, being a tight-head prop. Attorney-General George Brandis QC did point out that Justice Nettle had qualified as a rugby referee.

His father-in-law was Major General John "Punchy" Stevenson, who played for Victoria, the ACT and coached the ACT. 

Like Mann-Rea and his Wallaby aspirations, Justice Nettle admitted he had almost given up hope of being appointed to the High Court.

But he good naturedly acknowledged that his age meant he would only serve a few years on the High Court before the mandatory retirement age of 70.

"The selectors may have picked a wild card but they have also capped the risk," he said.