Rugby Union

Nathan Sharpe: the rock on which the Force was built

For much of its six-season existence, public perception of the Western Force has been dominated by two big, bald heads.

One of them, the presently embattled John Mitchell, departed at the end of the 2010 season.

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The other, inaugural captain and star lock Nathan Sharpe, is still there but only just.

Saturday night's clash with the ACT Brumbies represents Sharpe's last home stand for the Force.

Two weeks after that, following a July 14 away match against the Crusaders, the 34-year-old will walk away from the club for good (playing-wise, at least).

His CV speaks for itself: the most caps in Super Rugby history (160), the most caps for the Force (90) and more than 100 appearance for the Wallabies.

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Just as telling - maybe even more telling from a Force perspective - has been his rock-like solidity.

Controversial sponsors may come and go (Firepower), coaches can hit the road (Mitchell and Richard Graham) and high-profile players might seek pastures new (Matt Giteau and James O'Connor) but Sharpe has stayed. And thrived.

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"He is the Western Force," Force No. 8 Richard Brown says.

Brown was just 21 when he followed a similar path to Sharpe by moving from Queensland to Perth for the Force's inaugural 2006 season.

Earlier this week, Sharpe recalled a younger Brown "without cauliflower ears"; Brown, who himself graduated to the Wallabies in 2008, remembers a teammate he looked up to from the start.

Brothers in arms - Nathan Sharpe (left) and Richard Brown (right).

"He is the Western Force." Richard Brown.

"When I first got here I called him Mr Sharpe. Now I call him whatever I want," Brown laughed.

"Right from the start he set the standards for a lot of players. He's led by example on and off the field. It's not necessarily what he says, everyone's watching to see what he does.

"He's a foundation stone. Whatever has been going on at the club, we've always had something to hold the club steady and provide a steady voice - that's him."

When glamour-boy O'Connor left the Force last June - in somewhat tense circumstances after accepting a big-money offer from the Melbourne Rebels - one external perception was that the club was losing its most marketable face.

Not so, according to scrum-half Brett Sheehan.

"He [Sharpe] has definitely been the poster boy of the club. You had the likes of James O'Connor but he [Sharpe] is more recognisable than that," Sheehan said.

"You can't miss that big, bald head and those big, blue eyes, especially when he gets angry with you.

"One of main reasons I signed here was to play with Sharpie. He's the kind of player you want to play for and with."

Pressed for a fact rugby fans might not know about Sharpe, Sheehan dug up his his Latin dancing ability (apparently a legacy of compulsory lessons at boarding school).

Brown plumped for a mutual love of fishing (both, reportedly, are terrible anglers), while, for another Wallaby Matt Hodgson, it was the fact that Sharpe once had hair.

Sharpe has boasted a smooth scone for so long that WAtoday.com.au had to go back 12 years into the archives to find a photo of a then 22-year-old sporting a full-ish crop of hair at an Australian Rugby Union announcement (the image caused considerable amusement at Force training yesterday - much of it from Sharpe himself).

Nathan Sharpe (far left) as he once looked with hair. Another former Force player, Scott Staniforth, is far right

"One of the first times we had a team meeting for the Force we had some vision of him from about five years before," Hodgson said.

"He had the real combover going. Obviously someone has had a word with him in the time in between and got him to do something about it.

"He looks much better now."

For all the plaudits for Sharpe, there will remain one unfortunate asterix next to his Force career.

Team success has eluded him and he will retire without playing a final for the club.

While his first club, the Reds, went on to win the 2011 Super Rugby championship, a seventh-place finish in 2007 remains the Force's best effort.

The teammates he is leaving behind hope they can do something to fix that in the future.

And - tongue-in-cheek one assumes - they haven't given up hope that Sharpe might be part of it.

"He's said that he still wants to be around the club so hopefully he might bring his boots along and run out with us a few more times," Hodgson said.

"He's already retired once for the Wallabies and then changed his mind and decided to play on into the spring so you couldn't rule it out.

"He's actually got a new nickname around the club. We're calling him Johnny Farnham - a bloke who announces his retirement, then just keeps on going."

Nathan Sharpe
Age: 34
Force captain: 2006-2011
Super Rugby caps: 160 (90 Force, 70 Reds)
Super Rugby points: 30 (6t)
Wallabies caps: 101
International points: 40 (8t)

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