Rugby Union

Josh Mann-Rea's country move ignites passion for hay and rugby

Hay bales, herding cattle and three hours on the Hume Highway every day just to get to training sounds like the typical bush footy routine.

But Josh Mann-Rea isn't swapping his work boots for footy boots just for fun.

The ACT Brumbies hooker moved to Jugiong, 90 minutes west of Canberra, to get a work life balance unheard of in Super Rugby.

So the Brumbies bus slowed down on its way to Wagga on Friday for a pre-season trial against the NSW Waratahs to pick up a hitchhiker and save Mann-Rea a 150km trip to the capital.

It's fitting that Mann-Rea is better known as "Bongo", because surely that's the word that immediately came to mind when he told the Brumbies he was moving to Jugiong for life on the farm.

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While some players fill their spare time with coffee dates or video games, Mann-Rea swaps his footy boots for work boots and is learning how to cut hay, work with cattle and settling into a world away from Super Rugby.

"[Wife] Sam and I are from small country towns. Where we were living in Canberra, we didn't have a backyard. There was two metres between houses," Mann-Rea said.

"We just wanted to give our girls [Emerson and Avery] some open space, there's animals all around them and it's something different. Get them away from the TV or the iPad.

"Get into the bush and get outside a bit more. Hopefully buying a property is still on the cards for us down the track."

Mann-Rea's move out to the country shouldn't come as a surprise because his rugby career has been anything but the conventional path.

He was a rising star in the juniors, playing in Australian teams alongside Matt Giteau and Mark Gerrard, but he lost his passion for rugby and chose a career in the mines.

He was a goal-kicking hooker on his playing stint in Japan, and then the Brumbies recruited him as an unknown rake on a bargain extended player squad contract.

He'll turn 35 in a couple of weeks, but instead of winding down his career Mann-Rea is gearing up for the biggest challenge he's faced so far.

With Brumbies and Wallabies skipper Stephen Moore moving to Queensland next year, Mann-Rea has a chance to be the No. 1 hooker in Canberra.

And the thing that has helped him most is getting out of Canberra and hitting the dirt road to the house he rents on a 2500-acre working property in Jugiong.

Out there he can escape rugby, admitting when he lived in the capital he was in at Brumbies HQ every day doing some sort of training and it "was probably too much".

In Jugiong there's a pub, a cafe, a fruit shop, a service station that doubles as a post office and hay that needs to be cut.

Perfect for Mann-Rea, who grew up in Eumundi in country Queensland, where his family had sand and gravel quarries.

"My brother and old man were into horses, we used to do rodeos when we were younger. When we were a bit older I went a bit more football," Mann-Rea said.

"I'm just learning stuff [out at Jugiong], I helped cut some hay bales. Just whenever I can I try to learn in case it's something I want to get involved with down the track.

"If I've got a day off from rugby, they are pretty accommodating in getting me out there."

Mann-Rea has maintained his big grin through every twist and turn in his career, happy to take everything in his stride as he works towards his Super Rugby goal.

He spent some nights through pre-season training on teammates' couches when he was too tired to make the drive back to Jugiong.

"It gets my mind away from rugby out there, I get to freshen up. I think it's already helped me out this year ... it's been good to spend some more time with my family," Mann-Rea said.

"Sometimes less is a bit better instead of just footy, footy, footy. When I was working in the mines I was up early to get there and that was about an hour and a bit as well.

"But it gives me some time to catch up with people on the phone – you get to Murrumbateman, then Yass and before I know it I'm pulling into Jugiong.

"The boys have said not to test it driving back, they've let me crash at their places if we've got an early start. I'm pretty lucky that way."

The Brumbies start their 2016 campaign when they play the Waratahs, with Mann-Rea starting at hooker while Moore is eased back into action.

Coach Stephen Larkham will reintroduce his Wallabies stars for the clash against the Queensland Reds next weekend.

But the first trial offers a chance to players to press their claims for more game time when the Super Rugby season begins on February 26.

Mann-Rea's involvement has steadily increased since he joined the club in 2013.

"My body is feeling really good, every year I've been in Canberra I've been getting fitter and stronger," he said.

"I've been lucky that way. I'm just hoping to get more game time this year and then see what happens in 2017, there's a chance to get that starting spot now that [Moore] is going.

"But I'm only focused on this year, I want to really have a crack at this title. It's about this year and that's it."

SUPER RUGBY TRIAL

Saturday: ACT Brumbies v NSW Waratahs at McDonald's Park, Wagga. Kick-off at 7pm. Tickets available at the gate or at brumbies.com.au.

ACT Brumbies: 15. Aidan Toua, 14. Lausii Taliauli, 13. Andrew Smith, 12. Jordan Jackson-Hope, 11. Nigel Ah Wong, 10. Matt Toomua, 9. Tomas Cubelli, 8. Ita Vaea, 7. Jarrad Butler, 6. Jordan Smiler, 5. Sam Carter, 4. Tom Staniforth, 3. Ben Alexander, 2. Josh Mann-Rea, 1. Allan Alaalatoa. Reserves: 16. Albert Anae, 17. Robbie Abel, 18. Leslie Leuluai'ali'i-Makin, 19. Ruan Smith, 20. Rory Arnold, 21. Blake Enever, 22. Ben Hyne, 23. Michael Wells, 24. Joe Powell, 25. Michael Dowsett, 26. Nick Jooste, 27. Joe Tomane, 28. Jake Rakic, 29. Tevita Kuridrani, 30. James Dargaville, 31. Isaac Thompson.

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