Rebels put faith in Olympian
A shot at the big time: Dale Stevenson in training with the Melbourne Rebels. Photo: Joe Armao
DALE Stevenson yesterday had the official first day of his new sporting life. Less than three months ago, Stevenson was lining up at the Olympic Stadium in London for the shot put competition. Now he has ambitions of one day packing down in the front row of the Melbourne Rebels scrum.
Stevenson, whose experience in rugby union has been limited to a few junior games, has been recruited by the Rebels in their academy system as a long-term prospect.
The 24-year-old is being groomed as a tight-head prop but faces a controlled progression through the lower grades for several years, where it is hoped he will develop into a contracted Super Rugby player.
Stevenson and Rebels officials such as list manager Sam Cordingley acknowledge the long path ahead but the club has high hopes for the powerhouse.
Stevenson, who weighed 138 kilograms when competing in London, has been working with conditioning staff and is down to 124 kilograms after stripping four kilograms in the past two weeks.
He has a target of 118 kilograms to 120 kilograms and yesterday completed his first team training session with the Rebels, a weights session where he impressed the more hardened players looking on. ''He's much stronger than the rest of us,'' said front-rower Laurie Weeks.
After a decade in athletics, Stevenson, who failed to make the shot put final in his first Olympics, decided to switch careers after becoming disillusioned with aspects of the sport.
''The reason I got into athletics is because I enjoyed the challenge,'' said Stevenson, an avid practitioner of yoga and meditation.
''Obviously, being an individual sport … you [are] largely self-directed and that always appealed to me … the flip side to that is it can get lonely at times.
''I found that I basically got to the point where the joy I was getting out of the sport was outweighed by the negatives, whether that be the politics of the sport or the administration of the sport or just the loneliness and the solo nature of the sport.
''As soon as it stopped becoming fun it was too much hard work. I've got some athletic talent and I still have a passion to be involved in competitive sport.
''I've always loved team sports and my build predisposes me to rugby. I have some experience in playing and still follow the game avidly and appreciate the beauty of the game and I thought, when you're young enough to do these things, why not?''
However, Stevenson - whose junior sporting claim to fame came in football when, as a teenage full-forward, he kicked 100 goals in four successive seasons for Somerville on the Mornington Peninsula - said he was realistic in his expectations about the conversion.
''It's a huge challenge [but] I think that's essentially what defines us as people and certainly as athletes … how you respond to a challenge and for me I welcome the challenge with open arms,'' Stevenson said.
''I'm looking to enjoy the process and better myself and see if I can improve … if I end up playing second-grade rugby at club level in Victoria, I'm not going to be disappointed. I can live with myself, as long as I give it a crack and give it my best … I'll be able to sleep at night.''
He said he was not worried about the technical intricacies of playing one of the hardest positions on the ground.
''Technical understanding and development is the background that I've come from and I'll back myself to develop technically,'' he said.
''What is going to take me time is the aerobic conditioning and the pace of the game, and tight-head's probably a better spot to slot in with regards to that.''
There is a precedent. Tom Court was a shot putter who switched to rugby union in 2004 and has played for Queensland and Ireland as a front-rower.
Cordingley, who played with Court at the Reds, said he was confident Stevenson could follow suit.
''He's going to be involved in our academy program and junior development work and we're hoping to fast-track his development based on his athleticism,'' Cordingley said.
''We're talking about an Olympic-level athlete who's willing to basically give up his opportunity to continue in that sport … [and] all of the signs are pointing towards a guy who is clearly ambitious about making the transition and it's a credit to him.''