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The Sharpe end


And up steps Nathan Sharpe … this Wallaby's finest hour has come as his career is about to close, writes Georgina Robinson in Cardiff.

Cheers ... Sharpe and Stephen Moore after last month's win over England.

Cheers ... Sharpe and Stephen Moore after last month's win over England.

AMID the chaos that was the hallmark of the Wallabies season this year, Australia somehow ended up with the captain it needed in Nathan Sharpe.

A man whose 14-year career of soaring highs and crushing lows developed within him the attributes required to lead the Wallabies through their most challenging year in living memory - fight, resilience and a stubborn determination to crash or crash through.

''He is just so well suited to being with those guys at the moment, there would be a strength in his leadership and there would be a rallying point for the team throughout difficult times,'' Sharpe's friend and the Western Force head coach, Michael Foley, said.

''He can speak with authority about what it's like to be on your backside and struggling to get back up again. That's where the team has found itself a couple of times and I have heard he has been that rallying point for them.''

It is not that James Horwill, David Pocock or Will Genia - the three captains who fell to serious injury before Sharpe was asked to play on and lead the side - do not exhibit those traits in spades.

While their injuries tested the depth of the Wallabies stock of bodies and character, it is difficult to imagine a man more suited than Sharpe to finding a way through, and bringing 30 or so men with him.

''When things are tough you need guys that are consistent, guys that have consistent character, and he's one of those guys,'' Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore said. ''He showed through some tough times this year just the way he's carried himself. He has been a good example for the rest of the guys to follow.''


  Eden Park, August 25, 2012

Australia failed for another year to win back the Bledisloe Cup and suffered the indignity of being the first Wallabies side in 50 years to be held scoreless in a series Test. The anti-Deans clamour grew and everyone wondered how the team could function without Horwill and Pocock.

The scoreline said 22-0 but Foley, who first met Sharpe when the young second-rower arrived at the Reds in 1998, counts it among the best of the 34-year-old's on-field performances.

''I just noticed in Nathan a real presence within that game - that was something that I hadn't seen before,'' Foley said.

''I had seen him play good games but this was a game that - for a team that was really struggling - really stood out for me. There was a certain level of comfort that he displayed in his performance that suggested although there were elements of the game and they were struggling that night, he was very much in his element.''

Deans noticed, too. It was a continuation of the career-best form Sharpe found during the Wallabies' three-Test series whitewash of Wales at home two months earlier. The coach has said it was a freedom born of clarity and purity of intent. Sharpe says he has not changed a thing.

''I feel like I've been doing the same thing my whole career,'' he said. ''There was times when Robbie didn't feel like I was required on the field but I just tried to go about things the way I've always done them. I'm just trying to enjoy myself and make sure I support the guys around me. I know I'm leaving and I'd rather leave the place in a better state than what it was when I first got here.''


Twickenham, November 15, 2008

Australia beat England 28-14 in a cathartic purge of the ghosts of the 2007 World Cup, when the Wallabies were bundled out of the tournament by roughly the same side in the quarter-finals. Sharpe counts every victory over England among his career highs but both Moore and Foley, then a Wallabies assistant coach, rate those 80 minutes in London as some of Sharpe's best.

''He wasn't the first-choice lock and he'd slipped right out of favour earlier in the season when we travelled to South Africa … but later that year he was, if not the equal best player on the field with [man-of-the-match] Stephen Moore, then certainly the second-best player against an England pack we were beaten by 12 months earlier,'' Foley recalled. ''Close to what was a significant low point in his career he was able to come out and perform at such a high level and in a hostile environment. That's a significant snapshot of what the man is all about.''

It was neither the first nor last time Sharpe would be forced to weather the fluctuations of the selectors's favour at the Wallabies. Denied the opportunity to earn his 100th Test cap against the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final at Eden Park last year (he reached the milestone in the bronze medal play-off against Wales a few days later), Sharpe announced his intention to retire after the end of the 2012 Super Rugby season. Injuries to Horwill and the retirement of Dan Vickerman tilted the balance in Sharpe's favour. Deans asked him twice to delay his retirement and twice he said yes.

''He's been incredibly resilient the way he's hung in there through thick and thin,'' Moore said. ''He's gone through some great highs in his career - played in a World Cup final [2003], captained the Force over a long period of time through some very tough times … he's never given up, he's always kept training, kept working hard to get where he wanted to go.''

Crash or crash through

Twickenham, November 17, 2012

Rarely has there been more on the line than the match against England a fortnight ago: a coach's future, a public's faith and a personal legacy. After a humiliating capitulation to the French a week earlier, including an uncharacteristically poor individual performance, Sharpe had to galvanise himself and his teammates and prove their critics wrong for at least the third time this season.

He knew what it took to rise to the challenge, he had led the Wallabies to a defining draw against the All Blacks in Brisbane the month before and revived his own Test career at least twice over the past decade. The ensuing 20-14 turnaround was another classic Wallabies resurrection.

''There's no point stopping and throwing your hands in the air and bitching about things,'' Sharpe said, before admitting to doing just that in private a few times over the years. ''But that's when you've got to jump on yourself and suck it up and get on with it. When something arises you've got to try and fix it. Early on in my career at the Reds and the Force I was probably a bit idle and passive in trying to solve problems, but you realise after a while that you just have to find a way through it somehow. You don't have any option other than to keep going.''

Which is what he has always done. And why, when Deans turned to Sharpe, the Wallabies - three captains, three five-eighths, two second-rowers and a handful of wingers down - finally got the captain they needed.

''The thing that matters most to me is that the blokes I take the field with want to play with me and want to play for me,'' Sharpe said.

''If everyone I've played with in my career thinks that about me then that would do me, because they're the people in the trenches with you and if they want you in the trenches with them then that's pretty good.''

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