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My Life in Rugby: Former Italy full-back Luke McLean

Luke McLean - Italy

OUR ‘no ruck’ masterplan to upset, and hopefully beat, England at Twickenham in 2017 nearly got lost in translation.

Brendan Venter turned up at training and asked me, as someone who could speak both English and Italian, to get his message across. I was trying to explain it and even I was getting confused and he kept having to correct me!      

We spent a week preparing for it, over and over again, and the repetition paid off. By the end everyone knew they had to roll away once they hit the deck and not compete for the ball.

We’d done it a couple of times at Treviso but, even so, my initial thought was that this is crazy and it’s not going to work. After a while though, we realised how difficult it was for England to play against and we stuck to our plan and actually led 10-5 at half-time. Whether it was fatigue or we moved away from the game-plan, for whatever reason it didn’t work out for the full 80 minutes.

Ten years earlier I’d arrived in Italy not knowing a word of Italian. My grandmother was Italian but growing up in Brisbane, we hadn’t learnt the language. It made life tough for the first few months and it was a big shock how you can become so isolated without the ability to communicate in everyday life. This was on top of learning how to cook for myself and everything else that comes with living away from your family for the first time.

It wasn’t long though before I got a call off Nick Mallett to ask whether I’d be happy to play fly-half for the national side – I played full-back with my club at the time – and naturally I said yes. It was then that I made a conscious decision to learn Italian and properly immerse myself into life there. I’d have been pretty lonely – and increasingly poor as you got fined €50 if you were caught speaking another language in team meetings, team meals and team socials. I didn’t talk much at first!

For any kind of back growing up in Australia, Stephen Larkham was someone you looked up to because he had so much time on the ball and was never flustered. That generation set the standard; the game had just gone professional and they took it to another level.

Looking back, that was the pinnacle for Australian rugby and, of course, I aspired to be like those boys and play in the green and the gold. I did that at U19 level and if you’d have asked me at the time if I’d have played for any other country, I’d have thought you were crazy.

But I have absolutely no regrets about my decision to move to Italy and play international rugby for the Azzurri; it’s amazing the way it turned out. I enjoyed every moment of playing with Italy and went to two World Cups and won over 80 caps.

My debut was against South Africa in Cape Town and we had a game-plan in place only for torrential rain to fall the day before the match. Nick Mallett took me aside and said, ‘forget what we said, just kick the ball as high as you can and let everyone chase it’. It was a day for capitalising on errors rather than being creative.

Luke McLean - Italy
Rollercoaster ride: Luke McLean and teammate Leonardo Cittadini at a theme park in Ravenna, Italy. Claudio Villa/Getty Images

When Craig Gower came across from Australia to play 10, that’s when my run at full-back started and I also went on to play centre and wing – as well as a fill-in back rower against Ireland at the 2011 World Cup! I came on with about 90 seconds to go and packed down on the blindside. Our prop at the time just told me to give it everything I got.

I was pretty clueless but better than Jonny May – at least I had my arms and legs in the right position! But I was so focused on pushing that I didn’t realise the ball had gone out, and had they taken it down the blindside, it would have been a certain try.

We won two matches at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and again four years later in England. We set out to try and make the knockout stages for the first time and once that chance had gone, it was all about securing automatic qualification for the next tournament. In New Zealand, we stayed in a fairly small place and that World Cup didn’t have quite the same vibe about it, whereas running out at Twickenham, in 2015, for our first game against France, is something I’ll never forget. There were fire blowers, packed stands … it has to go down as one of the best stadium experiences I’ve ever been involved in.

In 2014 I moved to England to join Sale in the Premiership but, unfortunately, I only stayed for the first year of my two-year deal. I got injured in my first game for the club and tried to play on when, in hindsight, it would have been much better giving it a rest. I didn’t get much of a look-in after that and after a second spell back at Treviso, I was sold the idea of joining London Irish by Brendan Venter, my coach with Italy.

We were relegated in my first season and promoted in my second. Talk about a mixed two years! We certainly hadn’t envisaged going down after starting with a bonus-point win against Quins, but the Premiership is a real dogfight and we just didn’t play well enough to stay up. It was a rough environment to be in, but we regrouped and bounced straight back up.

Having been in sides that lost more games than they won, it was refreshing to be on the right side of the scoreboard most weeks. You know the coach is going to be happy and everyone is enthusiastic about the next game. We were determined to win the title as soon as we could and make sure it didn’t go down to the final game against Ealing. Doing that was a great way to finish the season and a great way to end my career.

– as told to JON NEWCOMBE

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