A try-scorer against England in November 2012, Nick Cummins was a little known in the Northern Hemisphere but a larger-than-life personality and some eye-catching performances have seen his reputation soar
“Last year we were all sizzle, no steak. This year we had a horror start but now we are off like bride’s nightie” – Nick Cummins.
Every so often, a player comes along whose popularity transcends tribal allegiances and even fiercely partisan fans of rival teams cannot help but admire them. Nick ‘Honey Badger’ Cummins goes beyond even that. His larger-than-life personality has crossed continents.
There are many fans of Super 15 Rugby on these shores, but a few punters will never be converted. Its largely harum-scarum nature is simply too alien for some mud-and-bullet traditionalists. One thing is for absolute certain – sceptics are missing out on the game’s most magnetic character.
Nicknamed after the fearless underdog of the animal kingdom, Cummins isn’t an emerging figure. In 2010 he was part of Australia’s Commonwealth Games sevens side and faced Martin Johnson’s touring England in Perth for an invitational XV.
Two years later, there was a Test debut against Argentina before the then-24 year-old introduced the world to some rib-tickling rhyming slang – “meat pie” for try – upon clinching the decisive five-pointer as Wallabies ransacked Twickenham.
Frustrated with injuries at the start of 2013, consistently influential outings thereafter earned Cummins last season’s Medal for Excellence, voted for by colleagues across his country. Every now and then, an amusing video would do the social media rounds. However, Badger’s personality has gone viral since February.
Single-handedly transforming the talking-head interview into a hilarious art form, the mop-haired Western Force man has proven rare comic genius in front of camera this campaign. Sensational sayings – “busier than a one-armed brick-layer in Baghdad” or “I went head over biscuit” – have defied even the dourest interviewers to hold a straight face.
Cummins’ Twitter account is also contributing to a snowballing profile. The wonderful quote at the top of this piece is a direct reply to Brian O’Driscoll in a bid to organise a retirement tour of Perth for the great Irishman. Aside from interactions with high-profile friends, Cummins’ copious mentions of salmon fishing and other pursuits (impossible not to repeat in the author’s Port Macquarie drawl) give refreshing evidence of a grounded bloke loving downtime away from professional rugby’s treadmill.
Even so, the jokes and laid-back lifestyle only account for half of it. Crucial to Badger’s appeal is his ability to combine this horizontal off-field demeanour with the exact opposite during games – total commitment.
He is a fine winger, one of the best out-to-in blitz defenders in the world and a deadly finisher. On Saturday, those attributes were in plain view as a hat-trick of tries downed star-studded Waratahs 28-16 at nib Stadium for the Force’s fifth consecutive win.
The first was a death-or-glory interception, Cummins picking off scrum-half Nick Phipps’ pass brilliantly before pinning the ears back and galloping 95 metres. Numbers two and three were opportunistic efforts to cap a superb display full of fierce tackling and abrasive breakdown work.
In that respect, Cummins embodies the mentality of his franchise. Led by phenomenally industrious openside Matt Hodgson, Force pride themselves on honesty. During the victory over the Waratahs, they made 168 tackles to their visitors’ 72, living off just 33 per cent possession and 29 per cent territory. It was a stunning smash-and-grab, but grit and guts were more prevalent than luck.
Outstanding number eight Ben McCalman made 16 tackles on his own without missing one, while full-back Dane Haylett-Petty filled in at late notice after representing local club Cottesloe that morning. The headlines belonged to one individual, but a superb result was borne out of collective graft. Badger would be the first to admit that, even in a playful mood post-match.
Ironically for someone who has become a small-screen star, showmanship is never a factor when Cummins crosses the white line. A vociferous home crowd erupted – and social media combusted – at each of his three tries this weekend, but celebrations were limited to old-school handshakes. Cummins’ unbridled sense of fun is a big reason for his universal charm, but he isn’t about to let that get in the way of the job in hand.
Compare that to Chris Ashton’s much-maligned swan dive. Whatever the trolls may think, the stunt started as pure exuberance – an excitable athlete innocently lapping up his own achievement rather than attempting to irritate anyone. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
That said, it started to rile opposition supporters. Funnily enough, habitual abuse-hurlers seem to get the most worked up, but Ashton undeniably opened himself up to criticism. When other parts of his game dropped off and the scores dried up, he became a very easy target.
In isolation, the Ash Splash™ is no bad thing. Frankly, if it has compelled more kids to turn up on a Sunday morning buzzing with enthusiasm, it should be applauded. Just don’t hold your breath on Cummins following suit.
The Badger’s blend – full-blooded on the field, side-splitting off it – is working perfectly. As O’Driscoll put it, he’s “killing it – rugby and chat.” Long may that continue.