Australian Rugby Union managing director and chief executive John O’Neill and Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans have today both paid tribute to the contribution to the game made by Al Baxter.
The long-serving NSW Waratahs prop has confirmed that he will not be seeking another contract at any level beyond the expiry of his current deal in December this year, ending a career that will see him depart as Australia’s most capped Test prop.
“Al has made a wonderful contribution to both the Waratahs and Qantas Wallabies over a long period of time,” O’Neill said. “His longevity in the most demanding of positions on the Rugby field is testament not only to his ability but his character, persistence and ambition to continually better himself as a prop at the highest levels of our game.
“I congratulate him on what he has achieved to date. To be the most capped prop for Australia given the history of the Wallabies and the quality of players to have worn the jersey in the front row is an achievement of which he should be exceptionally proud.”
The 34-year-old first appeared for New South Wales in 1999, having been playing only second-grade the year before. He went on to make his Super Rugby debut a year later, in 2000 against the Bulls. This year represents his 13th as a state representative.
Baxter played his maiden Test for Australia in the 2003 Bledisloe Cup decider against New Zealand in Auckland, subsequently appearing in two Rugby World Cups during a seven-year Test career which saw him overtake his former state coach Ewen McKenzie for the most matches by a prop in Wallaby gold.
“The statistics speak for themselves, in terms of Al’s durability and his overall contribution to the game in Australia,” Deans said. “It’s not just what he has achieved on the field but the input he has offered off it, both to his Test colleagues but also to the younger players coming through at New South Wales.”
Deans says Baxter provided a role model element to his younger team-mates, in terms of being able to balance his commitments as an architect in the work force alongside a young family with a supportive wife, Jenny, three children, and his responsibilities as a professional rugby player.
“It is an increasingly rare commodity in the modern era but Al managed to maintain balance in his life between his family, his professional career and the game, providing an important example to the younger players around him in the process,” Deans said.
While his career as an architect has had to share his working life, alongside his rugby endeavours, up until now, Baxter says fulltime devotion to that occupation could wait no longer.
“It is the right time to finish,” he says. “I was always keen to go out of the game on my terms but also keen to be sure that the ‘Tahs were well served with front-rowers, which I think we are, with some good young ones coming through, as are the Wallabies.”
Baxter admits he never envisioned becoming a Wallaby, let alone finishing his career as Australia’s most capped prop but says holding the appearance record, which he believes will soon be surpassed, is something he will always treasure.
“I’ve never been a big one on statistics – that’s not what has motivated me, but it does mean a lot to know that my career was well regarded. You play the game for enjoyment, and that has never changed, but also to be part of a team, and to be respected by your peers.
“The appearance record is a nice thing to know that I achieved although I doubt it will last for long, given the amount of Tests that are played these days. I will always have the individual memories though, they’re the things that last: of the times, the moments and, most importantly, the people. I cherished the opportunity to wear the jersey, represent my country, sing the national anthem and do all of the other things that are associated with the honour of being a Wallaby. It’s a special feeling and is something that I never took for granted and will never forget.”
Baxter cites his first Test at Eden Park as his proudest moment as a Wallaby followed closely by participation in that year’s Rugby World Cup final, where Australia was pipped in extra time by England at the now ANZ Stadium.
“Playing in that Rugby World Cup in Australia was an amazing time. The support we had, especially after we beat the All Blacks and in the lead up to the final was extraordinary. There were messages of good luck coming in from everywhere, from all over the country. It was a very special thing to be a part of.”
Baxter went beyond the existing record for appearances by an Australian prop in the opening Test of the 2008 season, playing his 51st match when the Qantas Wallabies beat Ireland 18-12 in Melbourne.
He played his most recent Test, as his international career had started, trying to tame the All Blacks, when he earned his 69th cap during the 18-19 loss against New Zealand in the Tri Nations match in Sydney in 2009.
“The game has changed significantly over my career. The role of the props has changed. We’re ball carriers as well now, where the job was just to clean out and push when I first started,” Baxter mused. “I can remember being told by coaches in the early days not to seek out the ball! Sizes have also changed. I was considered big amongst the propping ranks when I started. Now, I’m probably only middle of the road. On Saturday night from example, when I prop against [Highlanders’ loosehead prop] Jamie Mackintosh, I’ll be conceding a couple of centre-metres in height but 12 kilograms in weight!”
As well as finishing up as Australia’s most capped prop, the 116 kilogram Baxter also carries that mantle for NSW, having become the first Waratahs prop to play 100 Super Rugby matches last year against the Cheetahs at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Saturday night’s must win match against the Highlanders at the Sydney Football Stadium in the penultimate round of this year’s Super Rugby competition will be the 120th of Baxter’s career.
Only Waratahs skipper Phil Waugh, who is likely to appear in Super Rugby for the 130th time this weekend, has represented NSW on more occasions in the competition. Nathan Sharpe (146), George Gregan & Stirling Mortlock (both 136), Waugh and George Smith (128) are the only Australians to have played on more occasions in the competition than Baxter’s 119 Super Rugby matches.
Al Baxter takes you through a pre-season training day at the Waratahs…