From cricket fan in South Africa to Wallabies regular via stints in France and Japan – it’s been quite a ride to Test rugby for this back-three player

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Dane Haylett-Petty’s unique rugby journey

As Australia were making their way to the last World Cup final, Dane Haylett-Petty was watching on as a fan – from Arizona. He went over to America to train in the off-season, learning from sportspeople in different fields – Olympians, NFL players, baseballers and the like. He has always been willing to invest in his career and make non-traditional choices – and it’s paid off.

His path to Test rugby has been unusual but, ultimately, it’s been successful. That first cap may not have come until a week before his 27th birthday, against England in Brisbane in 2016, but he has been a regular in the Wallabies squad ever since.

That international career would never have happened, though, if his family hadn’t moved from South Africa to Perth when he was ten.

“I think my parents moved for a better lifestyle,” he says. “Crime is something all South Africans have to worry about as they go on with their day-to-day lives.

“My parents made sacrifices and probably one of the best things we ever did was to come to Australia. The first couple of years were definitely hard but it’s been amazing for our family – we’re very privileged and it’s provided so much for our family.”

Rugby is one of the things the move provided. Growing up in South Africa, rugby was on his radar – after all, he was there to see how the 1995 World Cup united the country – but cricket was his sport. The cricket continued when he started at Hale School in Perth but he also took up rugby and “fell in love with it”.

As it transpired, rugby rather than cricket gave him a route into professional sport and he was picked up by Western Force in his last year at school. Yet in three years his number of appearances didn’t reach double figures. In that period, he describes himself as “basically a professional trainer”, so when the opportunity came to join Biarritz he took it.

Dane Haylett-Petty’s unique rugby journey

Try time: Dane Haylett-Petty scores for Biarritz in 2012 (Getty Images)

Southern hemisphere players tend to head to Europe at the end of their career, not before it’s taken off, but it proved a wise decision for Haylett-Petty.

“One of the best things I ever did was go to France early. The amount of rugby you play, the difference in style, in the summer there’s a lot of attacking rugby and in the winter it’s more of a grind; playing in the French league and the European Cup, it all helped me develop and really rounded out my game.

“I loved the passion they had for rugby and the lifestyle over there. As a young guy, a 21-year-old, to play rugby and travel on weekends off, it was amazing.”

After three years in France, he decided to return to Australia for another crack with Force, but he did a six-month stint at Toyota Shokki Shuttles in Japan en route. A new culture to experience (he learnt to cook a few Japanese dishes while there) and more places to travel to.

“It was totally different to France and was the perfect stop on the way back. Rugby in Japan is very fast and there’s a lot of running in training, so it was the perfect pre-season heading into Super Rugby. Another great experience.”

Dane Haylett-Petty’s unique rugby journey

Tight bond: Michael Hooper and Dane Haylett-Petty after the Fiji game (Getty Images)

And another stop on Haylett-Petty’s unique journey through rugby. It still took a few more years to reach the dream destination – the Test stage – but it always remained in his sights. “If anything my ambition grew as my career went on. Heading back to Australia, I wanted to play for the Wallabies.

“It took three or four seasons to finally get there, but each season I’d work a little bit harder, learn a little more, work on my game and throughout my career my ambition grew. It got to the point where I got one cap and then it grew from there again.”

More caps came thick and fast. He won his second on that aforementioned birthday and overall started 18 of Australia’s 20 Tests until late August 2017, when injury ruled him out for several months.

So why did it take nearly a decade to get that elusive Wallabies cap? What does he put his breakthrough down to? Consistency is his response – and to achieve that he has been working with sports psychologist Dave Diggle.

“One of my good friends, Marcus Stoinis, plays cricket for Australia and he put me in touch with Dave. He’s worked with rugby players, cricketers, athletes… I’ve worked with him for three or four years and he’s been a huge help.

“It’s probably something I needed and trying to perform consistently is really important in sport. The main thing is to try to do things that are replicable. It’s about being able to do them over and over and over again, rather than riding the roller coaster of professional sport.”

Haylett-Petty is always looking for ways to improve his game, whether that be a training camp in Arizona or talks with a psychologist. Now he’s at the Rebels in Melbourne, he’s able to gain insight from different codes too, with teams like Storm (league), Victory (football), Demons, Collingwood and Richmond (all Aussie rules) in close proximity.

Watch: Haylett-Petty talks through his career here…

Right now he’s assessing whether switching off his mind can help him on the pitch by trying to meditate. “We’ll see if that helps me,” he says. “I learnt early on that it’s important to invest in yourself. I’m always trying different things – some have helped tremendously and some have not.”

He is also able to share the ups and downs of rugby with his younger brother, Ross, a lock, who made the journey from Perth to Melbourne, Force to Rebels, with him for the 2018 season when the Western Australian franchise was cut from Super Rugby.

“It’s pretty special to play with my brother. Not many people get to go to work every day with their brother. We’re lucky to get to experience running out on a rugby field together, playing in Super Rugby and high-level games. I try to help him when I can, giving him too much advice! We lean on each other.”

Off the pitch, he hasn’t hit upon what he wants to do when he retires but has been getting experience with Rebels chairman Paul Docherty. Regardless, there’s not much time to think about it at the moment in the midst of the Wallabies’ RWC 2019 campaign. He is enjoying the first World Cup in Asia – one of four continents where he has lived – and says: “The fans are pretty amazing. They all turn out and are so passionate. They’ll wait for hours in hotel lobbies and really get behind us.”

Haylett-Petty’s journey in the oval-ball game is certainly somewhat out of the ordinary – and it’s not finished yet.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Rugby World magazine.

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