The former rower is on the brink of his Wallabies debut – ten years after first being called into the Australia squad 

The remarkable story of Cadeyrn Neville 

Australia take on England in Perth this Saturday with a 33-year-old debutant in their ranks.

Cadeyrn Neville will become the Wallabies’ oldest debutant this century when he starts in the second row at Optus Stadium – but he was in line to win his first cap a decade ago.

Rugby World spoke to Neville back in 2012 when he was first called into the Australia squad by then coach Robbie Deans for Tests against Scotland and Wales. Ten years later, after a spell in Japan and stints at different Australian franchises, the now Brumbies lock is about to win his first cap.

“Cadeyrn got called into a Wallabies squad at the time when Michael Hooper made his debut, so that tells you something. Hoops has had 118 caps since then,” said Australia head coach Dave Rennie.

“He’s had injuries, he’s spent a bit of time overseas and he’s come back for a final dig. He’s a big man and a good athlete.

“He’s a great story for the guys out there who might have thought the dream had passed them. From a perseverance point of view it’s a great story.”

As Neville prepares to make his long-awaited Test debut, here’s the interview he did with Rugby World back in 2012.

From the archives: The remarkable story of Cadeyrn Neville 

Cadeyrn Neville is sitting in a café in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, sipping a cappuccino and explaining his sporting story. It’s quite a story, one that deserves a larger audience, but the other patrons are engrossed in their own conversations and Neville has yet to achieve the sporting celebrity that would see him readily recognised, especially in an Aussie rules-obsessed city like Melbourne.

Getting back to the story, Australia coach Robbie Deans saw enough in Neville (his first name is pronounced K-dun) in just a handful of games in his first professional season for Melbourne Rebels to select him in this summer’s Wallabies squad.

What’s more impressive is that Neville took up rugby just three years ago, only consistently getting picked for the first team at Manly, who play in the Sydney Premier, in 2011. Prior to 2009, he’d never even dabbled in the union code. In fact, his sporting focus in his teenage years was rowing and had things worked out as predicted he would be competing in the London Olympics this month rather than striving for a first Australia cap in the Rugby Championship.

Neville has certainly trodden a path less travelled towards international rugby, so let’s start this journey at the beginning. Like many a young Australian, Neville tried his hand at several sports growing up.

He was raised in Manly in Sydney, with Dee Why beach within walking distance of the family home, so swimming and surfing were natural pastimes while he also played a bit of rugby league. It was at 14, however, that his sporting potential was realised.

Cadeyrn Neville

Cadeyrn Neville offloads during a Melbourne Rebels session in 2012 (Getty Images)

The New South Wales Institute of Sport ran a talent identification programme where they rated teenagers’ ability in activities like a bleep test and vertical jump to see what sport they would be good at. It was determined that rowing suited Neville best.

“They said I had the right build for it and from the start told me that I had the potential to go to the Olympics,” recalls Neville nine years on. “That was a pretty good incentive to put in the hard yards. It was a pretty hard sport to learn – to start with it was just about getting out on a boat and seeing how long you could go before falling out! – but I started to enjoy it.

“I trained four or five mornings a week, getting up at about 4.30am to go out before school, and did two gym sessions a week too. I had to get used to a lot of pain – I’d get a sore arse from sitting on a wooden or plastic seat for hours at a time!”

His buttocks soon became accustomed to the routine and Neville competed in the single sculls for his club, Mosman, in various NSW regattas and won several state titles. He went to his first Australian Rowing Championship aged 17 and won a silver medal in the Youth Cup, which also featured competitors from New Zealand.

The training stepped up a gear when he turned 18 and moved to Canberra for a year. “We’d cycle 12km to training, do 20km out on the lake and 40 minutes on the (rowing) machine, then cycle home and do weights in the afternoon. We’d have Thursday mornings off and most of Sunday off, but it was the hardest training of my life, at high intensity and in big volumes.”

Cadeyrn Neville

Nick Phipps is caught by Cadeyrn Neville in Wallabies training in 2014 (Getty Images)

With that sort of workload it’s no surprise that he formed a tight bond with the other five rowers on the programme, although there was one incident of clipped oars that sent a colleague into the waters of Lake Burley Griffin in the middle of winter – surely not the most pleasant of experiences!

After a year, however, the programme’s funding was cut and Neville was forced to return to Sydney and pay his own way while training with Mosman. He started doing a degree in commerce but got behind because of his training, so he decided to leave the course and take up an apprenticeship in air conditioning and refrigeration.

That provided much-needed income but with a 40-hour week required he was having to set his alarm clock even earlier to ensure he was able to do enough training. Somewhat inevitably, it all became too much.

“It proved very difficult and slowly started breaking me,” he admits. “After the nationals at the end of 2009 I decided I needed to give rowing a rest for a while and get things settled with work. I’d not had a good season rowing-wise and felt I was in a negative cycle, so I wanted to break it and come back fresh.”

While he put his oars into temporary storage, Neville wanted to maintain his fitness levels so he thought he’d give rugby a go over the winter months. He’d never played union before but started turning out in the lower grades for Manly on a Saturday and, providing his body was up to it, would then play league for Narraweena on a Sunday.

Having spent most of his sporting life alone in a boat, he quickly came to love the social side of rugby and sharing a drink or two after matches, but it took longer for him to understand rugby’s laws and to adapt to putting his tall frame into low positions at rucks and scrums.

Cadeyrn Neville

Cadeyrn Neville in lineout action for the Reds in 2016 (Getty Images)

He returned to rowing after that first season of rugby, winning a few sprint races, but when Manly’s pre-season began he decided to focus solely on rugby, swapping water for turf full-time. “There had been a lot of positive talk after the first season so I decided to put the hard work in and try to play first grade for Manly that year,” he says.

“It took me a while to learn the rules and some parts of the game, but I kept trying hard and things came. My rowing fitness helps me get around the rugby field – I’ve got a good aerobic ability for 80 minutes – and I think I’ve got good athleticism for a tight forward in rugby. I started to gradually build my performances and became more comfortable in the game. I could always do certain actions around the park, but I started to do them with more force.”

Neville was in and out of the first team in season two, often turning out for the seconds, but he was offered a place in the Brumbies Academy at the end of 2010 for four months and garnered as much information as he could from the coaches in that set-up, particularly former Australia lock Justin Harrison.

After the stint in Canberra, he returned to the Manly club, cemented his place in the first team and then came the offer of a rookie contract with Melbourne Rebels. “The Sydney Premier is the strongest club competition in Australia so Super Rugby teams often look there for new talents,” he explains.

His first involvement with the Rebels was on their UK tour last summer but he was concerned that his pro career would be over before it had really begun when he got sin-binned in the game against Bath. “I had everything to prove and needed to perform, and I didn’t make the best impression,” he says ruefully.

Still, the Rebels stuck with him and he’s done enough in 2012 to earn a senior deal with the franchise for next season as well as catch the attention of the Wallaby selectors. That’s a pretty decent achievement given that he played just five games in the first block of Super Rugby this season – although his two tries against Western Force are sure to have helped his case.

He admits that when he got the call about his selection in the Australia squad he was slightly dubious, saying: “I tried to talk neutrally and not to sound too excited in case it was a mistake.”

There was no mistake, however, and while he didn’t make the match-day 22 for any of the June Tests against Scotland and Wales, he was involved in training and got an insight into the team’s ethos. “They demand the highest standards at everything and are striving to play the best possible rugby. They’re the world’s No 2 side and are aiming to be No 1.”

With Nathan Sharpe in his final season and James Horwill ruled out for the year with injury, the Wallabies are keen to develop their strength in the second row, with Neville clearly seen as a long-term option in the engine room. He knows he still has a lot to learn (the finer points of set-piece play can take a while to master), but the determination forged during his rowing days – it takes a certain mentality to rise in the early hours as a teenager! – is being put to good use on the rugby pitch now.

“I’ve always tried to get better every week, in every single game to get a little better, so that over a long amount of time I’m making big improvements. I need to work on all parts of the game and I’m doing that gradually.

“Being a single sculler, if things go badly it’s all on you, there’s no one who can help you out, but in rugby if you’re struggling the team helps you go forward and if others are struggling you can help the team go forward.”

He may have hit choppy waters towards the end of his rowing days but he’s clearly heading in the right direction when it comes to rugby. The Olympic dream has now been replaced by another target, one he looks set to achieve sooner rather than later.

“It’s been my dream for a long time, from rowing to rugby, to represent Australia at sport,” he says. “Being a competitive person it burns a little not to reach the goals that I wanted to in rowing, but at the same time I’m reaching my goals in rugby quicker than I realistically thought. To get involved in the Wallaby set-up is a very good motivator.

“It’s been three years and I’m working my way up. I’m already getting a look-in so I’ve got to stay focused and if the opportunity comes, take it. I can’t limit myself. In rugby anything can happen. Look at Stephen Donald; he was the fourth-choice fly-half for New Zealand and kicked the winning goal in the World Cup final.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Rugby World magazine.

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