Speight’s quirks of fate

Henry Speight’s rugby journey has taken many twists and turns, writes ALEX BROUN.

Fate has played a big part in the life of Brumbies wing Henry Speight.

It first showed its hand when Speight was just eight, and his mother Litia was taken from him. With his father, Fijian politician Samisoni Tikoinasau, often travelling, young Henry and his brother and sister were sent to live with his grandfather, ex-Fijian president Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

Politics runs deep in Suva-born Speight’s family. His uncle George is still in prison for leading the Fiji coup of 2000.

‘It was tough [our mother dying],’ admits Speight, ‘but we were lucky to have our grandfather, who was willing to take us in. He raised us as his own and the sacrifices they made for us to be where we are today is something that motivates me to play every week. We were so fortunate.’

But this was just the first step on Speight’s long journey. After settling in with his grandfather, he excelled in schoolboy rugby at the Queen Victoria School in Tailevu. In 2006 he was selected for Fiji Schools.

‘We played a one-off game against Australia and lost 10-3. Looking back, there were a few big names who were in that Australian Schools team – Peter Betham, Kurtley Beale, Ben McCalman [all fellow Wallabies squad members], Sam Wykes, Quade Cooper, Dan Palmer. It was a good team.’

It was Speight’s performance in that match that led directly to the next quirk of fate. He was spotted by Nigel Hotham, coach of the Hamilton Boys’ High 1st XV, and offered a partial scholarship to finish his schooling in New Zealand.

‘I felt there was an opportunity to go to New Zealand and try to make a life out of rugby,’ says Speight. ‘I had my chance and I took it with both hands.’

It was to prove a defining moment in his life as soon after arriving he was spotted by the local Waikato provincial scouts.

‘The coach back then who gave me my first ever contract was [current Wales coach] Warren Gatland. I look back and I’m very happy he was the first coach to do that.

‘We had a good catch-up after the Brumbies game against the British & Irish Lions last year and he was pretty happy to  see how far I’ve come. I was 19 when I played my first game for Waikato so that was quite special.’

But fate was to step in again. In Speight’s second year of a three-year contract at Waikato a new signing joined the team.

‘In 2010 Christian Leali’ifano got injured in the middle of the Super Rugby season and the Brumbies wanted him to get some game time, so he came over to Waikato to play. We got on really well and after training we’d usually be in the recovery pool and we’d joke with some of the boys, asking if they’d had offers from any of the Super Rugby franchises in New Zealand.

‘I had nothing on the table so we’d have a chuckle and say that I’d go back to Canberra with Christian. He said he’d put in a good word for me to the coaches. Fast forward three or four weeks and they made me a formal offer to play Super Rugby. Christian is always happy to take credit and say he’s the one who brought me over!’

So in late 2010 Speight made the trek across the Tasman Sea to Canberra. He immediately made an impression on his new coaching staff and made his debut in the opening round of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament against, as fate would have it, the franchise that let him go, the Chiefs.

Speight is just one of the three future Wallabies who have spent time at Waikato or the Chiefs – the others being Leali’ifano and Sekope Kepu. A joke in Australian rugby circles refers to Waikato as ‘the Wallabies Academy’.

Speight was more than happy in Canberra, but there was still one year left of his contract to run with Waikato.

‘I had signed a three-year contract with Waikato when I was still in school. Never did I think at that stage I would be leaving New Zealand to come to Australia. I couldn’t change anything and the ARU were unwilling to pay Waikato out for my contract so after the 2011 Super Rugby I had to go back for the NPC and honour that last season.’

He returned to the Brumbies once his NPC commitments were completed but in terms of his eligibility for the Wallabies, the damage was done.

‘Returning there pushed my eligibility back almost another year [until 11 September 2014],’ he says.

It’s been a long wait for Speight for the period to pass – and an even longer wait for Wallabies fans. Australia desperately need a deadly finisher with the power and pace of Speight, as his 19 tries in 51 matches for the Brumbies attest.

The drawn Bledisloe Cup Test between Australia and the All Blacks in Sydney was a perfect example of how much the Wallabies miss the 26-year-old flyer. If he had been on the field he would have been able to finish off one of the many half chances the Wallabies created, as he has done so often for the Brumbies.

The moment when Pat McCabe was stopped a metre short in the second half was an opportunity Speight no doubt would have capitalised on.

Like all Wallabies fans, coach Ewen McKenzie would have been hoping there were no more twists of fate before Speight became eligible for selection.

– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt