Gareth Delve: The rebel with a Welsh cause
No 8 loving captaining Melbourne but would also jump at chance to add to his 11 Wales caps, he tells Ian Gilbert
Wednesday 20 March 2013
As England's Grand Slam hopes were being trampled into the Millennium Stadium mud, one proud Welshman was quietly willing his countrymen on from the other side of the globe.
Quietly, because it was still well before dawn in Australia and Gareth Delve, captain of the Melbourne Rebels, was about to jet off to South Africa for this Saturday's Super 15 clash with the Sharks.
Delve had to leave for the airport soon after half-time but was satisfied the balance had swung Wales's way "when Jamie [Roberts] dumped Manu [Tuilagi] on his arse". "The intensity was fantastic," he says. "It was great to see the confidence of Wales."
But for injuries at key stages of his career, it might have been Delve celebrating on the Cardiff turf. However, the No 8 is creating his own history as the first foreign captain of an Australian Super 15 side.
The Wales international had filled in for his injured skipper Stirling Mortlock late last season, but with the former Wallaby now having retired, Delve was handed the job outright this year. "It's something I'm really proud of, partly because there is so little opportunity to be the first to do anything in rugby these days as it's a game of such great tradition and history," he says. "My previous two clubs [Bath and Gloucester] were nearly 150 years old."
Australian rules football dominates Melbourne's sporting landscape, but the importance of the country's second most populous city is recognised by the competing football codes. The National Rugby League has convincingly penetrated the Australian Football League's heartland and vice versa, to the point the top teams for each are from the "wrong" city – Melbourne Storm (league) and Sydney Swans (Aussie rules).
The Rebels are Australia's first privately owned rugby union team, with corporate backing funding high-profile signings such as Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, who generate column inches for the sport and social pages in near-equal measure.
Talented three-quarters are a given Down Under, but it's in the more prosaic skills that Australian rugby is perceived as a bit lacking. Isn't the forward battle rather soft compared with a midwinter arm-wrestle at Kingsholm? "It's just as physical, if not more so at times," says Delve. "Due to conditions, it sometimes becomes more physical because of higher-speed collisions.
"I used to love the games in the mud [in England]; between November and February it's always a battle. Conditions play a big part – it is more of a 15-man game down here."
The relative strengths can be judged when the British and Irish Lions head for Australia, and Wales's strong finish augurs well for the tourists – and for coach Warren Gatland, given his ties to the Principality.
"With Warren in charge, a weaker Wales would have made it difficult for him," says Delve. "It means players are now up for selection on merit as opposed to any nostalgia Warren would be accused of. But he's professional. He wants the British Lions to be the strongest team possible."
The Rebels provide the midweek opposition before the second Test at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium, where the Lions Test in 2001 remains the record attendance.
Delve is well placed to predict which Australians could emerge, such as uncapped Rebels lock Hugh Pyle and code-swapping Israel Folau, a league star turned Aussie rules experiment and now with the New South Wales Waratahs in Super 15.
Delve still harbours international hopes and, but for the odd twist of fate, he would be looking at more than his tally of 11 caps. "I've certainly got ambitions," he says. "I love representing my country. There have been a lot of frustrating times – every time it seemed I was on the point of earning that jersey and earning a regular opportunity I've picked up a fairly major injury."
Watching the Welsh success from afar might prompt a moment of reflection, but no longer than that. "It's difficult watching the boys, difficult not to be part of it," he says. "On the flip side, being part of things in Melbourne gives me a lot of satisfaction, and I'm flying round the world to play a world-class side in Durban. There's a balance."
Delve was close to signing with Toulon last year before agreeing a one-year extension with Melbourne, and his ambitions could be best served by being in roughly the same time zone as the Wales selectors.
"If I'm honest, I've always gone where was best for my rugby," he says. "The decision to come down and play Super 15 was based a lot on the fact that I had rarely had the chance to play against the likes of Pierre Spies and Richie McCaw."
Delve, 30, is too savvy to plan his future on the vagaries of selection. "I can't control the wishes of selectors; if I was to make a decision based purely upon that and still not be picked it would be incredibly frustrating, so wherever I go next it's got to be based around something me and my partner, Helen, will be happy about regardless of things out of our control."
Delve may love representing his country but Rebels fans love the fact that he plays in theirs, voting him player of the year in each of his two seasons. While "The Delvenator" nickname yelled by the odd supporter may not catch on, the 18-stone No 8 certainly has.
Should Gatland find himself with an injury-hit Lions tour party, he could do far worse than call up an exiled Welshman who would be delighted to pull on a red jersey.
Born Cardiff Age 30
Height 6ft 3in
Melbourne Rebels 2010-present
Wales 11 caps (debut 2006 v Scotland)
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