Exeter's Aussie second row Dean Mumm happy to miss Lions shot
Australian second row has no regrets about move to Exeter – where he has been excellent this season – even though it meant giving up the chance to play in a series he’s long loved
Of all the line-out steals in all the games in all the world, Justin Harrison's supremely athletic act of grand larceny against Martin Johnson in the dying seconds of the final Wallaby-Lions Test of 2001 was the one that entered the realm of legend.
The precision of the lift by the front-rowers Michael Foley and Rod Moore, the meticulously calculated diagonal ascent, the exquisite timing of the one-handed grab by a lock forward notoriously derided by one member of the tour party as an "ape" and a "neanderthal" – whatever this was, it wasn't the act of a primitive.
Among the crowd at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney that night was a 17-year-old local schoolboy by the name of Dean Mumm. Harrison's flash of series-saving inspiration under the most extreme pressure – the Lions, six points adrift, were only nine metres from the Wallaby line and would surely have scored had Johnson not been pickpocketed – left a mark on him. "Memories like that stay with you," he says, a dozen years on. "It's not often that the Lions come to town."
Mumm went on to succeed Harrison in the Wallaby engine room, winning the first of his 30-odd caps in 2008, and with the Lions heading his way at the start of another 12-year tour cycle, he had every reason to stay in Australia and take his once-in-a-career shot at them. Yet he didn't stay. Instead, he decided to up sticks and move to… Exeter.
"It was a wrench," he admits. "When you're considering a move like this, you spend a lot of time thinking about the things you're giving up. The opportunity to face the Lions was one of them, definitely, because there aren't many bigger carrots for a rugby player. I couldn't see myself featuring in the Tests, if I'm honest: I wasn't picked for the 2011 World Cup, although I'd been involved in the squad that year, and there was nothing doing for me in 2012 either, so I figured it would be difficult to break back in after 18 months on the outside. But I'd have had a good chance of playing for the Waratahs [the Sydney-based Super 15 franchise] and it would have been a pretty special way to end my career in New South Wales.
"When you think about it, there's a hell of a lot of great players who never get to go up against the Lions because they aren't playing at the right time. Not just Australians, but New Zealanders and South Africans too. It's a massive thing, a Lions tour, and I know a lot of top players back home who were talking about moving abroad, but put it on hold because of this tour. So yes, I spent a lot of time weighing up this move and what it would mean. But once I'd rationalised it and decided that it was the right time for me and my family, I committed myself. I have no regrets. No regrets at all."
Mumm is an engagingly modest sort – when the great Wallaby lock John Eales is mentioned in conversation, he almost begs to be spared the embarrassment of "being mentioned in the same sentence" – but according to his new employers, he has very little to be modest about. Since arriving in Devon in mid-autumn, he has injected a good deal of Antipodean dynamism into a heavy-duty Exeter pack, either from the second row or the blind-side flank, and has made excellent early progress in justifying his status as the biggest signing ever made by the club.
"I didn't know much about Exeter when the possibility first cropped up," he confesses. "All I knew was that I wanted to go to a place where there was a good balance – where the people were extremely professional in their approach to rugby, but also understood the importance of enjoying life. The whole Super 15 thing was very intense: small squads, very little player rotation, a lot of travel, a lot of jetlag. I guess I reached the stage where I'd done all that and was ready for something else. It wasn't a money thing. It was about the lifestyle, not the pay.
"And I'm happy to say that now I'm here, it's everything I wanted it to be. There's a nice touch of old-school rugby after a match, but the serious side is very serious indeed. In fact, I've been really struck by the standards in the Premiership. When the top teams play in good conditions, it's every bit as good as Super 15 rugby. The same goes for the Heineken Cup. When you're in a game with Harlequins or Saracens or Clermont Auvergne, you're talking quality."
Speaking of the Heineken Cup, the most powerful of magnets that pull southern hemisphere internationals towards Europe, what did he make of his first taste of the world's best club tournament? Does he buy the argument that Exeter's success in qualifying for the competition after only two seasons in the Premiership came just a little early, and had undermined their league campaign this time round?
"I suppose it's true to say that some of our league performances after Heineken Cup games weren't great," admits Mumm, who was born in Auckland and is the grandson of Bill Mumm, an All Black prop capped against the Wallabies in 1949. "But I don't think the experience was damaging in any way. If you're an ambitious club, it's never too early to play at the best level. If the Heineken Cup is the pinnacle, which it is, that's where you want to be. We won a couple of our pool games, we didn't cop too many injuries… if you look at it like that, we went well. And we want to do it again. It's still open to us to qualify for next year's tournament and if we get things right over the next few weeks, we can get there."
Exeter have a decent run-in, with three home fixtures in their last five, plus winnable trips to Worcester and Wasps. This evening's meeting with Leicester before a sell-out crowd at Sandy Park will set the tone: if they find a way of beating the Tigers and go on to make the Heineken Cup cut for a second successive season, Mumm will be able to watch his beloved Waratahs slug it out with the Lions without too many sharp pangs of longing.
"It's going to be a big deal back home," says the 29-year-old, whose father John is a non-executive director of the Australian Rugby Union. "It may take a couple of matches to get the hard-core rugby league followers interested, but once the tour is up and running and people start talking about the Test series, the whole country will embrace it.
"The way I look at it, the Lions will start as favourites. I was impressed by a lot of the stuff I saw in the Six Nations: there's always a lot of hoopla around that tournament, but when you strip it all away you see that some very good players have run into form at just the right moment. I liked the way Wales were playing by the end – that bloke Leigh Halfpenny is a top full-back, isn't he? – and if all the leading contenders stay fit, they'll be a tough proposition for the Wallabies.
"Australia can win the series, certainly, but they'll have to make the right selections in key areas. The choice at No 10 will be pretty crucial: they could go with Kurtley Beale, or Quade Cooper, or James O'Connor, who are all a bit different in very different ways. I also think the call at tight-head prop will be critical, because the Lions are bound to be strong up front. Ben Alexander did a good job on England at Twickenham last November, but I have a feeling Sekope Kepu will come through strongly. There are some delicate decisions to be made."
Will Mumm hop on a flight to Sydney and watch the action live? He would hardly find himself struggling for a ticket, his father being who he is. "It's tempting," he replies, "but I don't think so. I reckon the best place to watch will be here in Exeter, on the television."
Truly, he has fallen into the West Country way of life. Who knows? He might even learn to drink proper beer, rather than that Aussie filth.
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