New power behind the Wallabies

Hugh Godwin discovers Latham is latest star off the production line
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The Independent Online

At 18 years old, Chris Latham had never seen a rugby ball. Football was the game in the bush town of Narrabri in New South Wales country, where he grew up. It was only when he moved to Sydney looking for work - he served a four-year apprenticeship as a car mechanic - that a friend dragged him along to the Randwick rugby union club, where the great David Campese was still playing.

At 18 years old, Chris Latham had never seen a rugby ball. Football was the game in the bush town of Narrabri in New South Wales country, where he grew up. It was only when he moved to Sydney looking for work - he served a four-year apprenticeship as a car mechanic - that a friend dragged him along to the Randwick rugby union club, where the great David Campese was still playing.

"Campo was the only rugby player I had ever heard of," said Latham. "City life was a massive eye-opener but I realised I'd like to give rugby a go." Latham "gave it a go" in much the same way as Stradivarius knocked up the odd violin. Now 25, he is keeping Matthew Burke out of the full-back position for Australia, a fine achievement for such a late starter. It seems they find no end of ways to produce a wizard in Oz.

Burke is Australia's most- capped full-back, their record scorer behind Michael Lynagh, and, like Joe Roff, who yesterday won his 50th consecutive cap, he seemed destined for a long run in the side when he became a regular in 1995. But a serious injury to his shoulder in 1998 and another to his ankle in June this year put paid to that. On both occasions, Latham used Burke's absence to make his way as a Wallaby. At first he was a stop-gap; now he is first choice, full stop. Burke is back in the side, but playing on the wing.

Latham has had a marvellous year, with baubles cascading around him like Christmas decorations shaken from the tree. Last month he collected the Australian players' player award - elected by his fellow Wallabies - having already been voted the best Australian player in the Super 12 to add to the Stan Pilecki Medal as Queensland player of the year. He has started all eight of the Wallabies' Tests in 2000, and will be a major threat to England's attempts to down the world champions and Tri-Nations holders at Twickenham on Saturday.

With no schooling in the game Latham made slow progress at first, earning no more than a dozen appearances on the wing for New South Wales, while Burke had a firm hold on the full-back's jersey. Enter John Connolly, then the coach of Queensland. "I saw Chris play as a full-back a couple of times in club games," he recalled. "and we signed him for the 1998 season. At that time, the idea that he would oust Matt Burke for the Wallabies would have been crazy. But he deserves all the success he is getting because he works so hard. He has probably changed the way full-backs play."

Connolly, now with Stade Français in Paris, believes Australia may suffer against England without the injured halves George Gregan and Steve Larkham, who dictate so much of the pattern. But in Latham, he says, the Wallabies have a solid last line of defence and an innovative attacker. "If anything, Chris has had to curb his natural willingness to have a go," said Connolly. "He plays up in the line all the time, sitting in behind the five-eighth and centre. From a coach's point of view that can be a danger if there is a turnover, but the wings will cover him. I believe he is more dangerous than Burke in attack."

Connolly describes how Latham would arrive an hour early for training with Queensland, to work on his skills. "He can now kick two-footed, from 22 to 22, or the high bombs to chase. And he's deceptively quick for a big bloke. Because he comes from the bush, he did not get the benefits of private- school coaching like most Australians. But he is great to coach, and he is highly receptive to ideas."

Latham says his strength is "just getting involved". He has the phlegmatic yet determined air we have come to expect of a Wallaby. "I was picked for the tour here two years ago and played against France and England [a 12-11 win at Twickenham]. I didn't do as well as I would have liked. I was a bit gun-shy, not going any further than the basics." Even so, he kept his place in 1999 for the Wallabies' home Tests against Ireland and England - the latter a 22-15 win in Sydney - until Burke returned and retained the No 15 jersey through to the World Cup final.

Latham featured just once in the tournament, against the USA. "That was tough," he said. "A mixed bag of emotions for me. This year I set myself some personal goals, to have a stand-out Super 12, and be a regular member of the Australian side." The targets were hit, and all of them gold. Latham's incisive running and strength under the high ball came to new prominence in Australia's first-ever TriNations triumph. His try of the series in the last match in Durban sealed the title. In between times he is very much the family man. While on tour there are daily phone calls back to Brisbane to his wife, Michelle, and their baby daughter, Ashley.

Latham has just one goal left for the year - a victory over England, the Six Nations champions, in a quasi-world championship. "It's not fair to say we're in a rebuilding stage," he said of the current Wallabies. "But we do have a lot of young guys coming to the mark. The ethos in the side has not changed since the World Cup. We don't stand around in training talking about things too much, we get on and do it. The focus is on England, that's what the tour games are about."

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