Former Grafton rugby star AJ Whalley relaxes at home after a hectic rugby season in England.
Former Grafton rugby star AJ Whalley relaxes at home after a hectic rugby season in England.

AJ:PROP STAR

By TONY WHITE

GRAFTON'S budding Wallaby rugby union prop Adam 'AJ' Whalley believes a recent 12-week stint in England helped his new craft 'enormously.'

The 22-year-old 110kg, 186cm tearaway returned home just before Christmas to catch up with family and friends.

Whalley was dispatched to England in the Australian off season last September to gain experience in his new position playing for Bristol Shogun, the club previously coached by former Wallaby coach, Bob Dwyer.

It didn't take Whalley long to realise packing down against an experienced bunch of hard heads in the Old Dart would be no walk in the park.

He admits to a rude awakening when he packed down in a scrum playing against Chinor, a team he coloquially described pre-match as 'a bunch of old blokes.'

"It was considered a low-standard game and it was my first game at tight head prop," Whalley said.

"I was up against this big old guy who didn't look too fit and when the first scrum was called I thought 'I've got this guy beat'."

"But as soon as the weight came on I got pushed and buckled two feet into the air.

"The pommies have so much experience. They just know how to use their weight.

"Those sort of experiences make you learn and learn quickly. It's sink or swim.

"It was a real eye-opener."

Needless to say Whalley didn't fall for the same trick twice.

"Yeah, at the next scrum I packed as low as I could. I virtually packed into his knees so he couldn't get underneath me again," he said.

"After a while you could see him starting to tire, but there's sort of a gentleman's or front rower's agreement. He wins his and I win mine, then you call it a day."

Whalley, who won acclaim as a backrower with Warringah in the Sydney first grade competition after moving from Grafton, is also a former Australian Under-21 representative.

Last season, with a dearth of props on the horizon with the ability to step up to international level with the Wallabies, Whalley accepted a suggestion from Dwyer and other Australian and NSW rugby officials, to concentrate on playing in the front row.

"Let's just say it was a steep learning curve last season," Whalley said. "It was a lot harder than I imagined.

"I found it hard to set my goals because of that.

"That's one of the main reasons I went to England, to learn and gain experience.

"It was awesome. I learned heaps. The only way you can get better is to keep packing into scrums.

"Over there (England) they play a slower sort of rugby. There tends to be a lot more set pieces. The weather doesn't allow for as much running rugby like Australia.

"There's not as much traction on the wet grounds and I learned front rowers rely heavily on what they do with their upper body.

"I learned a lot of different techniques, how to put your head in different positions and learning to direct force in different ways."

Whalley also got to play his first game in snow.

"I'd never played in snow before and it was quiet amazing the game against Oxford University," he said. "Because it's a lot colder and often raining you've got to warm up pre-match a lot more.

"And in the snow whenever there was a break in play you'd have to wipe the snow out of your eyes to try and see."

The Bristol outfit is a full-time rugby club.

"I played about 15 or 16 games and we play in different leagues on Saturdays, Sundays and midweek," Whalley said.

"And they train full time. There wasn't as much time to go sightseeing like I'd planned but we did have team bonding sessions in the country, orienteering and the like. It was a wonderful experience.

"One thing I have done is brought back a few tricks. The key to playing front row is experience.

"I've come home with a lot more confidence. I feel more com- fortable in the position now."

While Whalley isn't yet in the mould of a Johnny Wilkinson, who commands huge salaries, he was amazed at the money available.

"There's ridiculous amounts of money to be made," he said. "The English Rugby Union pump millions into the game.

"The standard is pretty similar to Sydney first grade, but the difference is while here (Australia) the clubs are semi-professional, over there they're all professional.

"I'd love to go over again, I've made some good contacts, but at the moment my goal is to try and play for the Waratah (NSW) Bs and have a solid year with Warringah in first grade.

"I believe there's a definite path for advancement for me at prop and that's what I'm concen- trating on."

SYDNEY. ? New Wallabies backrower Stephen Hoiles is eyeing a return to his schoolboy rugby position of blindside flanker in an attempt to enhance his prospects of cracking the Waratahs starting side.

He was the bolter in the Wallabies end of year tour.



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