There was a time James Grant feared he’d never again be embraced by rugby union, a game he lived and breathed as a Canowindra junior.
A Wallaby in the late 1980s, Grant defected to rugby league in 1989 when an offer from super coach Warren Ryan proved too good an opportunity to knock back.
But accepting the chance to play with the Balmain Tigers came at a cost.
“They made it pretty clear to me if I failed I wouldn’t be welcome back,” Grant said of his decision at the end of the 1988 season.
It was a year he made his Wallabies debut in, taking on New Zealand and England before touring Europe.
But he bit the bullet.
The electric outside back wanted the challenge.
“I weighed it up. It was a tough decision,” Grant said.
“Playing for your country is always an honour, and then to go and play a game I’d never played in my life … that was one of the biggest challenges, and a fear.
“If I failed I couldn’t go back, they made that pretty clear.”
Grant didn’t fail. The Tigers made the 1989 grand final, he scored a try in arguably the greatest decider the 13-man game has seen.
And as it turns out, he’s also been welcomed back to rugby union too – with open arms.
A big advocate for country rugby since returning west in the late 1990s, Grant has since played for NSW Country and will on Saturday, a long time after retiring, lace up the boots again when the Classic Wallabies take on the Blue Bull Barbarians at Endeavour Oval.
“In hindsight, I didn’t make much money playing either codes, but I had the best of both worlds,” he said.
“The people I met in rugby league and rugby union, we’ve got a great network of friends. I’m happy I did what I did.”
At the age of 54 James Grant will be one of the oldest players on the field when the Classic Wallabies take on the old Blue Bulls.
He’ll also get plenty of game time.
After earning his first senior rep jumper with the Central West in 1983, Grant has agreed to have a run with both sides on Saturday, a game which is designed to help continue the mateship and camaraderie beyond playing days.
When they do well, you feel proud. When they get beaten you feel like part of the loss as well, because you’re part of the family.James Grant on the Wallabies.
The Classic Wallabies exist to provide a support network for players to transition into life after rugby, which is increasingly important in the professional era, and support the ongoing growth and development of grassroots rugby, with junior clinics to be run in Orange on Saturday morning too.
But for Grant, it’s a chance to catch-up and look back on his playing days at the top – days which continue to get brighter.
“One of the good things in retirement is become a much better player … I’ve been a long time retired so I’ll be fantastic this Saturday,” he smiled.
Grant had the chance to play alongside greats like Tommy Lawton, Steve Cutler, Simon Poidevin, Nick Farr Jones, Michael Lynagh and David Campese.
He’ll play alongside the likes of Justin Harrison, Radike Samo, Stephen Moore, Stephen Hoiles and a player Grant has come across before, Mark Gerrard, on Saturday.
“I remember playing Mark Gerrard at the end of my career, he was playing for NSW 21s and I was playing for Country, we had a trial and he tackled me and he said ‘mate, loved you when you played for the Tigers can I get your autograph’ ... I knew then it was time to retire,” Grant laughed.
“For me growing up though, rugby was it … I’d never played any other code.
“I grew up in Canowindra and played junior rugby there, went to school at St Stanislaus College, which is still a strong rugby school, and just went from there.
“I liked training and whatever team I was picked in I played for. I was always just focused on the next game.”
Which for one more time gets to be in the green and gold. Colours still very close to Grant’s heart.
The former Orange City and Kiama gun feels lucky to have played with the calibre of players he did with the Wallabies, and despite it being one of the greatest challenges in world sport, then and now, says lining up against the All Blacks was “something special”.
“Coming up against the All Blacks in ‘88 after they won the 1987 World Cup, they were the benchmark,” he said.
He recalls being challenged by All Blacks winger John Kirwan, while his clashes with Joe Stanley still make his ribs ache.
“I remember the second test against New Zealand (in 1988), I scored a try against him at Ballymore, he made a defensive error and got round him,” Grant said.
“I then played against him when I was playing for NSW … and he just about cut me in half, but he was a genuine good fellow.”
Grant says the bond Wallabies share is unbreakable, and those in attendance at Endeavour Oval will witness that on Saturday.
“Any team you play in you build a strong bond with and the Wallabies have had some tough times recently but I’ll always support them,” he said.
“When they do well, you feel proud. When they get beaten you feel like part of the loss as well, because you’re part of the family.”
BORN May 22, 1964 at Canowindra.
- UNION: 5 Tests for Australia (1988); 15 appearances for NSW (1984-88).
- LEAGUE: 65 games for Balmain Tigers (1989-92); 9 games for Western Reds (1995).