Wizard of Oz

Chris Latham has been in and out of the Wallaby Test team more times than he cares to remember, writes Greg Growden. In the July issue of SA Rugby magazine, Latham tells how got through the bad patches and how he plans to make the Australian No 15 jersey his own

Midway through the 2003 World Cup, it was there for all to see that Chris Latham was an agitated soul. He had been beckoned out for a media conference at the Wallaby training camp in Coffs Harbour, and the body language was all wrong. The shoulders were slumped, the head was bowed.

The answers were tinged with frustration. The despair was dripping. The message was that he was no longer the master of his own destiny. The Test selectors had lost interest in him. A Wallaby starting spot was no longer his. He couldn’t exactly comprehend why, and he didn’t exactly know what he had to do to get back in favour. It was real heart-on-the-sleeve stuff.

The northern New South Wales country boy from Narrabri came out in him. Rural types do not know how to put on an act – they cannot hide disappointment. A year on, everything had changed. He was again bounding about. Body, face, shoulders upright. The statements again honest, but this time far more positive. Yes, the selectors again loved him. They were even, shock horror, praising him. And at last he was able to play the type of mischievous, adventurous football that had marked him as Queensland’s most dangerous attacking weapon, but for too long he had been reticent to try at Test level, because of the fear of failure and the consequences of again being dropped.

Finally, he realised what was good for the Reds was also tremendous for the green and gold. Queensland players have become irritated that the Sydney press has often described the Reds as a one-man team. They believe it demeaning. However, the analysis would be far more demeaning if Latham had not been around. Latham has basically saved the Reds in so many Super 12 games, often acting as a solo attacking force, taking it upon himself to bring some life back into an otherwise wayward and often lost patrol.

When you think Super 12, you think Latham and one of his never-ending amazing solo feats from fullback. Usually it involves him taking the ball in his own quarter and then, with no clear options around or ahead of him, deciding to beat 15 opponents. So away he goes here, there and everywhere, sometimes deciding to chip and chase, but usually just opting for the most bewildering of running lines. Quite often it all ends up with him at the other end of the field, usually in front of the Ballymore Hill, grounding the ball, screaming and shouting and waving merrily to his mates on the other side of the fence. The excitement is infectious.

No surprises that Latham has won the Australian Super 12 Player of the Year award in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Super 12 is his stage. However, at the next level, life has not been so steady. Latham’s Test career has been all over the place. The 29-year-old, a relatively late starter in rugby, is now in his seventh season of Test rugby.Raised in Narrabri, Latham played soccer until at 18 he decided to try the 15-man game. He soon took to it and joined the Randwick Club the following year, in 1994. Three seasons later he made the Waratahs team.

Wanting to play fullback, but restricted to the wing with the Waratahs, he was offered a better opportunity with the Reds. He took it, left for Brisbane, and was quickly rewarded with a Test jersey in 1998 against France.

The rise was fast, but before long the pinball wizard discovered that he was more often the pinball machine of the Wallabies squad. Since 1998, Latham has been bumped this way and that, shot down tunnels, spun, spat out and then disappeared down dark exits. As Latham explains, if he had counted the number of times he had been in and out of the Australian team, ‘I would have had to take out my shoelaces.’

There have been many grim, dark moments as a Wallaby. He has often been dropped for either Matthew Burke or Mat Rogers at fullback or shuffled across to the wing, and with that has come periods of depression. His willingness to try different things in attack, things that sometimes don’t succeed, has regularly seen him cast as a scapegoat. Latham’s great attribute has often been his great weakness.

A free thinker, he attempts the radical, and so frequently it works for Queensland. However, at Test level, it seems Latham occasionally thinks too much, and, because of the threat of instant dismissal by Wallaby coach Eddie Jones for something silly, he deliberately holds back.

Because of that, it occasionally looks as if Latham is not playing naturally, which makes him vulnerable. However, during the Wallabies end-of-season tour of Europe, Latham chanced his arm, took everyonen on and by the end of the tour was rated alongside Matt Giteau as the Australian player of the tour. Latham was on top of it all once again, passing the 50 Test mark during the tour.

He kept Rogers at bay. The Test No 15 jersey was firmly his.Latham does not like to be shackled. So before he departed on this tour, he made a decision to trust his instincts.

‘I sat down and worked out that when I make a decision, that’s what I’ll go for,’ Latham says. ‘I think that’s when I play my best rugby – the initial thought comes to my head and I do it, rather than overanalysing and overthinking things.’

Latham rates the high points of his Wallabies career as the 1999 Australian World Cup triumph, scoring five tries against Namibia in his only appearance at the 2003 World Cup, and all of the Bledisloe Cup triumphs he has been involved in ‘which you can think back on and go, ‘Wow, what an occasion.’

The low points? ‘Whenever you’re not in the team,’ Latham replies. ‘You’ve got to be honest. When you’re not in the team, it’s the lowest point you can get to as a professional footballer. But these are the times when you really have to show character. In moments like these, the true you comes out. You can wallow or you can hit back. I guess I’ve hit back a few times.

‘It would be very easy to lay low, finish it up and go elsewhere. But I am actually proud of the fact that I’ve stuck with it, made improvements, and got my 50 Test caps. The low points have basically made me a better person. You learn to cope with whatever is happening.’

Still Latham concedes he felt ‘badly burnt’ on several of the occasions he was dropped from the Test side. ‘The initial time you get dropped, you’re filthy and you say ‘Shit, what have I got to do?’ But in a couple of minutes, you sit down and think, ‘Now what have I got to improve on? How much harder do I have to train? What is it I need to do?’ You go searching for answers. You get them. You source through it and make the improvements. And that’s what I’ve done, I guess.’

But did it ever get so demoralising that he pondered retirement? ‘To tell you the truth, no. I’ve never ever thought, that’s it,’ he says. ‘My first thought was being angry and filthy, but then you convince yourself that you want to be back there. That’s the hunger and the passion of being a professional footballer.’

The hunger and passion of being a professional footballer also involves taking opportunities. For some months this appeared to include moving on from Queensland at the end of this year’s Super 12. Latham was a natural target for the new Super 12 franchise in Perth. As a highly experienced player, he is one of those crucial figureheads around which a new team can be based. Japan was another strong option.

A side effect of the new franchise is that it has forced the other three Australian teams to quickly put up the barricades. Shortly after Latham returned home from the Wallaby tour, Queensland officials hovered around him, realising that if he went to Perth or Japan their backline would basically be gutted.

The approach worked. In late January, Latham agreed to sign a new three-year contract with the Reds and the ARU, explaining, ‘I wanted some security in years to come. After making this decision, it’s been nice to fully sleep at night and be able to come to training knowing you’re working towards a common goal.’

Contentment at last.