Who would have thought that a small home video would have led to 3 days hanging out with Johnny Wilkinson, a handful of Super Rugby caps or a 9-year career playing rugby in France?
That certainly wasn’t what St Bedes Old Boy Blair Stewart had in mind when he made the clip back in 2006.
All the then Sydenham Senior Rugby player knew was that he wanted to play more rugby, and with the likes of Dan Carter, Steven Brett and Cameron McIntyre in front of him at Canterbury he was going to have to look elsewhere.
More on the Wilkinson tale a little later, as we scroll back to ‘06.
Stewart had just finished the season with Canterbury B, following a leg injury, and was wondering what his next move might be. So he decided to make a short highlight video and with the help of a lawyer who represented a few National Hockey reps – agents weren’t that big back then unless you were one of the high-profile players – sent the video off to Taranaki and Southland.
The phone rang a couple of days later offering him a spot at Southland, a team he’d become a regular feature for, for the next 3 years, hardly missing a beat during that time and would become a much relied upon goal kicker.
Much to his surprise, just as his first NPC season had drawn to a close, while holidaying in Thailand, the phone rang again. This time Aussie McLean was on the other end, offering him a chance to play for the Hurricanes.
As a through and through Crusaders supporter, Stewart paused for a second, wondering if he could don the yellow and black strip, then jumped at the chance, setting sail for the Capital. Super Rugby here he comes!
“This was a dream come true. All of a sudden I was playing alongside Tana Umaga, Jerry Collins, Rodney Soialo, Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Nemia Tialata and travelling to places like South Africa, Perth and all over New Zealand.”
The following season, like many of his Southland team mates, Stewart joined the Highlanders wider training squad and added a couple more Super Rugby Caps to his CV. Within the space of two years, a guy who thought Senior Club rugby and the odd rep game here and there might have been his lot, had now played both NPC and Super Rugby.
“I never thought I’d be playing rugby professionally, so to have been able to say I’d achieved those things was pretty special.”
Out of the blue in 2008 an old school mate John Stewart, who was playing in France, reached out with a possible opportunity to play for Pro Division 2 side Albi.
“I had a really good contract playing in New Zealand but felt the time was right to take a chance and be able to see other parts of the world, so I signed a short-term deal in the hope of securing a long-term deal. I did and then spent the next year and a half at Albi.”
After a strong season, where they won the competition, Albi was promoted, and Stewart found himself now playing French Top 14 against the likes of Johnny Wilkinson, Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Merthens, Sebastian Chabal, Dimitri Yachvilli and Thierry Dusautoir, all playing for clubs like Racing 92, Toulon and Montpellier. Unfortunately, Albi weren’t quite able to match it with the big boys and were relegated the following year. Armed with the knowledge and confidence he could play at that level Stewart took the opportunity to switch clubs and joined Grenoble, a club closer to the Swiss and Italian Alps. He spent the next 4 years there playing in France’s top rugby competition.
With a young family soon in tow and just north of 30, Stewart sought out an opportunity to join Bayonne, a renowned club 15 minutes from the famous surf beach Biarritz and not too far from the Spanish border.
“The beautiful beaches and amazing architecture were a big attraction. It’s a melting pot of culture there and a really good vibe for experiencing and enjoying life.”
“Joe Rokooko and Mark Chisolm were in my team there, so it was another cool experience playing alongside some pretty big named players. There was quite a few former Springboks there too.”
Things were rolling along nicely at Bayonne, as the leading point scorer not only for the club but all of the French Top 14 competition, Stewart was seeing plenty of game time when disaster struck; breaking his ankle which required surgery.
Unfortunately, that’s where his playing career would end. His ankle has never quite recovered, certainly not enough to take the impact and pressure of professional rugby.
And while you could view that as a negative, Stewart chooses to focus on the positives, “It’s amazing how life takes you on a journey, I never would have dreamed that I could have played professional rugby let along in all these countries surrounded by so many great people.”
Three days with Johnny Wilkinson.
Blair Stewart spent most of his life as a goal kicker and was lucky enough to have the tutelage of some of the best in the game; Simon Culhane during his time at Southland and Former All Blacks skills coach Mick Bryne got around the Super Rugby team as well.
After taking up a role with Bayonne, assisting the kickers, Stewart reached out to an old mate, Carl Hayman, who was team mates with Johnny Wilkinson at Toulon. Subsequently, a three-day kicking session became one of the best learning experiences of his life.
“I’d played against him a few times, so meeting him face to face wasn’t as daunting as I thought it might have been. We chatted one on one for ages, discussing pressure, mindset and kicking amongst a heap of other things.”
“Johnny is the sort of guy that lives and breathes kicking.”
He once picked up a ball and said, “I’ll land this spiral kick on the 5-metre line 40 metres away and if there was a 50c coin there he would have landed it on it. His ability to control the ball was something I’d never seen before. And I’d been lucky enough to play with some great kickers.”
He broke the process down to make everything so simple. I managed to sit in on a couple of sessions he was taking with Toulon’s kickers Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, their sessions were really eye opening and have helped me with my kicking coaching now.
”I remember walking away just thinking ‘man, if only I’d learnt this when I was a young kid, this was one of the best days as a kicker in my life.”