Nathan Charles is approaching his likely first Test start for Australia this month with the same determination he has applied to the other major obstacles in his life: battling cystic fibrosis and overcoming a serious knee injury last season.
The Western Force hooker has two Test caps as a replacement, both against France in June, but injuries to established veterans Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau have seemingly cleared the way for him to make the starting line-up against New Zealand on 16 August in Sydney.
Charles, touring regional towns with the Wallabies squad, said yesterday: “Nine months ago, I was still coming back from a knee reconstruction. So this is my wildest dreams.”
Charles, who kept his genetic condition private until recent seasons, has become an ambassador for the national cystic fibrosis foundation and takes more than two dozen tablets a day as part of his strict health regime.
The condition mainly affects the lungs and digestive system and there is no cure. The average lifespan for a person with CF in Australia is 37, according to the foundation’s statistics. Charles’ parents were told initially that he may not reach his tenth birthday, so he figures he’s already overcome some of the biggest barriers he’ll ever face long before taking on the world champion All Blacks.
He’s embracing his chance to play a contact sport and represent Australia, and says it’s his sporting achievements that should be the focus of attention. “Everyone’s got a barrier in life and how they overcome it is what they should be judged by, rather than the actual condition or barrier they have,” he said.
The All Blacks, meanwhile, have called fly-half Colin Slade into their squad for the Rugby Championship after Dan Carter was ruled out of the first two Tests with a leg injury. Carter fractured a bone during the Super Rugby final at the weekend and will be sidelined for four weeks, ruling him out of at least New Zealand’s opener in Australia and the return match in Auckland a week later.
Slade, who has played 11 tests since his debut in 2010, joins Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett as the options to fill the All Blacks No 10 shirt against the Wallabies.
Cruden is mostly likely to start having led the backline in all three Tests in the series sweep of England in June, when Carter was on sabbatical.
World champions New Zealand, who have won the first two Rugby Championship titles, will be aiming to set a new record for top tier nations with an 18th successive victory when they take on Australia at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium.
In another Rugby Championship development yesterday, Juan Smith, who last year retired from rugby due to an Achilles injury, continued his remarkable comeback after being drafted into the South Africa squad for their tournament opener against Argentina next week.
Smith, a recent winner of the French Top 14 and Heineken Cup with Toulon, has been brought in as cover for lock Victor Matfield, who has been ruled out of the Pumas clash on 16 August with a knee complaint and could be missing for longer.
Although he has spent most of his career as a loose-forward, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer believes Smith can play lock too if needed.
“Our need at this stage is to draft in a player who can cover lock and loose forward, and we feel Juan is the right man for the job,” Meyer said.
“He has played lock before in his career and won an Under-21 World Cup in that position, but he also covers flank and No 8.
“I spoke to him on various occasions and he’s comfortable with playing in the second row again if the need arises.
“However, as a number of our loose forwards have had a very high workload this season, it’s good to have someone such as Juan who can also provide cover in those positions.” Meyer said he wanted to call on Smith for the June Tests against Wales and Scotland, but was unable to do so.
“We wanted to involve him in June as I really want to work with him, but he was not 100 per cent fit and asked not to be considered,” said Meyer.
Smith retired from rugby in early 2013 following his battle with an Achilles injury, however he was persuaded out of retirement by Toulon in September last year and became a key member of their trophy-winning side. He was part of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning team and has 69 Test caps to his name, the last of which came against England in 2010.