It is a well-known fact that sheep outnumber people by about ten to one in the Land of the Long White Cloud, spawning an endless supply of risqué jokes, but for those involved in the New Zealand lamb industry it is a serious business.
For around 30 years wild horses couldn’t drag Russell Hardie away from the family farm in Southland’s Caroline Valley during all-important lambing season but, this Sunday, he and wife Helen will board a flight to the UK, the chance to see their son John grace the Rugby World Cup stage knocking ovine calls behind oval balls in the list of priorities for the next month or so.
“They’ll be here along with my girlfriend Hayley for all the games so that’s very special. It’ll be great,” said Hardie before departing with the Scotland squad for England a week before their first match of the tournament against Japan in Gloucester.
Hardie has only been in the land of his grandmother for two and a half months but it has been an intense period for the 27-year-old and he is looking forward to having family and loved ones in the stands as he prepares for the biggest challenge of his career.
“Dad’s a farmer and luckily my brother’s got it all sorted because we’re right in the middle of lambing and my Dad’s been doing the same for 30-odd years at this time of year. So it’s been pretty hard for him to come. He’ll like to be away out of there, it’ll be cool for him, but I’m sure he’ll still have half his mind back on the farm.
“We have a couple of thousand sheep on about 250 hectares [620 acres]. My brother’s been in charge for a couple of years now so he knows what he’s doing.”
Asked if he can shear a sheep, Hardie laughs and replies: “No but I can do a bit of crutching and dagging [removing wool from the sheep’s rear end]. I did that as a kid and it was pretty tough. I knew I wanted to play rugby after doing that for a few days.”
Of course Scotland head coach Vern Cotter comes from a farming background too, but Hardie says his conversations with him have been more about rugby than agriculture. “There’s been not so much talking about farming with Vern, it’s been about rugby. Maybe we’ll have a wee bit of a farmshare later on,” smiled the former Otago Highlanders flanker.
Hardie was full of praise for the way the Scotland squad, and country in general, has welcomed him, but admitted that it had been an at times demanding period. “It all happened pretty quickly,” said Hardie, who joined the extended training squad in mid-July and earned his first two Test caps in Turin and Paris before being named in the official 31-man squad at the start of the month. “It was a tough time in my life, exciting, but pretty scary at the same time. I don’t regret it one bit, though. I haven’t really felt homesick.
“It’s been pretty challenging but it’s been awesome. The boys, management, everyone have made me feel welcome. It’s a bit surreal still, pretty awesome but now I’m going to get down ready for these next games, and put my best foot forward.
“I met 42 new guys when I first came here and that was challenging, but I think it made me a better person, and I’m just here trying to prove to my mates and the coaches that I’m worthy of being here.
“The wee sayings I’m cottoning on to now. Not sure I can start saying them yet… you might just have to wait a wee bit for that.
“Some people have approached me on the street and been very nice. They’re passionate people and they love the team, so it’s about repaying them as well.”
Of course, the “parachuting” of Hardie straight into the World Cup squad ahead of the more established Blair Cowan and the homegrown John Barclay has not been universally welcomed, with former international prop Peter Wright branding it a “disgrace”.
Hardie insists he has been unfazed by that aspect and said: “I think it was always going to be expected. I had to put my head down, work hard. It tested my character and I think I came out the other side.
“I always knew some people were not going to be happy about it, it was all about proving myself and my right to be here as much as anyone.”
Hardie heads to the World Cup as Scotland’s only genuine openside flanker, something which Japan coach Eddie Jones questioned this week, with the ex-Australia chief also describing the new arrival as untested at international level.
“There’s a couple of locks who could cover back row as well,” Hardie pointed out. “But we’ve got five back rowers going in, we all do our jobs well and everything will work out well, I think.
“I don’t feel the pressure, because you’ve got your team-mates around you. There’s 23 players who’ve got your back and look after you every game. If you have the right systems and confidence in what you’re doing, that takes pressure and doubt away. I’m as tested as I can be and I’m all about what my team-mates want from me, about what the coaches want from me, that’s all I’m worried about. Doing my team justice.
“Eddie’s a good coach but I’d love to prove that wrong.”
The two internationals Hardie have played in were warm-up games that are destined to be swiftly forgotten once the real business gets under way in England. But they, particularly the one in Paris, were matches that were not lacking in intensity and physicality.
“Yeah it was really physical and you really knew you’d played a game of rugby that night, but I really enjoyed it and I love playing at that level. It was different [to Super Rugby] in a lot of aspects, and it’s hard to get too much of a gauge on it at the moment. But the two Tests I played, as I said, you know you’ve been in a hard game.”
Hardie has gained plaudits for his defensive showings so far but is keen to show that he has other strings to his bow.
He said: “I guess they were both more defence orientated games, but adapting, defending, and linking and tackling is all part of the game so you have to do each thing very well. I was reasonably happy the way things went. But there’s always things you can improve on and I’ll be looking to do that in these next few games.”