Such has been his impact on the field for the Waratahs this year, and for the NSW Country Eagles in the National Rugby Championship (NRC), that it’s hard to believe Jake Gordon was an attending rookie at RUPA Camp in December 2015.
He’d already played two NRC seasons for the Sydney Stars at that stage but since then he has had to adjust significantly, with his first year at the Waratahs featuring no Super Rugby game time and then a rapid rise in 2017 which saw him catapulted into the Wallaby squad in June.
“When I first started at the Waratahs two years ago, I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” he told RUPA. “Coming into a professional environment for the first time, and seeing people like Michael Hooper, Israel Folau and Nick Phipps around you does inspire you to be like them. I remember my first week or two I really felt like I couldn’t catch or pass the ball at all, it was quite daunting and a bit scary going into the unknown. I didn’t know whether I would take off and thrive, or what would happen next.
“In 2016, (fellow Waratahs halfbacks) Nick (Phipps) and Matt (Lucas) were playing some really good footy and I didn’t get a chance to play any Super Rugby. As much as I was disappointed not to get any game time, I understood that I had two high-quality halfbacks in front of me and I took it as an opportunity to understand from within the environment how to go about my business and how I could improve as a player.”
Gordon continued to develop and shone again in the 2016 NRC with the NSW Country Eagles, winning the highly-coveted NRC Players’ Player of the Year at the annual RUPA Awards, yet when he was again stuck behind Phipps and Lucas at the start of the 2017 season he admits he had to think a little bit about whether he was going to have to move elsewhere for opportunities.
“Growing up in New South Wales, I always wanted to play for the Waratahs; that was always my goal and something I had my sights firmly set on. At the same time, not knowing what was going to happen was quite tough to deal with. I played the first trial game, but then I didn’t get into the 23 for Round One.
“It was definitely a bit of a blow and I was worried about not getting a game for the rest of the year, which would have been hard for me, but then Nick picked up an ankle injury in Round Three and I had 48 hours to get to Johannesburg and make my debut against the Lions.
“It was probably the main time this year when I was thinking I am not too sure what is going to happen here, but luckily enough for me I took my opportunity when it presented itself and then I was able to re-sign at the Waratahs not long after that.”
It was an especially challenging time for all players off-contract in 2017, with the uncertainty created by the prolonged process to axe an Australian Super Rugby team leading to a particularly turbulent climate. Players looking to move to, or re-sign, for the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force didn’t know whether those teams would remain, and those looking to sign at other franchises were doing so in the knowledge that if a team was cut then their place in the pecking order could change overnight as other players moved to their team.
“I can only imagine that some guys did freak out and take up other opportunities, including overseas, when their futures were uncertain, as none of us really knew what was going to happen,” Gordon explains. “It was definitely a problem which weighed on a lot of guys’ minds this year. For a Rugby player to not know if they will still have a job in six months’ time is something pretty daunting!
"It’s a highly critical and stressful job where you get reviewed on your performance week in, week out, so there were certainly a few dark moments for a few players at points this year.”
The battle for a starting spot at the Waratahs between Gordon, Phipps and Lucas was an intense one, and ultimately all three couldn’t remain beyond this year if they wanted to feature regularly. Lucas will move to the Brumbies in 2018, but Gordon thoroughly enjoyed every second he could work alongside, and learn from, bot Lucas and Phipps this year.
“Matty & Nick are probably the most competitive two people I know, so I guess to go toe to toe with them every day was pretty stressful at times, but when you get three people competing really hard for one position it only betters one another and the team overall,” he says.
“The three of us get along really well which also makes it a little bit harder, but I thought that the three of us all played some really good Rugby at points and pushed each other to that limit. It just sucks that we’re three good mates and it meant that every week one of us had to miss out.”
Gordon has made 27 NRC appearances across his time with the Stars and the Eagles, leaving him behind only Robbie Abel, Jed Gillespie, Lloyd Johansson, Chris Kuridrani and Andrew Ready (all 28) in the competition’s short history. He is also tied alongside former Brumbies and Vikings flanker Jarrad Butler, and Brisbane City flier Junior Laloifi, as the top try scorer in NRC history, with 16.
“I have been lucky enough to play alongside some pretty electric outside backs, like Reece Robinson and Henry Clunies-Ross, and I have benefited from being in the right place at the right time on a few occasions! There’s been a few tries which have been from a metre out too, but I am not going to complain and any time you get the chance to cross the white line you take it.
“I like to run the footy, and having that try-scoring record is a reflection of me wanting to have a go in attack, so seeing those stats is something I am pretty happy about. I’ll just keep doing my best to keep a halfback at the top of the try-scoring list for as long as possible!
When he was voted the Players’ Player of the Year ten months ago, media speculation suggested that he might earn himself a call-up on the Wallaby Spring Tour despite being yet to break through for his Super Rugby debut. It didn’t happen then, but he did get called into camp this June, and while he hasn’t played international Rugby yet you can’t help but think his opportunity might not be too far away; not that Jake’s giving it too much thought.”
“Last year, I tried not to read too much of it and while I would have loved the opportunity to go on the Spring Tour I always try not to worry about the uncontrollable,” he says. “It was a bit of a surprise to be called into camp in June; I had only played three or four Super Rugby games, but to go into that environment and work with people from every franchise was a great opportunity. I got to see how professional they all were and how they go about their business.
"To work with Will Genia, who has been the best halfback in the world at points, and to see how organised he was is certainly something I took as an opportunity to learn from.
“I would love to wear Wallaby Gold soon, but I will try not to stress or worry too much about what could or may happen in the future. At the moment I just want to focus on playing consistent footy for the Eagles, and then if I am playing good Rugby and that kind of opportunity comes up that’s great, but I also understand that there’s a lot of areas where I can continue to work on my game.”
After finishing as runners-up in 2016, the Eagles headed into the NRC this year as one of the teams to beat. However, their campaign didn’t get off to a good start, losing to the Rams and the Drua and having a bye before recording their first win of the season in the dying moments of last weekend’s clash against the Vikings.
“We knew that heading over to Fiji was going to be tough. We spoke to the receptionist at the hotel where we stayed on the Coral Coast, and she told us that everybody who was staying there was going! It was their first ever home game and they were so impressive, throwing the ball around, and the drums were playing and the big crowd were cha-hooing! Hopefully we get a chance to meet them again in the finals if we’re good enough to be there, because I think that they will be.”
“The NRC is a bit of a sprint, and all the teams who usually go well start with a bang, so the win on the weekend in the last bloody minute certainly relaxed the nerves of a few of us, including our coach,” he laughs. “That was a really decent Vikings side with a lot of Super Rugby players, so to overturn an eleven-point deficit with four minutes to go and come back to win the game should give us a lot of confidence heading into our next few games.”
Gordon keeps himself busy away from Rugby, whether it’s through his Uni work or kicking back at home where he lives with fellow NSW Country Eagles Andrew and Nick Kellaway, and Mitch Short.
“I study Sport & Exercise Science, which is something I am very interested in. I have self-diagnosed ADHD, so if I don’t enjoy doing something then it is a waste of time, but I enjoy it. It is tough at times to focus on getting it done and fit it in around my Rugby, and hopefully I can knock it off slowly and have a degree to my name soon.
“Our place is a lot of fun, right between Maroubra and Coogee and close to the beach. It’s a packed house full of Rugby boys, and while it was a bit of a worry when we moved in together that we would chat about Rugby all the time, there’s hardly any Rugby chat at all which is refreshing.
“Andrew and Mitch are a lot happier talking about how much they’re bench-pressing and girls, but I have a girlfriend so I don’t really get into that chat!”