While they’ve shared plenty of good times as teammates at both Super Rugby and Wallaby level, Queensland Reds Captain Scott Higginbotham doesn’t have the fondest memories of the first time he came across Kane Douglas.
Douglas will this weekend become the 56th player to reach 100 games for Australian Super Rugby teams against the Sunwolves in Tokyo, joining current Reds Higginbotham, George Smith, James Slipper and Quade Cooper. But back in 2010, Douglas made his Super Rugby debut for the Waratahs against a Reds lineup featuring Higginbotham, Cooper and Slipper, who also debuted in that game.
A late Wycliff Palu try, converted after the siren by Daniel Halangahu, saw the ‘Tahs victorious 3-28 on enemy soil and ensured Douglas started his career on a winning note.
“Yeah, I do remember that game,” Higginbotham said when I put it to him this week. “I think I got into a fight with Mummy (Dean Mumm) that game,” he laughed. “It was obviously a disappointing game, we missed a tackle on ‘Cliffy’ and then won it at the death.
"My first impressions of Kane were that he seemed quite a scary looking bloke initially, and playing against him over those first couple of years he seemed a bit rough; he is very tough, and very much a physical player.”
It wasn’t until the two met up in Wallaby camp in 2012, when Douglas was first called up for his country by then-Coach Robbie Deans, that Higgers got to know his fellow forward a bit better.
“When I first met him I still had that impression of him, but as I began to get to know him I quickly realised that he’s actually the complete opposite of that. He is very much a fun and gentle guy, and we got along well straight away.”
Douglas quickly cemented himself within both the Wallaby and Waratahs teams, playing against the British & Irish Lions in the 2013 Test series and playing a major role in the ‘Tahs first ever Super Rugby title. Then, just as he seemed to be at his peak, he made the shock announcement that he was off to Ireland to play for Leinster at the end of the 2014 season.
“He left at a very interesting time,” Higginbotham recalls. “I think he left when he was quite possibly close to, if not the incumbent second rower in the country.”
Just as quickly as he left, however, Kane was back in Aussie Rugby after Leinster agreed to his request to return to Australia after just one season and twenty games. It meant a change of loyalties for Kane, signing for the Reds upon his return, but importantly for Australian Rugby it signalled a real strengthening of the forward pack for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“(Wallabies Head Coach) Michael Cheika had an idea of how he wanted the team to look for the tournament, and how he wanted the team to play, and Kane definitely fitted that mould and did a fantastic job,” Higginbotham said.
Douglas had a whale of a tournament, with the serious knee injury he suffered early on in the Final considered one of the game’s turning points as the All Blacks went on to win back to back titles. Having an instant impact at his new Club in 2016, following that disappointment, was easier said than done.
“It was unfortunate time for him to get injured, and he had a bit of a slow start getting back into it after that,” Higginbotham said. “He didn’t play at his best, and then 2017 was quite tough for him where he wasn’t playing as much at Super Rugby level and while he was still involved in Wallaby stuff, he didn’t play a lot of football.
“It’s an absolute credit to him, however, that he’s stuck to it and has done a fantastic job for the Reds this year; he has really gotten back on track and I reckon he’s playing the best footy of his career.”
Douglas is a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde type character, according to Higginbotham; what you see on the field is the polar opposite of what you get off it.
“Well look, he is obviously a massive human with both a big lower body and a big upper body, and throughout his career he’s always been a very physical player and a bit of an enforcer for the teams he has played for.
“He might not have started off in that role, but he built himself into it, and Kane is the type of bloke who always puts in as much as he can in a game, no questions asked. If you ask him to do a job he will do it to the best of his ability. I suppose with the physical stuff, he definitely hasn’t shied away when he has been asked to step up at both Super Rugby and Test level.
“Off the field, he is a fun guy, an easy-going bloke who likes to enjoy his time away from football as much as he enjoys being on the field. When we’re on your, he loves going out and experiencing the culture of where we are, eating different cuisines and just enjoying a different atmosphere instead of that week to week Rugby grind.
“He takes the piss out of absolutely everything and everyone, and it is constant, but in such a fun way and certainly not a disrespectful way. I think that it’s a bloke like that who gets the rest of the squad up for training or whatever you are doing; even if you are down in the dumps for whatever reason, he still comes out with something to pick the group up, and that’s so important for the group.”
Higginbotham’s own friendship with Douglas is something he values very highly. In the wake of he and his wife Madeline welcoming their first son Aubrey this month, Scott paid tribute to Kane as a great mate but also a great father, with two daughters of his own.
“It gets a bit harder when you are an older bloke in these teams and the younger guys are in a different mindset, at a different place in life,” Higginbotham laughs.
“It is really nice to have similarities (with Kane) that are outside of football, such as families and kids, and to talk about those sorts of things. I have asked him plenty of questions about being a dad and different things to do with that, as when you see him with his kids he is a great dad and he loves it so much. It’s probably the standard that blokes like myself aspire to; he is so great with his kids, and you want to make sure you have that same relationship with your kids that he has with his.
“Our friendship has come from playing a lot of football together over the years, even before some of our Reds teammates had finished school!
"Kane and I spend a bit of time getting coffee together and eating out together which, again is something that was done a lot more back when we first started playing as opposed to what it is now. It’s great that Kane is on the same wavelength as me and that we like to hang out like that.”
Douglas is just 28 and, in Higginbotham’s eyes in career-best form, but at the end of the year he will leave Australian Rugby for a second time and head to Bordeaux in the French Top 14. Higginbotham, who himself has experience abroad with NEC Green Rockets in Japan, will be disappointed to see his mate go, but also understands that Rugby careers are finite.
“He is performing so well, and I think the motivation for him is that all the Australian Super Rugby teams basically have young locks, bar him and Rob Simmons. He has wanted to prove to himself that he was still able to play consistently at this level and at the Test level, and I think he is definitely one of the top locks in Australian Rugby this year.
“The tough thing about Australian Rugby at the moment, where some of the decision makers’ mindset is that younger is better,” he said. “Even though Dougs isn’t 30 yet, he’s almost considered ‘old’ for Australian Rugby, whereas if you look at Rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, experience is very highly rated there, and Clubs are looking for it.”
So while Douglas may be off at the end of the season, for now there is a wonderful personal achievement to celebrate as a resurgent Reds outfit look to climb up the Australian conference and claim a finals appearance that few tipped them for before the season kicked off.
Higginbotham himself will miss the match this weekend, returning from injury via Club Rugby, but he is clearly immensely proud of his good mate and disappointed that he can’t be there to celebrate with him.
“Absolutely, you want to play in the milestone matches of blokes you’re close with, and you know that they will remember the players that are out there with them and able to enjoy the moment with them, but that’s life.
“I think Kane will go out there and enjoy the occasion, just as he enjoys playing his football every other week. It’s a fantastic achievement, and while some of us don’t get the opportunity to play 100 games for the same Club, it’s no less of an achievement to reach it across multiple teams.
“Kane is a great example for young blokes in Australian Rugby, showing his durability to still be in the competition after playing 100 games over nearly ten seasons.
"It isn’t an easy job, and it isn’t something that comes easily, but Kane has put his foot down as to where he’s wanted to be and how he’s wanted to play his football, and that’s been at the top level.”
On behalf of everybody at RUPA, and all of Australia’s professional players, we congratulate Kane Douglas on becoming the 56th member of the RUPA Centurions Club.
Douglas is the eighth lock to reach this milestone, alongside Sam Carter, Mark Chisholm, Mitch Chapman, James Horwill, Dean Mumm, Nathan Sharpe and Rob Simmons.
This year, Sam Carter, David Pocock, Paddy Ryan, James Slipper and Henry Speight have joined the RUPA Centurions Club; to view a list of the first 50 players to reach 100 caps, click here.
Kane Douglas Fact File:
Born: Maclean, New South Wales, 1st June 1989
Super Rugby Caps: 99, 2 tries (76 Waratahs, 23 Reds)
Super Rugby Debut: Waratahs vs. Queensland Reds, 13th February 2010 (30-28 win)
Wallaby Caps: 31
NRC Caps: 6 (Brisbane City)