RUPA caught up with Phipps this week to talk all things ‘Nard, with the playmaker joining his good mate in select company as the 58th player to reach 100 Super Rugby caps for Australian teams, and asked him to reflect upon a friendship that’s endured over a decade and a potentially rocky start.
“He would probably tell the story better than me, but we first met when he was down trialling for Sydney Uni Colts and I was just coming off the back-end of our ‘O Week’ at College,” Phipps explains.
“I’d had a pretty big night, headed down to the trial game where I was covered in green food dye and thought I would just bluff my way through. They told me that I was paired up with this little fat five-eighth, and he looked me up and down and wasn’t too impressed and I looked him up and down and thought, “who is this kid?””
From inauspicious beginnings, however, came a relationship forged not just from playing alongside each other in the halves but also a mutual determination to exceed against the odds.
Neither Foley or Phipps were picked for many representative teams as youngsters growing up; no Australian U20s or Australian Schoolboys for either of them, and therefore a shared sense of wanting to work hard and prove people wrong.
“Bernard might have been picked for NSW, but that was the extent of it,” Phipps explains. “To be honest, we just enjoyed playing our footy when we were younger and I don’t think either of us worried about it too much.
“There were a lot of players out there who were better than us and bigger than us and we took a different route than a lot of guys, but I think in the long run it has put us in better stead. We both worked really hard together to earn success, and that work ethic helped us get to where we are today.
“That hunger to win, to compete, to prove people wrong; that’s what Bernard loves doing, and it’s something that every player in the Waratahs squad feeds off.”
In 2009, Phipps and Foley earned selection in the Australian Men’s Rugby Sevens team through their performances at Sydney Uni.
“Back then it wasn’t a professional or centralised program like it is now,” Phipps explains. “You had to go and do your own stuff outside the tournaments and the onus was really on the players, so Bernard and I got a lot of work done together. I knew he was a quality footballer back then.
“Him and I would meet in the early morning at an oval somewhere, and we’d absolutely flog ourselves with nobody around and then we’d both have to nick off and go to work.
“The people in the squad were picked by (then Head Coach) Mick O’Connor because he liked their attitude, they did their own work and they weren’t spoon-fed. Back then, you could see the desire and the hunger that he had, and he still has that today.
“We bump into blokes all the time who we played Sevens with, and you always greet them with a big smile and a laugh and a hug because we all had such a great time together. Even if you don’t see people for a few years it doesn’t matter, you still have that awesome bond.
“From a Rugby perspective, I think Sevens had a huge influence on Bernard as a player. Not only did he get the opportunity to Captain his country, but it’s a game where you have to be so well equipped in every single facet and that includes the five-eighth.
“Bernie was the playmaker but he also had to hit breakdowns and occasionally he was chucked in the lineout. It’s completely different to Super Rugby; every player needs to be able to carry themselves into one on one contacts and have the skills to beat their man. And I think that wide passing game he possesses, which definitely holds him in good stead today as one of the world’s best five-eighths, was developed in that environment.”
Super Rugby opportunities came to both players on the back of their performances on the World Series, with Foley snapped up by the Waratahs and Phipps relocating to Melbourne to play for the Rebels. He spent three years in Victoria, making his Wallabies debut in the process, but the lure of home was strong so ‘Fanga’ signed to not only play alongside Foley at ‘Tahs, but also to live with him in the infamous ‘Pentagon’ in Bondi.
“It was good watching Bernie chipping away at everything from afar while I was in Melbourne, and he graduated from 1st Grade at Sydney Uni to get his first taste at the Waratahs where he got to work under some of the great players like Hanghas (Daniel Halangahu) and Barnesy (Berrick Barnes).
“In the Pentagon, Jonno Lance and I essentially kept Bernard alive for a while there and if you could essentially say he owes us everything; he was definitely the kid of the family!
“It was myself, Jonno, Bernard, a good mate of ours from Uni Josh Koops and Michael Hodge, who was in the Sevens program and at the Waratahs for a while. We all rocked around together as a house of five and had a lot of fun, and the best thing is how close we grew and how close we remain today, providing support for each other and making sure everybody’s all good.
“Bernard and Jonno were put in the two bedrooms downstairs because they were the biggest grubs. Hodgey was the Mayor, the Captain of the house, and we all had our different roles around the joint.
“I don’t know how he was raised, but Bernie was cooking dinner one night and unleashed the pie sandwich which was a frozen pie cooked up and placed between two pieces of white bread. He wasn’t allowed to cook after that. I’ve gotten to know Bernard’s family really well, and the apple fell very far from the tree there. His parents are awesome and his brothers and sisters are the best, so I think maybe he was a neglected child or something like that to turn out how he has.”
One of the most defining moments of Foley’s career is the penalty goal which he kicked late in the piece at ANZ Stadium to secure the Waratahs’ first ever Super Rugby title in 2014. It vindicated the decision to come home for Phipps, but importantly it bonded together a group of mates for life.
“We were actually talking about 2014 the other day, and it’s tough to put into words because it was so special. It was achieved alongside so many people we’d played so much footy with but also blokes who we never would have met unless we were playing Rugby, and to be able to share that bond and achievement through (then-Waratahs Head Coach Michael Cheika) Cheik’s vision is something pretty awesome.”
Phipps, Foley and Hodge moved into ‘The Triangle’ when Lance and Koops moved west, but with Phipps marrying Ebony in recent weeks those days are well and truly in the past.
“I’m allowed a few leave passes every now and then to see him,” Phipps laughs. “We still hang out a fair bit, he comes over a lot and my wife’s looking forward to when he gets a missus so we can start double dating!”
Phipps is happy to give Foley a wrap as one of the world’s premier inside backs but has a few subtle digs to add in as well.
“He loves his golf, he loves his early morning swims and most of all he loves getting his rig out down at the beach and carrying on.
“Body-wise, it’s like his quads just go straight down, and there’s no definition between them and his calves. He is in career-best nick, you just need to ask him, but I’ll give him that. If that’s the best he’s going to get, then I guess we have to work with what we’ve got!
“On a serious note, his game management is definitely his greatest strength now and it has been great watching him develop that over the last decade together. Also watching the way that he has developed his leadership around the ground, to the point that he is Vice Captain of the Wallabies and the Waratahs.
“The way that he wants to constantly get better is incredible. He goes searching for knowledge, tries to develop very little part of his game and is always working on something. You can always see him out there on the deck long after training finishes working on little things, it sets a really great example to everybody else. The way he carries himself and wants to make people get better every single day is something that is admired by the entire group.”
“Away from Rugby he’s very switched on, and you just need to sit down to have a conversation with him and you’ll see that he’s really got all these great views on the world and how things work. He is just as comfortable holding a conversation with some massive Board member as he is any parent on the sideline watching their kid play Under 6’s; he’s that relatable to everybody.
“The amount of work he’s done for the RUPA Board is really impressive as well. When he first took on the role as the ‘Tahs representative on the Board, there might have been a few of us with a wry smile on our face, but he’s well and truly done more than he needs to do on that Board. We are all so thankful for what he has done and are proud to have him as our Waratahs Player Director.”
Somewhat pertinently, Foley will reach his century in a classic match-up against the Reds at Suncorp Stadium, and Phipps will be there to celebrate with him. Asked to share a message for his good mate, this is what he came up with:
“Little Pig: thanks for all the great memories over the last 100 games, here’s to many more. I love your work mate, we love you around the Club, and there’s many more things to come for you – we can’t wait to be there with you this weekend!”
Well said, Nick! On behalf of everybody at RUPA, and all of Australia’s professional players, we congratulate Bernard Foley on becoming the 58th member of the RUPA Centurions Club.