ONLY a week ago Nick Phipps was playing on one of world rugby’s biggest stages, against back to back world champions the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Seven days later, Phipps will swap his Wallabies jersey and pull on his Sydney University stripes in Saturday’s Shute Shield final, as the Students take on the defending champion Warringah Rats at the picturesque North Sydney Oval.
A walk in the park for a 66 Test veteran, right?
“I’d probably prefer Eden Park, to be honest,” Phipps told foxsports.com.au.
Phipps and Wallabies teammate Tolu Latu have been sent back to club land by Michael Cheika for some much needed gametime ahead of their next Test against the Springboks on September 8.
Their selections are a bit of a throwback to the amateur days, when the top players weren’t wrapped in cotton wool for fear of injury.
The feisty Phipps was at North Sydney Oval two years ago when Northern Suburbs won their first Shute Shield title in 43 years by defeating the Students.
And he is expecting plenty of barbs from both the opposition and a big crowd, which is tipped to exceed 15,000.
The Rats and their passionate fans are declaring themselves the blue collar battlers against the white collar Uni boys.
“That’s what makes the Shute Shield so unique — the tribalism,” said Phipps, who made his Students debut in third grade in 2007 after stumbling across a training session at St Paul’s Oval.
“I have no doubt that if they had a few Wallabies coming back our boys would be doing the same.
“The best thing is none of it’s nasty.
“It’s not like an All Blacks game where it’s all pretty nasty and personal.
“You’ll give them a lot of banter on the field and then afterwards you just have respect.
“I’m sure they’ll all be cheering for Uni in the last game, too.
“But most importantly, people will be walking out of the gates really happy after having a really great day at the footy.”
Phipps and Latu’s selections for the final sparked plenty of debate among Shute Shield followers, with some claiming it was unfair on both Warringah and the Uni players forced out.
Phipps — who is on the Uni bench — can understand why it has raised eyebrows but pointed out he had experienced the other end of the stick.
“2010, mate, I was the halfback for the Uni team for the whole year and then (former Wallaby) Luke Burgess came back,” Phipps, who said.
“I’ve managed to get myself on the bench because I probably wasn’t confident around all the calls enough to start.
“But (fellow Waratahs halfback) Jake Gordon came in three games ago and before that Theo Strang was the nine, and he’s actually on the bench covering 10 (for the final).
“I did feel bad about coming back into it but that’s footy, and especially at Sydney Uni where we’re so lucky to have developed so many different players — they always welcome back with open arms.
“And when the boss, the national coach, says he wants you to go back and get game time — what the boss says goes.
“When he wants his players in the best possible position to play another Test match — that’s just what happens, I guess.”
Phipps will square off against former Wallabies and Rebels teammate Mark Gerrard, who is on Warringah’s bench for his last game before hanging up the boots.
Phipps said both the Shute Shield and the Rats were benefiting greatly from having Gerrard and the Holmes brothers, Luke and Josh, giving back to grassroots rugby.
“Those two (the Holmes brothers) are club stalwarts — absolute legends,” Phipps said.
“They’re the kind of players that we need to keep in Australian rugby.
“They’re the ones developing those young guys.
“There’s no surprise at all that those young players at Warringah are going well because of the experience of playing alongside those Holmes boys, Mark Gerrard, those sorts of players giving that calming head and driving that community spirit.
“It’s something that’s so unique to that club and it’s fantastic.”
While Australian rugby has been copping a battering over the past fortnight following another failed Bledisloe Cup campaign, Phipps said a revival of the Shute Shield’s relevance and popularity showed it was not all doom and gloom.
“The last three or four years I’ve seen it (Shute Shield) explode,” said Phipps, who is the Waratahs’ club captain.
“It gives me a lot of confidence.
“Even if the Waratahs aren’t going well or the Wallabies aren’t going well, people will still go to Shute Shield games because they want to watch footy.
“They love watching good footy and there’s nothing better than standing on a hill or down at Randwick or Easts, or anywhere in the comp where you can just stand by the field and have a beer and a laugh, and there’s so many different people from your area that you know.
“It’s just such a great form of the game.
“Seeing the numbers flock to Shute Shield the last three or four years has been so good.
“It’s something that’s really important to the players.
“Even at the Waratahs, the first thing on our Monday meeting, we talk to players about what the results were on the weekend.
“Who’s playing well, and someone like Matt Sandell — who’s in our squad, but isn’t playing week in, week out for the Waratahs — he talks about the game, how it went and we go through that and that makes sure we’re having a good connection with club rugby.”
HOW THEY LINE UP
Sydney University (1-15): Matt Sandell, Tolu Latu, Paddy Ryan, Lachie Swinton, Dave McDuling, Nick Champion de Creispigny, Brad Wilkin, Rohan O’Regan, Jake Gordon, Stu Dunbar, James Kane, Will McDonnell, Guy Porter, Harry Potter, Tim Clements
Reserves: Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Chris Talakai, Jack Sharrett, Viliame Cocker, Nick Phipps, Theo Strang, Henry Clunies-Ross
Warringah (1-15): Rory O’Connor, Luke Holmes, Harry Rorke, Sam Thomson, Jack Tomkins, Tom Preece, Mahe Vailanu, Sam Ward, Josh Holmes, Hamish Angus, Esera Chee-Kam, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Seb Wileman, Tyson Davis, Dave Feltscheer
Reserves: Ruaridh Mackenzie, Faavae Sila, Baxter King, Emmanuel Meafou, Maclean Jones, Mark Gerrard, Myles Dorrian, Harry Jones