Gareth Delve hopes his experiences in Australian Rugby will help him realise a long-term ambition in 18 months time, especially now that Melbourne has been announced as a venue for two Lions fixtures in 2013.
Delve, who left Gloucester for the Rebels in the summer of 2010, has openly admitted he still longs to become a Lion despite his move Down Under.
Rather than hinder that lofty goal, the affable 28-year-old sees no reason why his move south can’t work in his favour when it comes to selection for Britain and Ireland’s elite.
And with his current home having won the right to host the second Test between the Wallabies and the Lions on June 29 and a mid-week clash with the Rebels four days earlier, Delve could be in for a truly unique experience in teh famous red jersey.
“I’d love to make that tour. It’s a huge ambition of mine,” was Delve’s initial response when lionsrugby.com asked him if he could remain a Rebel and still represent the Lions in two years’ time.
“I think I could. Potentially there could be another option to do another year with Melbourne after my two-year contract ends and that would take me into 2013.
“If I can perform, hopefully they’ll be casting the net wide and I’ll have a pretty decent knowledge of Australian Rugby by then. It’ll be fantastic if that was the case.”
Delve has no regrets regarding his move away from home and into the unknown. He may have missed out on a place in the Wales squad for the current World Cup but the former Bath back rower is convinced his first year in Melbourne has paid massive dividends, both on and off the pitch.
“It’s been everything I could have asked for,” added Delve.
“It’s definitely given me what I was after from a development point of view, as a player and as person more importantly. I’m very much a family-orientated person so it’s been a big task for me and Helen settling so far away but we’ve enjoyed it. It’s been great for us to spend that time and to grow as people.
“Obviously it makes things a bit more difficult in terms of international recognition, but I think it’s been worth the risk just for the opportunity to play against the guys I’ve had the chance to go up against and to really enjoy my rugby.
“It’s been one of the best things I could have done and I’m really happy I made that decision.”
Gareth Delve left Gloucester to head Down Under
And the Rebels must be pretty happy, too.
The Welshman was named the new franchise’s vice captain and has had an indeliable impact upon everyone associated with the latest addition to the Super Rugby family.
His work-rate and uncompromising approach, together with his open and engaging attitude away from the field of play, has clearly left a mark. Delve is undoubtedly one of rugby’s good guys and the Rebels don’t appear to be blind to that fact.
Delve has unsurprisingly been welcomed with open arms in Australia and he is convinced the thousands upon thousands of Lions supporters that make a similar journey in 2013 will receive an equally warm embrace.
“That Lions tour will be a great trip and a great occasion. No one travels as well as the Brits, as we saw with the Ashes. The Australians love welcoming people over so, whatever happens, it will be a great tour.
“Australia’s certainly one of the best countries to tour around and obviously one of the biggest. It’s going to be one hell of a tour and a series.
“The Lions is one of the factors that’s been put out there to persuade people to stay in the code (rugby union) and to stay in Australia.
“The Lions is a huge tradition and it’s a huge opportunity for guys to play against them. They probably only get one chance in their whole career because it’s every 12 years.
“I’d just signed for Bath and was leaving school when I remember watching the 2001 tour. It was such an experience seeing that sea of red in the first Test. It’s incredible the following the Lions get. I think everyone in Australia’s looking forward to that tour.”
While the fact that the Aussies will welcome the latest pride of Lions with their usual good humour and relentless banter is perhaps something of a given, the manner in which the city of Melbourne would take to a professional rugby union team was far less certain.
Victoria is far from a rugby area. In fact it’s the capital of AFL country. Australian Rules Football rules. It really is that simple.
But Delve and his new team-mates have done plenty of work reaching out into the community and have been richly rewarded with crowds of up to 25,000 for their home games at AMMI Park.
The enthusiasm Victorians have shown for the sport has been a huge plus for Delve who hopes that the mid-week fixture against the Lions in 2013 could signal increased interest in the Rebel cause.
“We’ve been so lucky. We’ve gone out and really tried to embrace the community by getting out and taking coaching clinics and being a visible presence. But we couldn’t have asked for more. The Rebel Army have been incredible.
“The guys that have set that up have been great in getting Melbourne out there. I think our supporters have been featured as fans of the week for the majority of the season. At times when we were really struggling and under the pump, they lifted us and stuck with us through thick and thin. We’ve really enjoyed it and hopefully we’ll build on that next year.
“If we can have more success as a team on the pitch, those numbers will grow, especially now we’ve got a fixture against the Lions as well. But it’s been really heartening to see that, no matter what, they’ve stuck with us and given us a good foothold in what is very much an AFL city.”
Delve has made a big impression with the people of Melbourne
If Melbourne is an AFL city, then Australia is an AFL Nation. In fact it’s more of a rugby league country and even enjoys more of a cricket culture than it does a rugby union feel. In short union has always been up against it in Oz. Yet somehow, despite the odds being stacked against them, the Australian Rugby Union always seems to come up trumps.
In the early years of Lions tours and then largely all the way up until the 1989 adventure, the combined might of the British and Irish almost always made light work of the Wallabies. But now that dominance is far harder to come by.
The Lions were beaten 2-1 by the then World Champions on their last visit to Australia in 2001 and are likely to face a daunting task when they take on the globe’s most improving outfit the summer after next.
But why is it that the Australians continue to produce so many great players in the professional era? Why is it that world leaders like Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor star on the global stage despite only being in their early twenties? Maybe Delve has the answer.
“The development path is impressive, especially considering there’s no huge second-tier competition. Under Super Rugby you’ve got the Sydney club scene and we’re trying to build the Melbourne club scene, Queensland are pretty strong in that area and Perth are building, but that’s nothing that you would say would prepare the lads to go on into Super Rugby.
“What struck me is that guys tend to go into Super Rugby at a later age than they do over here. In terms of English Premiership rugby, you’ve got guys coming through who are 18, 19, 20 but in the Super Rugby scene it’s very rare to see any really young lads. That’s what makes the likes of James O’Connor, and Luke Jones who’s with us, such a freak.
“Maybe it’s a case of chomping at the bit and having that development that, by the time they do hit Super Rugby and the Wallabies at 22 or 23, they’ve gone through that learning process for a bit longer. They’ve built some more experience and skills without maybe picking up the carnage of playing and the injuries you get with trying to slog through at 18 or 19.
“One of the greatest parts of the Super Rugby competition is that the three different nations have their different strengths. Australian guys are so skillful and fast. Maybe they’re not renowned for being as physical as the Kiwis and the Springboks but their skill level is massive.
“When you consider that they’re picking from a pool of players that is also being spread across AFL and rugby league as well, you have to take your hat off to the amount of amount of athletes and the amount of talent they’ve got out there.
“You look at the average age of the Australian squad at the moment and you can seee that, over the next few years, they’re only going to get better.”
It’s a worrying thought for Britain and Ireland’s next intrepid adventurers but one that Delve may, just may, be able to help them get to grips with.