Please Forgive Me

I have been proven wrong. I admit I have misjudged a great man. I have witnessed his rise, decline and rise again and when it came again it came from nowhere and smacked me clean between the eyes and knocked me senseless. Matt Dunning had a good game for the Wallabies against South Africa. Actually, he had a great game. Consider my gob to be smacked. Matt Dunning I owe you an apology and I beg your forgiveness.

Dunning and I go way back. He was just a chubby figure of fun when he burst onto the Rugby scene in 2002. His burst came courtesy of a couple of memorable intercepts that Super 12 Waratah season, one in particular that saw him 'sprint' 20 metres towards the try line only to be pulled up just short (no doubt the run is closer to 50 metres now). It was the highlight of the season and was repeated ad nauseum and unfortunately usually in slow motion. It just emphasised his bouncy bouncy lard, puffy and puffing red cheeks and round wobbly chins.

Dunning also had a reputation as an excellent drinker. He was a man's man and a man's front rower. After a win against the Hurricanes later that season I was leaving the Sydney Football Stadium as Dunning exited through the gathered fans, carton of beer carried on his shoulder much like a proud Dad would carry a three-year old. When Dunning gave cans away to his mates he became my favourite player and despite the 96-19 thrashing by the Crusaders in the final round and being soundly beaten by the Brumbies in the semi-final, Waratah supporters had a new cult hero.

But it was all to go wrong. Very wrong.

In the final round of the 2003 Super 12s the Waratahs needed to win with a bonus point (4 tries or more) to make the semi finals. That day also happened to be my brother's bucks party, an all day booze and Rugby fest (3 matches) that culminated with the game at the Sydney Football Stadium. I remember little of the game. Meat pies were being thrown around at one stage and we sledged a crowd member because he came from a school with a stupid sounding name (St Aloysius).

But the most stupid thing of all, and my only other memory of the match, was Dunning kicking a field goal with 12 minutes to go and another try needed and he knew it. Check this to see it for yourself...

The ball sailed right over our heads, the semi-final dream was gone and with it my admiration of, nay hero-worship, of Dunning. A wonderful "what the fuck?" moment. Laughter, tears, all emotions rolled into one. For Dunning, who would later that season make the Wallabies, it was a defining moment. Well, that and the moment he punched teammate Des Tuiavii during the post-season binge.

Dunning never did cement his Wallaby place. Even after 24 test matches the defining moment was hurting his back during a disastrous test against Wales in 2005 where the Wallaby pack was pushed all over the park. In 2006 he didn't play a test at all. My Dunning moment that season came during a game when, as Dunning warmed up behind the posts I yelled out "field goal Dunning". He scanned the crowd with the filthiest of looks. I come from a long line of wimps so immediately looked around me as if I had said "who farted?". He came on off the bench later that match and the Waratahs lost by 5 points. 2 field goals from Dunning would have won it - I rest my case.

Since that moment and inspired no doubt by my sledge Dunning's career has gone from strength to strength. Off the booze and back into the green and gold this season Dunning played admirably in the warm-up tests against Wales and Fiji and then had that blinder against South Africa. I even recall him making a tackle with Lote Tuquiri where he went high and Tuquiri went low. Passes, picks and drives, acting at halfback, tackles all over the ground, and out-scrummaging the Boks in a mammoth 80 minutes effort that had the ARU running to sign him up for two more years to an inflated contract.

And he couldn't have done it without my sledge. So hang-on - he owes me an apology.