Brumbies forward Lachie McCaffrey's story a lesson for all

Lachie McCaffrey runs out ahead of the Brumbies' clash with the Chiefs in Canberra, February 23, 2019 Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

He's had to do things the hard way, but Brumbies back-rower Lachie McCaffrey is a lesson in point for any young Australian rugby player for whom things might not have exactly gone to plan.

And the 28-year-old's story offers an interesting sidebar to a hot topic in Australian rugby, the global player market, and how it can actually work in the nation's favour.

McCaffrey was one of the standouts in a brilliant Brumbies win over the Chiefs last Saturday night, the No. 8 scoring one try himself and having a hand in several others as the hosts blew their Kiwi visitors off the park in Canberra. Prominent all over the paddock, McCaffrey was there for the nuts and bolts of set-piece to being in support to throw the final pass when a five-pointer beckoned.

It was the kind of all-round back-row performance that has been in short supply in Australian rugby in recent times and one that has been a long time coming for McCaffrey, too.

"It wasn't really a decision, I actually didn't get any offers in Australian Super Rugby," McCaffrey recalled of his move to English club Leicester in 2015. "People probably think a lot of people go overseas to the U.K or Europe for money, but my decision was because it was the only option I had to keep playing rugby; it was either go back to club rugby in Sydney or go over and have a crack in the Premiership...I'd been at three Super Rugby clubs in the Waratahs, Force and Brumbies, and came to the point where there weren't any coaches in Super Rugby who wanted me in their squad."

McCaffrey returned to the Brumbies at the start of 2018 in his mind a far better player.

Playing week in, week out, both in the Premiership and throughout Europe he was able to hone his back-row craft in a way that simply hadn't been possible at home. Simply, it taught him what was needed to play professional rugby.

"I got a lifeline over there in the Premiership, I loved the standard of rugby over there and got a good crack in terms of being able to put games together. In Super Rugby [I'd] played a lot off the bench and [it was] hard to get your foot in the door.

"But I think going over there and playing 75 or 80 Premiership and European games in three years was the best thing for me, and I had some great coaching in Aaron Mauger, Richard Cockerill and Scott Hansen, who's at the Sunwolves now."

As Australia prepares for a post-World Cup exodus and thoughts of tweaking the Giteau Law are tossed about - something Rugby Australia won't entertain - McCaffrey's journey offers an alternate viewpoint.

While he was forced to pursue offers overseas merely to continue playing professionally, other players have headed off at a similar age when seemingly entrenched at their Super province, opting for the money, lifestyle and travel opportunities those kind of contracts present, instead.

But that doesn't have to be bad thing. As the case has been with Luke Jones, who's returned to the Rebels to chase a World Cup berth, players may come home with a more rounded skill set or, just like McCaffrey, just managed to keep their professional dream alive.

It's a worthwhile test case for those who believe in academies, and keeping fringe players in a training pattern, too.

"It's a tough question because I think every player and situation is different," McCaffrey said when asked if he'd recommend a move overseas for players in their early to mid-20s. "At the end of the day, all young blokes coming through Super Rugby in Australia want to represent the Wallabies; that's the dream for everyone including myself.

"But at the same time, I think it's important at a young age to get as much rugby as possible; no matter how good the coaching is out there, the best way to learn as a young rugby player is to get experience and just play week in, week out. I think with Super Rugby when I was coming through, I got probably 20 opportunities, all off the bench, and apart from that you just do preseasons and you train; there's no sort of second level of rugby week in, week out.

"And that's what was great overseas, instead of 16-18 games of Super Rugby, you've got up to 45 games in a season. So for me, at a young age, I just think it's important young guys don't spend all their time in the gym and running laps around the oval; I think the more rugby you can play at a young age the better. And I think for my situation, the best thing for me was to going over there and playing lots of footy, and making mistakes but getting better with every week."

After a period of transition in 2018, McCaffrey believes the Brumbies are really starting to sing under coach Dan McKellar. He sees a lot of similarities between McKellar and his coaches at Leicester, Aaron Mauger, Scott Hansen and Richard Cockerill, and the support staff the Brumbies coach has around him.

And then there's skipper Christian Leali'ifano, who was the other clear standout against the Chiefs and a man McCaffrey regards as the absolute heart and soul of the ACT franchise.

"It's probably hard to describe in words how much of a figurehead he is for the boys," McCaffrey told ESPN. "Both on and off the field, he's a role model for the boys at the Brumbies; the way he looks after everyone and just goes about every day with his outlook on life. He really rubs off on all the boys.

"We've got some great leaders at the Brumbies but I think Christian is just really special; apart from his talents on the rugby field he's just a really special, genuine bloke and it's just great to see how well he played on the weekend because I know how much work he puts into it and how hard he trains. He'll be a huge part of our team if we have a successful. But I was really pleased to see things click for him on Saturday night."

Both Leali'ifano and McCaffrey will push for Wallabies inclusion if they continue to play as they did last week. The fly-half has been there plenty of times before, but McCaffrey hasn't had any contact with the national setup since "Aussie Under 20s".

All both men can do is produce more of the performances that saw the Brumbies thump the Chiefs 54-17, an opportunity arriving on Friday when they head across the Tasman for a date with Beauden Barrett and the Hurricanes.

"Similar to the Chiefs, you've got to try and starve them of possession; you've got to defend really well; you know they're going to score points and that's where we've got to do the same thing as last week and make sure we score as many points as we can, too.

"So it will be a tough test, we've got find another level from last Saturday night, we've got to step up again against the Hurricanes if we're going to compete over there [in Palmerston North]. It's a short week and we're already looking forward to a big game over there Friday night, with the All Blacks they've got they can be really dangerous.

"We've got to be on our game defensively but also realise, after scoring 53 points on the weekend, we can be as dangerous in the competition as anyone, too."