The name Nick Stiles carries great weight amongst the Australian rugby community.
A distinguished playing career which produced 93 appearances over eleven seasons for the Queensland Reds, an important role in the all-conquering Wallabies of the early-2000’s and a diverse seventeen-year coaching career, Stiles’ impact, and commitment to the game they play in heaven, has been profound.
It was a case of love at first sight for the Melbourne-born, Brisbane-raised prodigy, who spent his formative years in and around the Queensland rugby community, watching his beloved father play.
Attending the prestigious St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, a school renowned for its strong rugby pedigree, Stiles’ passion for the game continued to grow, as the bright-eyed student watched past alumni and current Wallabies’ legends, thrive on world rugby’s grandest of stages.
“There was an era just before I got to school, where you had the great Michael Lynagh and the school had just won five premierships in a row and produced multiple Wallabies in that time, like Mark McBain and Michael Cook,” said Stiles.
“Those guys were then playing international rugby when I was at school, so there was a lot of pride spoken about that era, and a great connection with the old boys and our school.
“To be exposed to that sort of history early on was fantastic for me.”
Promoted to the 1st XV’s side in 1990, Stiles would go on to captain Gregory Terrace for the next two seasons, confirming to him that a career in rugby was becoming a very real possibility.
“Playing rugby was what I loved doing and something I was always really passionate about.
“To get that opportunity to play First XV at school, I felt at that point, this was the path for me.”
Upon graduation, Stiles went on to play four seasons with Souths in Brisbane’s club rugby competition, winning back-to-back selections in Queensland’s Under-21 side (1993 and 1994), before transferring to the University of Queensland - a move which launched his Super Rugby career at the Queensland Reds.
Following in the footsteps of his childhood heroes, Stiles made his Super Rugby debut in 1999, starting in Reds’ clash with the Stormers in Cape Town.
Just twelve-months later, the mobile loosehead prop won selection in the Wallabies’ 2000 Spring Tour.
Although Stiles wouldn’t play, it was clear an international career was firmly in the then-twenty-six-year-old’s grasp.
Stiles wouldn’t be made to wait long for his moment in the Gold Jersey, named in the Wallabies’ opening Test against the British and Irish Lions at The Gabba.
Although a 13-29 defeat soured his debut, Stiles would play a meaningful hand in the Wallabies winning the next two games, including a dominant second Test win in Melbourne, on their way to claiming a drought-breaking 2-1 series win.
“I’ve been so lucky to have played in that era and to have been part of some big series, including making my debut against the British and Irish Lions, who only come around every twelve years.”
“Being able to be a part of such a prestigious series, and then being lucky enough to be a part of the first Wallabies side to ever beat the Lions, that was really special and that just flowed straight into some really big Test matches for me.”
Carrying a wave of momentum following a historic series win, Stiles made eight more appearances during the 2001 international season, playing a crucial role in the Wallabies claiming their most recent win in New Zealand, on their way to a stunning Bledisloe Cup victory, before helping the national side claim the Tri-Nations Trophy.
The humble yet fiercely competitive Victorian, had evolved from a gifted forward to a Wallabies household name in the blink of an eye, something made all the more sweeter by sharing the experience with two teammates he had grown up with since childhood.
“It’s a bit scary actually – I saw last week it’s the 20th anniversary of the last time the Wallabies won in New Zealand, and I was playing in that game in Dunedin.”
“But being fortunate enough to play in and win the Tri-Nations, to beating the All Blacks at Carisbrook for the first time in 100 years, winning the Bledisloe there, and to then play in John Eales’ last game when Toutai Kefu scored that try to win the game, it was an incredible chapter of my life.
“Our fathers actually played club rugby together, so I grew up with Kef, and Brendon Cannon was another one, so coming through altogether and being able to represent your country in such a big season was one of the great memories I had from my Wallabies playing career and something I look back on really fondly.”
Twenty years have passed since the Wallabies’ 35-14 victory over the British and Irish Lions, at Colonial Stadium in Melbourne.
During this time Victorian rugby has seen the growth of a number of grassroots clubs, the birth of the state’s standalone Super Rugby team, and an explosion of young homegrown talent, proudly representing Victoria on rugby's international stage.
As Stiles prepares to enter a new chapter in his storied rugby career, as General Manager of Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels, the forty-seven-year-old says he’s looking forward to returning home and reconnecting with what he believes is a special rugby community, and one which is on the doorsteps of achieving Australian rugby’s ultimate success.
“I’ve always wanted to get back to Melbourne and be a part of the wonderful community down there.”
“I think the Rebels are in an exciting time. With our ‘Burn Boys, we’ve got four to five guys who are integral members of the squad, who are Victorian boys and really passionate about representing their community.
“We’ve also now got this new group of young footballers coming through aged 17, 18 and 19, who we’ve been able to sign and commit to, who have grown up with the Rebels in existence, and wanting to be a Rebel, so now we’re starting to get a strong number of players in the squad who are legitimately local boys, and it’s only going to grow.
“Moving forward, we want to continue that strong representation and to really understand what Victorian rugby all is about, and the style of rugby that Victorians want to see – that’s what the Rebels represent.
“That’s been the exciting part for me to want to come down and be involved in.”