It might be Nathan Sharpe's 100th Test tonight but hooker Stephen Moore says the 33-year-old second-rower can lay claim to at least another 66 caps.
Moore made his Super Rugby debut under Sharpe's tutelage at the Queensland Reds in 2003, and said if it wasn't for the Gold Coast product, he'd likely never have had the confidence to force his way on to the international stage and play more than 60 Tests for the Wallabies.
''He could have easily just ignored me but he really made an effort to take me under his wing and look after me,'' said Moore, who still has a photo of he and Sharpe embraced in celebration after an emotional victory over England in 2008.
''I looked up to him a lot, and around the lineout and that he really helped me with my throwing and calls. If it wasn't for him I probably wouldn't be in the position I am today. He gave the encouragement and confidence to keep improving because it was pretty daunting coming into a squad of Wallabies.''
In a twist of fate, Moore went on to make his Test debut for the Wallabies in one of Sharpe's two Tests as captain, against Samoa in 2005.
For all the hype surrounding his 100th Test, you get the sense it's more of a distraction for Sharpe than an opportunity to reflect on a career that has included three World Cups. He's the only tight-five player to ever reach the 100-match milestone in Australian rugby, he's played more Super Rugby matches than even George Gregan - another 100-cap Test player - and, with a season to run with the Western Force, he is still one of the most feared forwards in world rugby.
''I think everyone knows in Australia and New Zealand the respect I have for Nathan Sharpe,'' All Blacks enforcer Brad Thorn said. ''He's a really good man as well. I call him a friend off the field. He's huge [to a team], there's so much experience. It's his 100th Test and he's been there and he's seen everything and he's done everything.''
The milestone has come as a surprise for Sharpe. He had no idea how many Tests he'd played up until the start of the tournament and had to be told by the media. That alone is an indication of how focused the two-metre giant is on team success and not personal adulation.
Even after being overlooked for the Wallabies' semi-final loss to the All Blacks last week, Sharpe's tone is devoid of resentment. While teammates past and present voiced their disapproval in their droves on Twitter last week, Sharpe remained the consummate professional.
''I've always just been focused on the next Test and, to be honest, I don't know where all those games have gone,'' said Sharpe, who joked he paved the way for the likes of Sam Cordingley, Stirling Mortlock and Moore to succumb to their retreating hairlines and shave their heads. ''It sort of crept up. For me, when you play your first Test you just want to play the next and the next because you love playing for your country. And I still do. For me, it's still special every time.''
Former Wallabies teammate and retired Waratahs prop Al Baxter said it was that humble, hard-working mentality that even in 2003 gave teammates an indication Sharpe was something special.''I guess out of anyone back in 2003-2004 when I started playing, he certainly had the potential to play more games than anyone else,'' Baxter said.
''You look at the blokes who do make those number of Tests - Gregan, [George] Smith and guys like that who have brilliant work ethics. It's pretty hard on your body in the tight five, and Sharpie has had his fair share of injuries. He hasn't been spared that kind of stuff. But it's amazing his work ethic to keep coming back, and every time he does, he comes back stronger.
''A real credit to the bloke is how he's dealt with the last couple of years ... how he's gone in and out of favour with selectors, yet every time he gets on the field he produces brilliant performances.''
And if there's one thing Moore, Baxter and Thorn all agree on above all else, it's that rugby aside, Sharpe is a friend worth having. ''The one thing that has always struck me about Sharpie is that despite everything he's done as a professional footballer, he's really grounded,'' Baxter said.
And for Moore, Sharpe has gone on to become more than just a role model but a best mate. ''He doesn't let on but I know it means a lot to him [the milestone],'' he said. ''Just to play in a Test match means a lot to him. He's never taken that for granted. He's cherished every opportunity he's had to wear the gold jersey.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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