Charles: Rate me on my rugby, not my disease

18:30, Aug 13 2014
Nathan Charles
DONE IT TOUGH: Wallabies hooker Nathan Charles has faced and beaten much bigger challenges than any New Zealander in a black shirt could ever present.

Nathan Charles is a proud ambassador for the Cystic Fibrosis Federation but he is deliberately maintaining a low profile in Sydney this week while concentrating on his core role in overcoming a less serious affliction blighting Australian rugby.

Charles, who defied medical opinion by surviving past his 10th birthday after being diagnosed with the incurable respiratory disease as a three-month-old, turned 25 in January and his coming of age as a Wallaby is set down for Saturday night at ANZ Stadium.

The Western Force hooker, who makes his starting debut in the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series opener against the All Blacks, will be relieved to have been spared a media scrum in the lead-up to just his third cap - though his story line is still compelling as the Wallabies bid to prevent the All Blacks extending their winning streak to a record-breaking 18 tests.

Among a select few professional sportspeople to excel despite the disease - Canadian ironwoman Lisa Bentley is another - Charles, despite his willingness to act as an inspiration for fellow sufferers, much prefers the focus to fall on his exploits as a rugby player.

Undeterred by an insidious illness that produces an abnormal amount of mucus within the lungs, airways and digestive system, Charles was five years-old when he started running around for the Wahroonga Tigers on Sydney's North Shore.

Breathlessness hardly set him apart from his teammates as he matured into a front rower though he was so self-conscious when signing a contract with the Force in 2010 he considered cystic fibrosis a matter of patient-doctor confidentiality.


Eventually he confided in the Perth-based franchise's foundation coach John Mitchell, and after a tearful confession to the playing group Charles has grown more comfortable discussing a disease that shortens lifespan, on average, to 37.

Yet the  "c" and "f" words can become tiresome, as Charles noted earlier this season: "Every interview you do, there is a question or questions about it."

Though humbled to give the estimated 3000 Australians living with cystic fibrosis encouragement on the basis of his sporting career, Charles wants to be remembered for his contribution to a Wallabies squad tasked with retrieving the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since it was handed over at Eden Park in 2003.

"I don't want people to sympathise with me one bit. Everyone's got a barrier in life," he said before making his test debut against France in June.

"I want to be commended on a good performance, and on the other side criticised if I haven't put in a good performance."

Charles' input is sure to be scrutinised - on and off the field - when he faces the world champions and understandably his coach Ewen McKenzie is confident he could cover the absence of Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau - an injured duo with a combined 141 tests worth of experience.

"Nathan stepped up in June (against France), he's been terrific," the former prop said.

"The fundamentals are there, he's slipped seamlessly into that position.

"He's going to get tested at the weekend as you'd expect but I think he's got all the ingredients to have a good game," said McKenzie, who was astounded by Charles' triumph over adversity.

"If you look at the symptoms of cystic fibrosis, it's not a great scenario from a sporting point of view - he seems to have defied science and defied logic."

Lung infections, incessant coughing, frequent bowel movements, lethargy, and typically a poor appetite combine to test the resolve of someone living with cystic fibrosis - so in perspective, perhaps the All Blacks' current domination should not be such a bitter pill to swallow for the Australian rugby community.

After all, consider what Charles has to digest before he faces the haka for the first time: twenty eight types of medication on game day - genuine food for thought.