Wallaby Nathan Charles happy to earn respect
When Keven Mealamu approached his opposing hooker at the end of an unsatisfying Bledisloe Cup stalemate in Sydney on Saturday night, the last thing Nathan Charles wanted to hear was concern about his health.
Sure, he had just run himself into the sodden ground at ANZ Stadium for 80 minutes - a timespan beyond the majority of international front rowers - particularly one who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was three months old.
The All Black centurion was well aware of his rival's medical history - it has gained even greater prominence since injuries saw the 25-year-old promoted to the Wallabies starting pack - but gratefully Mealamu's brief post-match conversation did not include the ''c'' and ''f'' words.
''He came up to me and congratulated me on my starting debut and said 'Well done and look forward to seeing you next week','' said Charles, as he readies himself for Saturday's second Bledisloe Cup test in Auckland.
Charles and Mealamu's mutual respect actually formed at Eden Park, after the Blues beat the Western Force on April 17, 2010 - the day the Australian started a Super Rugby match for the first time.
''Since then we have formed a little bit of a friendship. It was a pretty short conversation (last Saturday) but that's the great thing about rugby.
''During 80 minutes you are enemies, but as soon as the whistle goes you congratulate each other on the game,'' Charles said, before his illness was inevitably raised at a Wallabies media session.
''The opposition never give me any sympathy. There's levels of respect like that I have with Keven Mealamu. I think he's a real gentleman of the game but once I'm on the pitch he's not going to give me an inch.''
That competitiveness is what takes his mind from the fact that the average life expectancy of a cystic fibrosis sufferer is approximately 37 years of age - although Charles has a relatively mild case of the incurable respiratory disease.
''I don't like sympathy and sometimes I feel like people say 'Jeez, he's done well, given where he's come from' rather than 'he's done well, because the Wallabies are a hard team to crack into','' said Charles, who earns his fourth cap on Saturday while Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau watch the game while rehabbing leg injuries.
''There's a lot more to this than just taking a few pills, I busted my arse to get here.''
Charles grudgingly accepts his case notes are public knowledge, not that it makes the automatic focus on cystic fibrosis any easier to handle.
''It's been pretty well documented,'' he shrugged.
''A lot of questions asked about it are the same. So at times I like the rugby questions to be first and foremost, rather than the other side.''
In that case how, then, did he reflect on his role in a move to the right hand corner that might have put Pat McCabe over in the 62nd minute when the Wallabies trailed 12-9?
''If you watch the replay I was well covered by Ryan Crotty and they had good drift defence,'' he explained.
''The ball I got was just on my hip so I lost a bit of momentum as well, so I thought the best option as just to shift out to Patty and let him cut in but I guess the conditions didn't allow him to use a bit of footwork and get in the corner there.
''Sure, maybe I could have gone myself, we'll never know. Ryan Crotty was up in my face and I was still five metres out so to get over from that point was, I wouldn't say impossible, but a big ask.''
Not impossible, but a big ask - the precise scenario Charles confronts again at Eden Park, where the Wallabies have not won since he was a five year-old.