Nathan Sharpe thought his test career closed with an inconsequential World Cup clash with Wales in Auckland, so the lure of one last crack at retrieving the Bledisloe proved irresistible once James Horwill limped from Canberra Stadium in late May with a ruptured hamstring.
Sharpe, the only seasoned campaigner from the pre-Robbie Deans era to still be involved in 2011, was used sparingly at last year's tournament in New Zealand and his 100th cap - in the play-off for third and fourth - appeared to be a purely symbolic selection.
The 34-year-old was rated behind captain Horwill, another Queenslander Rob Simmons and Dan Vickerman - he was an unused reserve in the quarterfinal against South Africa and could not make the 22 the following weekend against the All Blacks.
Supporters of Sharpe saw his peripheral role as a degrading way to end a decade of yeoman service but are enthused now the 105-test toiler can potentially experience a more appropriate farewell to Eden Park.
The only member of the Wallabies squad to have held the Bledisloe Cup, Sharpe now has an opportunity to regain the trophy before finally retiring after the third trans-Tasman clash at his old home ground, Suncorp Stadium, on October 20.
Sharpe is poised to pursue a career in the resource sector but the first priority is to ensure Australian rugby's rich seam of locking talent can fill a void compounded by Vickerman unlikely to extend his 63 test career due to injury.
Sharpe, who last played a Bledisloe when the Wallabies ended a 10-match losing streak in Hong Kong two years ago, baulked at suggestions he would eventually return to the code as a coach but was content to assist the development of squad members Sitaleki Timani, Kane Douglas plus fringe test players Cadeyrn Neville and Hugh Pyle.
"There's a lot of potential there, they're only going to benefit from the added experience of playing a lot of Super Rugby and when they get an opportunity to play test rugby they'll step up pretty quickly," said Sharpe, who conceded a lock's role had changed since he made his debut against France in 2002.
"Gone are the days of the one dimensional second rowers. These days they can do a handful of positive things on the field, lineout, carries, tackling, pilfering."
Deans lauded Sharpe's input after the Wallabies' Rugby Championship squad was revealed.
"Sharpie is probably playing the best rugby of his career to be honest," he said, after naming him in tonight's Rugby Championship opener at Sydney's ANZ Stadium.
"He is enjoying adding value to the group, he has taken on that role of mentor. More so than just being a mentor, he has actually taken on a role of educator. Lock is an area of need for us so that's great for us."
Sharpe didn't consider his nurturing in such glowing terms, saying it was just part of the job.
"All players as they get older do that anyway, there's nothing new in that," he shrugged.
Sharpe also didn't expect anything out of the ordinary from the All Blacks in the formative stages of the Steve Hansen era.
"He's been there the whole time and a lot of players are back from the World Cup," he said, before acknowledging the absence of Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino.
"Kaino has been a mainstay of their pack for a long time and Brad ... teams need players that have a talismanic effect I suppose and he was one of those guys.
"Brad got much better at lineouts as he progressed to the point he was a threat in games and in scrummaging it's well-documented the All Blacks enjoyed the weight he put in."
Sharpe was complimentary about the new generation of All Blacks locks headed by Sam Whitelock and placed Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano is the same bracket as the Wallabies tyros.
"They're very talented guys, they took their opportunities against Ireland (in June)," he said.
"Their lineout has got a lot better over the last few years. There were years when I first started playing where the lineout was a real point of weakness for them but over the last three years they've been very consistent with what they produce."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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