Playing with the Big Boys

Jim Kayes
Written by
Jim Kayes

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Brad Weber might be small in stature but he is big in personality, strong in his views and determined to succeed despite being told he won’t.  He chatted with NZ Rugby World editor Jim Kayes.

Brad Weber (C) breaks away and runs to score a try during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between New Zealand and Canada at the Oita Stadium in Oita on October 2, 2019. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)

Brad Weber is used to being told he’s too small to play rugby.

He’s had it all his life and has even had professional coaches tell him he’s not big enough for the rough and tumble of elite rugby.

This is the same Weber who has played almost 200 first class games including 98 for the Chiefs and who is vying with TJ Pernara as the starting halfback for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.

Sure he’s only 175cm tall - 5ft 8inches in the old measure - and he tips the scales at 75kgs, which is 20kgs lighter than Justin Marshall was, but Weber is more than capable of footing it with rugby’s big boys.

And he’s not alone as a small man playing an increasingly big man’s game.

Damian McKenzie is a fraction taller and just three kilos heavier and Aaron Smith is a touch shorter but a veritable Arnold Schwarzenegger at 83kgs.

It is Smith who Weber thanks for ensuring there’s still a place for the smaller man in a game that prides itself as being for all shapes and sizes.

“Nug really paved the way for guys like me,” Weber says of Smith.  “The game was going in a direction where even the smaller men, like halfbacks, were big guys.

“You look at Piri Weepu and before him guys like Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher.  I was told by a few professional coaches I was too small to play professional rugby but Nug has shown with his speed that there is still a place for the little guys.”

The style of rugby the All Blacks want to play helps too.  “We try to play an up tempo game where we move the ball around and getting to the rucks quickly is important so that suits me because I guess in many respects I have a similar style to Nug.”

Smith isn’t with the All Blacks for the Rugby Championship, having stayed at home for the birth of his second child, due in November.  Pre-covid he could have gone away with the team, come home for the birth and left again, but with MIQ spots tough to secure, that is now not possible.

It’s given Weber a rare chance to get some consistent time on the field and that has helped him feel more comfortable playing at the international level.

“Time in the All Blacks No9 jersey is hard to get but I know that when I am playing well I can be one of the best halfbacks going around.”

Weber grew up in Hawke’s Bay in a sporting family that includes his father, Neil, playing 49 games at halfback for the Magpies and his grandfather, Graham, nine at nine.

“So I’m a third generation Hakwe’s Bay halfback which is pretty cool,” says Weber, who has played 30 games for the province.

He kicked off his first class career with Otago as he was studying science at university in Dunedin and has played 26 games for Waikato, but it’s with the Chiefs that he gained national attention.

He made his All Blacks debut in a 17-minute cameo off the bench for Andy Ellis against Samoa in Apia in 2015, but knew he was there as cover.

He wasn’t in the frame for that year’s World Cup and knew he had to bide his time to get back in black with the likes of Smith, Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow ranked ahead of him.

But he didn’t think it would take four years.

He played for the Māori All Blacks during that time but Weber admits there were occasions when he felt he deserved another crack at the big time.

“In 2018 when I missed out I was pretty pissed off but looking back I realise I hadn’t played well enough to force the selectors to pick me.”

Weber surprised many pundits when he re-signed with New Zealand Rugby through to the 2023 World Cup.

With Smith clearly the dominant halfback and Perenara now back in the fold after his stint in Japan, the competition to even make the bench is tough.

Add to that the return from injury next year of Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava and Finlay Christie in the mix too, and Weber had every reason to head off shore.

It was the Chiefs, and two more caps in particular, that helped convince him to stay.

“The All Blacks are great but I don’t know what will happen there, but I do know I will be with the Chiefs, and I just love the culture that we have there.  I love playing for the All Blacks but I’m two games off 100 for the Chiefs and I just love playing for them.

“So I’m really happy at the Chiefs and in New Zealand, and it would have taken a really big offer for me to leave, and it never came.”

Making it easier is that his partner, Dublin-born Shannon Halpin, is a doctor at Waikato Hospital so the 30-year-old Weber is content to hang around Hamilton.

Weber is also comfortable being outspoken in a country - and a game - that often frowns on those who have opinions.    

He spoke beautifully after a Chiefs game in May when he took a moment during the live interview on Sky Sport to acknowledge his cousin, Erin Weber, who had married Natalie Benning earlier that day.

Aaron Smith of the Highlanders is chased by Brad Weber of the Chiefs during the round 6 Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders at FMG Stadium Waikato on July 19, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

“Sorry I couldn’t be there, and thank you for teaching me and a lot of people that love is love, no matter what shape it comes in,” Weber said on TV.

He made the comment primarily because he had missed the wedding.

“It was important to me because they are my family and I would have said the same thing if I had missed my brother’s wedding.”

But Weber is too intelligent and aware not to know he was making a statement about inclusivity too.

There is a fascination with there being a gay All Black and as there have been 1198 All Blacks, it seems safe to suggest some must have been gay.

Weber thinks otherwise.  He says the language used in schools and clubs, and the culture it reflects, would drive out even the most talented man who was struggling with his sexuality, or who who knew he was gay.

“So people in the gay community, or someone who is struggling with their sexuality, drops out of the game for fear of what would happen if they came out as gay.  We have to get into the schools and clubs and educate the boys so that they realise what they say can hurt and stigmatise.”

Weber is also a staunch advocate for the under 85kg grade as that, too, keeps people in the game.

“I think it’s the most important grade we have because I know so many people who stop playing after school because they are a bit small and they end up playing against big men at club.”

Weber wants to play in the grade and almost did, for Auckland’s College Rifles, till it was pointed out that an injury could effect his career.

“But I am keen to play at some stage,” he says, noting that McKenzie and Smith could play alongside him.

A grade for test rugby’s little men - after they are finished footing it with the big boys.

Jim Kayes
Written by
Jim Kayes

Editor of NZRW magazine, Producer of the Breakdown and all round good guy

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