Sporting a blond bowl haircut similar to his childhood idol Jeff Wilson and spending hours in the backyard practising taking the high ball, Tom McCartney never envisaged playing hooker, let alone racking up 50 games for the Blues.
Growing up in East Auckland and attending Howick College, McCartney kick-started his fledgling rugby career in the backs, aspiring to replicate the fleet-footed feats of Wilson and his other hero Jonah Lomu.
However with his pace found wanting as he progressed through the ranks, McCartney slowly shuffled in a position before he found his home in the engine room of the front row where he went from strength to strength.
Tomorrow night he will play his 50th game when he comes off the pine, an achievement McCartney never saw coming.
“When I first started out I never thought I would get to 50 games, to be honest I was happy to just get one game,” McCartney said.
“I’d watched the Blues ever since the Super 12 started and they were always my favourite team. I can remember sitting at a few finals in the rain back when I was a young fella and to even play one match for the Blues was just a dream so to be here playing 50 is incredible.”
What is perhaps more remarkable is the way in which McCartney has managed to carve out 50 appearances for the franchise since he first joined the Blues in 2008.
For the last five seasons McCartney has been resigned to the thankless role of reserve hooker behind Blues captain, and the most capped Blues player of all time, Keven Mealamu.
It can’t be easy backing up arguably the number one hooker in the world who also happens to be the captain and has played for the Blues since 2000.
Yet McCartney still works as hard as ever, pushing Mealamu all the way to try and secure a starting role.
“Obviously everyone wants to start, it doesn’t matter who is ahead of you. The person who is not starting is going to want to push them as much as they can and I suppose it comes back down to what you do on the field.
“You can’t be mad at Kevvie because he’s an awesome player and he does great things for this team so I try to push him as hard as I can at training and once the team is named it’s all about the team and making sure we go out and do everything we can to get the result for the team on the weekend.”
Indeed McCartney is the first to thank and credit Mealamu for helping him develop into the player, and person, he has become today.
“I’ve learned a huge amount from Kevvie. I’ve been playing with him now for five years and continue to take a great deal from him, mostly just about the little things.
“He’s an awesome player on the field but the thing I most admire about him is just the way he carries himself and the way he does the little things well and is still doing all those little things down to a tee when he’s played about 130 Super Rugby games - that’s what you need to do if you want to be up there as one of the best players in your position.”
Ironically it’s not the first time McCartney has been confronted with the challenge of a captain blocking his pathway into the starting XV- he faced the very same issue coming through the ranks at Pakuranga Rugby club as the skipper also happened to play hooker.
But it’s not in McCartney’s nature to be content waiting in the wings – there is a reason he’s known to his teammates as ‘Freak’ for the amount of training he puts into becoming a fitter and stronger player.
Refusing to be consigned to a role on the bench, McCartney switched from hooker to prop in the hope of getting more game time and was subsequently selected for both the Auckland Colts and Auckland Development sides as a loosehead.
He has continued to work on his propping game and is now a genuine option for the Blues. It’s a string to his bow McCartney is modestly proud about.
“I do really enjoy the propping side of things, I suppose over the years I’ve had to adapt a little bit with Kevvie playing a lot of the time so any opportunity I could give the coaches to put me on the field was an asset to me to get more game time and as it turned out I ended up doing pretty well at it and enjoyed it so it is something I’d like to keep working on.”
With Mealamu spending much of the season on the sidelines with a strained calf, McCartney has been fortunate to enjoy a lot more game time in his preferred position of hooker.
It has certainly not been an easy task this year with a lineout that has struggled to click and find its rhythm, but McCartney is determined to finish off the season on a high and take down the Force at Eden Park on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be a tough game, we’re both down the wrong end of the table so for them this is a game they’ll definitely be up for and wanting to make sure they stay above us and for us we just want to finish as well as we can with two good wins and especially this last game at Eden Park, we want to make sure we do the right thing for our fans.”