Rugby-Perese repays Waratahs for taking 'huge risk' on him

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Global rugby economics often see loyalties strained and broken in Australia, but Izaia Perese felt duty-bound to stick with the rebuilding New South Wales Waratahs after the Super Rugby side helped rebuild his life.

The talented 24-year-old centre re-signed with the Sydney-based team through to 2024, keeping him in the frame for a Wallabies spot and a ticket to next year's World Cup in France.

The deal announced Tuesday is also a coup for the Waratahs, who took a big gamble recruiting Perese last year despite his troubled history of drug charges, injuries and wellbeing issues.

Before the Waratahs came knocking, Perese's career was at a cross-roads in 2020 as he battled injury, depression and home-sickness during a miserable stint at French club Bayonne.

"When I first came from France, they took a huge risk because ... I've made the headlines before, that before leaving France (I) was, you know, drug-charged and stuff," Perese told reporters on Tuesday.

"So they didn’t know what they were getting with me. So in a sense, they took a huge gamble on me and I'm forever grateful for that."

Though based in Australia's best-resourced rugby state, the Waratahs went winless through a miserable 2021 that saw former coach Rob Penney sacked after a handful of games.

Perese, however, was a beacon of hope, winning the Matt Burke Cup as their best player while appearing in only nine of 13 games.

Wallabies captain Michael Hooper is the only other player to claim the award in their debut season.

Perese will be an important part of new coach Darren Coleman's plans for the Waratahs, who snapped their losing streak against Fijian Drua in the first round of Super Rugby Pacific but lost their last two games.

Bringing the best out of Perese has been a club-wide project, involving counselling and carefully constructed support networks for a player who has suffered depression and feelings of isolation during vulnerable times.

"He is a quality human," said Waratahs assistant coach Jason Gilmore.

"There was certainly some welfare that we had to put around him.

"(It's) just having quality people around him to help him if he's having a tough day."

Perese's breakout 2021 season caught Wallabies coach Dave Rennie's eye, leading to a test debut in the 15-13 defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield in November.

"Definitely, definitely a goal," Perese said of the World Cup. "In saying that, that's next year ... I'm fully invested in what we're doing here now at the Waratahs and I believe that will stem onto the Wallabies."

Australian rugby has long suffered a player drain to richer markets in Japan and Europe, and often battles the country's National Rugby League (NRL) competition for talent.

Perese started his career in rugby union at Super Rugby's Queensland Reds before switching to the NRL in 2019 for two seasons at the Brisbane Broncos.

Australian media reported the Dolphins, set to join the NRL as Brisbane's second team in 2023, were poised to lure Perese away from the Waratahs and have him re-unite with master coach Wayne Bennett, his former mentor at the Broncos.

Perese said the reports were wide of the mark.

"Whether or not Wayne wanted me there I was pretty happy to be down here at the Tahs," he said.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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