Mitre 10 Cup time has arrived and with it comes exposure to some of the brightest young talents in New Zealand. Some are fresh out of 1st XV or club rugby, some are returning from Super Rugby, and, at the other end of the scale, some wise heads are back from overseas adventures.
One player who is unlikely to see game time for his province this season is Tiaan Falcon. The 22 year old out of Lindisfarne College in Hastings made his debut for Hawke’s Bay in 2016, primarily at second five outside Ihaia West, before representing the New Zealand Under 20’s at their 2017 World Cup in Georgia.
In a squad containing the likes of Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii and Will Jordan, Falcon was a key part of their campaign playing at first five; he, along with Jordan, made the shortlist of five for player of the tournament. Unfortunately, a concussion sustained in the semi-final ruled him out of the showpiece against England.
‘I played on after the knock, directing the game, but after (the game) I realised that the concussion I was diagnosed with meant a 6/7 day stand-down from World Rugby and the final was in 5 days.’
It was tough to take, but Tiaan says they were a strong, united group and he had additional support from his parents, to help him get over the disappointment.
In the background, Tiaan had already signed a two year deal to play for the Chiefs during the 2018 & 2019 seasons. When he reflects now, he looks back and realises that when he returned from Georgia, some complacency kicked in; he’d had a successful run and the contract was already in the bag, but out of that he says:
‘I learnt how to be a full time professional when going to the Chiefs.’
A disappointing Mitre 10 campaign for the Magpies followed that year, finishing 6th in the Championship, with only Southland behind them. Moving away from that environment, to join up with the Chiefs towards the end of 2017, gave him a fresh perspective and a chance to put that poor run of results, and, by his own admission, his own personal form, behind him, but then injuries started to rear their head.
Pre-season saw Tiaan suffer a cracked rib. During the season, he had a hamstring injury, a broken hand and a further concussion which meant he could never really get a sustained run in the team, or even the matchday squad.
Putting the injuries to one side, the Super Rugby season had started positively for him, when the Chiefs second match brought them to Auckland to face the Blues. During the warm-up at Eden Park, Shaun Stevenson suffered an injury, which meant a re-jig, with Damian McKenzie shifting to fullback and Tiaan (having had the tap on the shoulder from Colin Cooper about 25 mins before kick-off) stepping in to steer the ship at 1st five. I remember watching and thinking what an assured debut it was, especially under the circumstances. A bye week followed and he again got the start in a home win against the Bulls, but after that, he was dropped, something he describes as ‘stink’. With the broken hand, he didn’t even manage to get on the plane for their mid-season tour of South Africa and the early season encouragement and development was turning to frustration.
With Super Rugby coming to an end, he reintegrated with his Magpies teammates, where they looked to improve on their 2017 efforts. A Ranfurly Shield challenge came and went in September at the familiar Waikato Stadium, but significantly it was also the end of his season, after he sustained another injury, this time, to his shoulder.
Worse luck was to come in January this year, when he ruptured his Achilles tendon after returning to the Chiefs. The prognosis was bad; no Super Rugby and little chance of Mitre 10 action either.
By this stage, you wouldn’t blame him for thinking his luck was cursed. 21 years old and unable to stay fit for a decent length of time. With it happening at the start of the second and final year of his contract, it was a mental challenge and a concern as to how his ongoing professional career would develop.
In the background, Tiaan’s family was providing encouragement, support, but also realism. His father Gordon, a former Magpie, Hurricane and New Zealand Maori representative (and Penrith Panther as well), had his career ended by injury. As a result, they have always made Tiaan aware that ‘rugby isn’t everything’. As we caught up for a coffee in Napier, Tiaan recalled instances where he’d be in the car after Lindisfarne games, upset at his performance, the result, or both, and Gordon would simply say ‘you’re not at school to play rugby’. That attitude has stayed with him since, and when faced with the long term injury this year, he enrolled at Waikato University where is now studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in psychology.
Studying in Hamilton sees him stay close to the Chiefs, via his rehab programme and their weekly reviews, while also studying Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. He also had shoulder surgery this year, to get on top of the injury sustained in that Shield challenge last year.
Study also allows him to focus his attention away from the frustration of the layoff, whilst also providing a clear pathway to a career after rugby; he wants to be a sports psychologist when his rugby career ends, and the intention is to chip away over the coming years so that he’s fully qualified to do that when he hangs up the boots.
Don’t let that future career plan fool you though. There’s a determination to achieve on the pitch as he firmly says to me ‘I want to be an All Black’ and ‘I don’t just want to be remembered for that Under 20 World Cup.’ He is contracted to the Chiefs and the Magpies for 2020 and there’s still a chance he could be back out on the paddock if Hawke’s Bay make the semi-final or final of the Championship this year, but if it’s not to be, next year will see his return.
Being back with the Magpies, but unlikely to play, has seen Tiaan’s local community involvement increase in pre-season, with visits to the Hawke’s Bay Hospital in Hastings and weekly visits to local schools a key part of his role with the province; it’s another factor that keeps this young man grounded, seeing those who are in ill health or don’t have the opportunities that many are afforded. On a lighter note, he and his fellow injured Magpie Jonah Lowe keep their competitive juices flowing with plenty of ten pin bowling contests in Hastings.
The disappointments over the last couple of years would have probably broken some young players, but not Tiaan Falcon. A mixture of good upbringing, talent, realism, determination and ambition mean that his best years are ahead of him, both on and off the pitch.
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