Unwanted in Australia and on the verge of giving rugby away three years ago, Ben Gunter is now poised to realise a child dream and take on the British and Irish Lions.
Former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says Gunter and fellow former Brisbane schoolboy Jack Cornelsen are two that got away from Australian rugby after helping the pair gain selection in the Japan’s Test squad.
Fresh off starring in Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights’ Top League final triumph on Sunday, Gunter and Cornelsen are among 36 hopefuls in the Brave Blossoms squad preparing to tackle the Lions in two Tests in Britain next month.
Gunter said he and Cornelsen “both started laughing” when named by coach Jamie Joseph on Monday.
“We couldn’t believe that 10 years ago, when I’m a little kid, all I wanted to do was just watch them live,” Gunter said from Japan.
“So to be able to, potentially, be on the field or even go there and be part of the team that’s playing the Lions, I don’t think words can really describe how happy (I am) and what a feeling that is for a young player like me from a little town, from Gunnedah, to be in this position.
“A couple of years ago when I finished high school in Australia and I had no option, I had no offer from any clubs, I was close to joining the army.
“Then obviously Robbie and Panasonic came knocking on the door and they gave me a chance. They believed in me.”
The flanker was enormous, Jerome Kaino-like, in Sunday’s 31-26 win over Suntory Sungoliath.
Deans says there’s “no doubt Benny would be the frame” for a Wallabies jersey if he was in Australia.
But just not if he’d have stayed in Australia instead of taking a punt in Japan.
“The door may not have opened for him to get the development that he’s had here,” Deans said.
“So he got access to something and he took advantage of it.
“He chose a path that has provided that opportunity and I think you’ll see when he does pull on the Japanese jersey, hopefully against the Lions, you’ll come to see what we all have seen and understand.
“He’ll be more than competitive at that level.”
So, too, Cornelsen, the son of former Test legend Greg who famously scored four tries for the Wallabies against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1978.
“He’s an international ready to go,” Deans said.
“His development has been steady and obviously coming over here allowed him to do that at a rate that I don’t think there would have been the patience for him domestically (from Australia’s Super Rugby clubs) just in terms of his physique.
“But he’s grown into a player that’s equipped for that level now.
“He’s got some good genetics, obviously, some good DNA – son of Greg combined with a bit of Kiwi – it’s a good blend and he’ll turn a few heads.”
Incumbent Wallabies coach Dave Rennie fears many more Australian players will be lost to cashed-up Japanese sides.
But Gunter, 23, and Cornelsen, 26, are living proof it’s not just seasoned Test stars in their career twilight like Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley following the yen.
Gunter believes Cornelsen, who stands almost two metres tall and can play five positions in the forward pack, will be a sensation for the Brave Blossoms.
“I’ve never played with someone who just works as much as he does. He’s just everywhere – attack, defence, set piece,” Gunter said.
“And the fact that he can play anywhere between four and eight, that’s a very unique skill set, and he’ll bring a lot of energy and just passion as well.
“I love playing with a guy like that because it obviously makes me want to play better and makes me want to work harder and just try to keep up with him.”