‘Living in the darkness’: The gap year that saw new Tah learn about ‘tough work’- and why he’s stoked to be home
As a kid finishing up at primary school, Fergus Lee-Warner had posters of the Waratahs hanging on the wall of his family home. In fact, they’re still there.
Now, he’s the figure on the poster.
It’s something not lost on the knockabout country boy, who grew up in Scone.
“I remember when I was younger, we obviously went to a lot of Tahs games through [high] school but when I was little, I remember I made mum and dad stay behind and I got every player’s signature,” the versatile forward said.
“It’s funny, when the kids come to the fan days, you talk to them and they’re like, ‘I want to get every player’s signature,’ so that’s cool.”
The 29-year-old is finally back in New South Wales after taking the long, beaten track to return home.
After five years with the Western Force and a season up in the English Premiership, with Worcester and then Bath, a phone call from his old club coach Darren Coleman put the wheels in motion for his return.
It’s something Lee-Warner didn’t have to think long about.
“I always knew I’d come back,” he said.
“It was just a matter of when, and I feel like now was the time to come back.
“I really did enjoy my time over abroad, but when DC [Coleman] reached out to say, ‘Come back and get around us,’ I was keen to come back and be back in God’s country.
“Looking at the roster, when I was over at Bath looking at the squad here, we’ve got a seriously good squad in both the tight-five and the backs, so that was probably one of the things that pulled me back here.
“And then obviously DC and [assistant] Pauli [Taumoepeau], they coached me at Easts. It’s amazing that we’ve come back together full circle and I have complete trust in them, and I’m really liking the direction that the club’s going.”
Over the years, Lee-Warner’s desire to get stuck in and go again has won admirers.
It’s something the Waratahs are placing an extra emphasis on this season, with the franchise’s brain trust recognising the need for the squad to go to some darker places to get the desired results after a year of inconsistency on the field.
“We’re hoping that the additions bring what we want to the table,” Taumoepeau said.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve got to make a shift in is working hard. I know that sounds simplistic, but there’s a lot that goes into, especially from a forward’s point of view, living in the darkness and really liking it.
“With some self-reflection, we probably didn’t put them in that dark place enough last year. We’ve put them in that hole, and it’s forced them to work hard out of it.”
It’s something Lee-Warner is comfortable doing after working during his gap year on a two-million-acre station under the blistering sun on the edge of the Kimberley in Kununurra.
“It was a fun year, just working with your mates. Hard work, really hard work,” he said.
“I didn’t think I was going to be playing professionally after school.
“Working on a cattle station, some of the days were like the hardest things I’ve ever done. Just like branding calves, it’s like 45-odd degree on horses all day, working from five in the morning. Sometimes we’d be out all night bush firefighting.
“Coming into here to do a day’s work is tough, but you think back and go, that was probably the hardest work.”
Lee-Warner, who left Australian rugby in 2022 after failing to get a call-up to the Wallabies, is expected to feature heavily in the second-row for the mobile Waratahs.
While he’s equally adept at blindside flanker, the King’s School product believes his year in England has helped refine his skills at the set-piece.
“I feel like my lineout has improved around calling and defending and seeing different pitches,” the 116kg forward said.
“Then I’d say just playing with some world-class players like Finn Russell and Ollie Lawrence, players like that who are like at the top of their game, it just gives you confidence, and I feel like I’ve gained a lot of confidence playing in that league.
“Hopefully I can come back and put it into practice here.”
For now, Lee-Warner is thrilled to be home. But in the Waratahs’ 150th year, pulling on the jersey isn’t enough.
“It’s amazing getting signed here to the Waratahs but it’s a whole different kettle of fish playing consistently every week and hopefully winning,” he said. “That’s when it will sink in.”