Andrew Walker’s fitting farewell
STANDING on the sidelines on June 22, 1988 at Coogee Oval, as the All Blacks played Randwick in one of the landmark rugby occasions in Australia's history, was a skinny Aboriginal kid from Shoalhaven.
"I call this Mother Earth, this is where it all started," Andrew Walker said, sitting in the stands of the ground on Tuesday afternoon.
"I'm probably going to finish it here - hopefully walking off, not getting dragged off in an ambulance."
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At 45, the enigmatic Walker will play the final competitive match of his incredible dual-code career for Randwick against Argentina's Test side on Saturday afternoon.
The former Wallaby and NRL star, who dazzled onlookers and rivals with his magic hands and feet throughout the 1990s and 2000s, has been playing club rugby league for Norths in Brisbane, but after his super-sub role for the Galloping Greens this weekend he's likely to hang up the boots.
"There were a lot of ups and downs in my career," Walker said.
"I've always been a people person, I played the game to make good mates, but also for the crowd.
"I'm there to entertain. I am a gladiator. That was my domain. I'm the nicest person off the field, but on there, that was my gladiator stage.
"That's something I did own in my career, and I wanted to own it outright.
"I wouldn't change anything for the world. I had my lows, but those lows were good learning curves, life lessons.
"And the highs I had were enormous. It gave a kid from the bush, the youngest of 13, who didn't go to a private school, now I realise this stuff was not supposed to happen. It just wasn't supposed to happen - but it did, because I had the passion and drive to do it.
"I say to these indigenous kids, that are so talented, you've only got to fine-tune them, but the big thing they've got to get through is the mental toughness, the week in week out grind.
"But doing something you love and getting paid for it makes it easy."
So it's fitting Walker's last hurrah is at the gladiator's arena known as Coogee Oval, where that day in 1988, as a 15-year-old, he watched his first live match of union with the Ella brothers, Lloyd Walker, Simon Poidevin and David Campese ripping into Buck Shelford and Sean Fitzpatrick.
"I remember that ABs game, the Wicks were right in that game, it was the Australian team anyway, and [Grant] Fox kicking all the goals got them home (25-9)," Walker said.
"The crowd was green, and so fanatical about Randwick, and I absolutely loved it. That was my first live experience of rugby union, I was a leaguie from the bush.
"Peter Phelps brought us here - he's passed away - he was our rugby coach and said we should see a proper game, and I was in awe of it. Having that crowd in a club environment against the All Blacks, I imagined that crowd watching me play.
"I was 17 when I played first grade for Randwick and went right through.
"This was my first ever club, it wasn't professional then, and I've stayed here."
Walker would go on to play 145 NRL games for St George Dragons, Sydney Roosters and Manly Sea Eagles while also playing a Test for the Kangaroos, as well as three Super Rugby seasons with the Brumbies and seven Tests for the Wallabies.
He now resides is Brisbane with five children, but a phone call from former teammate Stephen Hoiles convinced Walker to be part of this exhibition game - the first of its kind since 1988.
"Hoilesy said 'We've got a game against Argentina, we've got a lot of young kids here, it would be good for you to come back and talk about what it was like for you to play at Randwick and how passionate it was," Walker said.
"I was here when the All Blacks played, and I said 'How good would it have been to play in a game like that', so that's how it came about.
"The Ellas and Lloyd did for me what I'm trying to do now for these kids.
"Argentina are two weeks out from the World Cup, they're coming to play.
"If I can get these kids across the line, just to see how tough it's going to be physically and mentally, I hope I can help progress their career.
"Games like this never come around, we probably won't see this for another 10 years. We're not going to make it easy for them to dictate play."
Randwick coach Hadley Jackson will bring Walker off the bench for his trademark spark.
"He brings 30 years of professional experience at the highest level in both codes, that's something our 20-year-olds who are extremely talented with big futures ahead, he can impart that knowledge on them, he's going to be a huge part of the group for the whole week," Jackson said.
Before the game, Randwick will unveil their new scoreboard, named after the Ellas and cricket legend Mike Whitney.
"It's a celebration of what Randwick is as a club and our strong indigenous background," Randwick's new general manager, Mark Harrison, said.
"And we have a young team, in the Shute Shield our oldest player is David Vea and he's 24, so part of the challenge we've had this year is that we're in the game for most of it and just the lack of experience that's got other teams over us in the last 10 minutes.
"Obviously this game is a young team taking on an international side, and to have a legend of the club in Andrew with them during the week mentoring them is huge.
"And the other thing that will happen on Friday night is that the 1988 team will come and do the jersey presentation to the 2019 team."