MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Having made ends meet as a garbage collector while dreaming of a professional rugby career, hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa is looking forward to getting his hands dirty when he makes his Wallabies debut in Saturday’s series-opener against Ireland.
In the space of a year, the Auckland-born 22-year-old has enjoyed a stunning rise from Australia’s third-tier National Rugby Championship to wearing the number two jersey against the Six Nations champions in Brisbane.
Self-discipline is a strong point for Paenga-Amosa, who was overlooked by the national development sides and became accustomed to 4 a.m. starts with his garbage crew.
He had moral support from another rugby dreamer in Folau Fainga’a, who also worked in his crew while the pair toiled in the Shute Shield, New South Wales’ premier club competition.
Both were rewarded with Super Rugby contracts, Paenga-Amosa heading north to Brisbane to play for Brad Thorn’s Queensland Reds and Fainga’a west to the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies.
The duo so impressed in half a season of Super Rugby that Michael Cheika put them in his initial 32-man squad for the three-match Ireland series, part of a generational change after the retirement of long-serving hooker and captain Stephen Moore.
The wheel of fortune swung his way once more over the weekend, with Melbourne Rebels rake Jordan Uelese succumbing to a season-ending knee injury, opening the door for Paenga-Amosa to claim the starting spot.
“I’m sleeping, I’m pinching myself. This is actually real, like it’s so crazy what’s going on,” a beaming Paenga-Amosa told reporters, speaking of a teary phone call to share the good news with family.
“I’m just so honoured that (Cheika) gave me that opportunity to really give it a crack, I’m excited, I can’t wait.”
Paenga-Amosa will share the butterflies with another Auckland-born Queensland forward in Caleb Timu, who will make his test debut at number eight at Lang Park.
Canterbury Crusader loose forward Pete Samu, belatedly released by New Zealand Rugby for Wallabies duty, could be a third debutant off the bench.
Cheika is renowned for hunting high and low for talent, plundering the rival National Rugby League (NRL) competition, luring players back from overseas and sifting through the minor leagues for diamonds in the rough.
But it was dual international Thorn who plucked Paenga-Amosa from the obscurity of suburban Sydney.
Once wearing a mop of frizzy hair, Paenga-Amosa now sports a no-nonsense buzz cut more in keeping with the All Blacks great.
“I saw Thorny an hour ago and he really came and embraced me. It was good to see that from Thorny, he’s a good man,” Paenga-Amosa said.
“Actually the first thing he said when I first made the Wallabies was: ‘Aren’t you glad you came to Queensland?”
An injury to Ireland captain Rory Best has spared Paenga-Amosa a head-on clash with the veteran hooker and he will pack down in a dual of rookies with three-test rake Rob Herring.
Cheika was confident he would not waste the chance.
“I’ve watched him particularly play against a couple of the international hookers in Super Rugby this year and he stepped right up to the mark,” the coach said.
“I trust him to go out there and do the job, for sure.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by John O'Brien