As Rob Leota walks into the Melbourne Rebels press office, introduces himself with a firm handshake and takes a seat, he begins to remove some strapping from his right quad.
. The 20-year-old is still on his way back from a long-term knee injury which he suffered in September last year.
“It was in a pre-season game,” he recalls. “I’d just come off the bench, just literally got subbed on.
“I was at the ruck and the guy has come and pushed me out of the ruck and hit my knee. It wasn’t deliberate but it was over just like that.”
Eight months on, the Rebels back row is itching to return, however after spending so long on the sidelines, he understands the dangers of rushing back too soon.
“Hopefully it’ll take about six more weeks then I’ll be able to play,” said Leota. “I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel now but you can’t take anything for granted and just have to keep staying patient.”
Leota, who was born in Preston, believes that his latest injury setback has been like a “blessing in disguise.”
“I’ve started doing a lot of things that I never used to do, just little one percent sort of stuff that nobody wants to do like stretching after a long run,” Leota said.
“Even though I’m only 20, I’m trying to think like I’m a lot older and be more mature and professional.”
Leota, who last year became first home-grown talent – alongside Sione Tuipulotu – to sign a contract with the Rebels, fondly remembers watching his first super rugby game at the old Olympic Park.
“My cousin was in The Rebels academy and got tickets to one of Rebels’ first games. I was only 13 and wasn’t really taking my rugby seriously back then,” Leota said.
“From then on I kept going to more games with my family and probably when I was 16, I started picturing myself in the jersey.”
Despite coming from a rugby-mad family, Leota admitted that he “wasn’t really sporty growing up,” and after an initial foray into the sport aged 6, he took a break.
“I was a bit scared when I first started. After that my mum pulled me out of rugby because she thought it was a bit too dangerous for me,” he said.
But he found himself back on the field age 14, when rugby collided with school.
“The president of our rugby club (Northgate Rugby Club) was my year seven coordinator at Thornbury High and there weren’t many numbers,” Leota said.
“I just wanted to do him a favour because he was a friend of the family and then seeing my family there again made me want to stick around.”
From there, Leota went from strength to strength, representing Victoria’s U14s team before helping The Rebels’ U17 Junior Gold Cup side reach the National Grand Final in 2014.
A year later, Leota won a silver medal for Australia at the Youth Commonwealth Games.
Leota’s junior career was capped off by being a part of the fifth-placed Australian under-20s World Cup side last year.
Leota said the competition, which was held in England, was one of the best experiences of his career both on and off the field.
“It is one of the many benefits of playing rugby, just the travelling aspect that a lot of people see and sometimes take for granted.
“I got to experience England as well as play against and watch many other countries I never thought I’d actually play against.
“Getting to learn from new coaches and other coaches with different perspectives on the game as well,” he said.
Now he now dreams about representing the Wallabies’ senior side, though not after a proper preparation to make sure his injury doesn’t cause any further issues.
“For now I just want to get back from this knee injury and get as many games as I can,” he said.
Joe Nicholson is a second year Sports Journalism student at The University of Sunderland on exchange at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter here: @joe_nicholson96”
Marshall McDonald is a second year Bachelor of Media and Communication (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter here: @LurchMarshall