Nick Palmer takes the road less travelled to first Super Rugby contract at 26

Nick Palmer isn’t you’re typical Super Rugby rookie. In fact, the civil engineer’s rugby journey is probably one of the more unique stories that you’ll ever hear.

At 26, Palmer is midway through his first pre-season at the Waratahs and while it’s taken a little longer than he would have liked, the Newcastle junior said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“To be honest, I think it’s helped massively. Particularly playing in the second row because it’s not really a young man’s game. I don’t think you really start hitting your straps until you’re 25 or 26, then you’re probably still not at your best until you’re 28 or 29,” Palmer told Rugby News.

“At 18 or 19, most players probably aren’t big enough or mature enough to run a lineout, but with a few extra years going through the system, it gives you some more time to grow and learn and I think I’ve really benefited from that.”

At 15, Palmer played his first game of rugby as a fullback at Joeys in Sydney. As he grew into his body, ‘Sticksy’ soon found himself in the second row, where he eventually played his was into the well known rugby nurseries first XV.

“I’d like to think my days in the backs aren’t completely over. I’ve got a new pair of Nike Tiempo’s that are nice and fast and I don’t get to wear them too much in the second row, so if Issy goes down, I’m happy to put my hand up,” he joked.

After finishing school, Palmer returned home to live and study in Newcastle and linked with local club Hamilton soon after.

“My cousin was playing at the Hawks, so I came back and played a few games during the holidays while I was in year 12, then played my first full season with them a year later,” he said.

“We had a really good side in those years. We won the comp twice and played in four straight grand finals.”

As he continued to grow, Palmer caught the attention of the Newcastle Hunter representative coaches and at 21, was picked in the NSW Country Cockatoos open squad.

He finished his civil engineering degree at Newcastle University a year later and moved down to Sydney to join Shute Shield club Northern Suburbs in 2014.

“I had a few mates playing at Norths and I had a place to stay in Cremorne so it seemed like the obvious choice at the time and it ended up working out pretty well,” he said.

Palmer spent most of his first season in Sydney playing lower grades before making his first grade debut from the bench at the end of 2014.

In 2015, new Norths coach Simon Cron picked Palmer to start at lock ahead of round one, where he remained for the rest of the season.

“It probably took me half of 2015 to fully find my feet in first grade but I think I’m someone that likes being thrown in the deep end and I think I tend to lift when I’m surrounded by quality players,” he said.

Palmer spent the backend of 2015 playing with the NSW Country Eagles NRC squad before starring for Norths in 2016 as the Shoreman won 13 straight matches to win the club’s first Shute Shield premiership in 41 years.

“I think we just started to believe that we were good enough to win every game that we played. In 2015, we finished eighth and won a handful of games and although we knew we had plenty of ability and talent, we probably didn’t have that belief and I think that was the catalyst for 2016.

“For me personally, I think that season was probably the turning point and I started to think that maybe I was good enough to take rugby a little more seriously.”

But just as Palmer looked like taking the next step in his career, the lock tore his hamstring off his bone midway through his first NRC campaign with the North Harbour Rays and spent the next nine months on the sideline.

He returned for Norths in June after a long rehabilitation process, before crossing the Tasman to link with Hawke’s Bay on a professional contract for their 2017 ITM Cup campaign.

“The Hawkes Bay deal was actually finalised in February when I was in the middle of my rehab but all the physios seemed confident that I was going to make a pretty good recovery. They signed me based on the assumption that I would be fit a month or two before their season started and fortunately it worked out,” Palmer said.

After spending two seasons playing in the NRC while working a full time job, Palmer said he relished the opportunity to focus on rugby full time and thrived in the competitive New Zealand environment.

“It’s such a high quality competition and most of the sides over there have seven or eight established Super Rugby players playing in each side every week plus the odd All Black floating around so it’s a really high quality competition,” he said.

“To be fair, in the two previous seasons playing in the NRC with the Eagles and the Rays, I found it pretty tough to balance footy and work, so that made the decision to head over to New Zealand fairly easy.”

He then agreed to terms to return to Sydney and join the Waratahs at the end of the ITM Cup season, alongside Norths flanker Will Miller and coach Simon Cron.

“There are a lot of familiar faces around the place so that made it easier at the start. I’ve really enjoyed the professional environment with everyone pushing one another to get better,” he said.

“I’ve put on a few kilos since Hawkes Bay. I got sick with a virus in New Zealand and I dropped down to about 105kg but I’m back up at 110kg. I’d still like to add a couple more kilos but it’s pretty tough at this time of the year with all the running and conditioning that we’re doing in the heat.”

Palmer is one of three new locks at the Waratahs this year, with former Wallaby and Reds lock Rob Simmons and Brumbies young gun Tom Staniforth also joining the club.

Palmer said he also expected Ned Hanigan to spend some time in the second row this season, alongside former Australian U20s lock Ryan McCauley, with the five big men to compete for three or four spots in the Waratahs match day 23.

“I’m one of the older locks at the club but some of the other boys have more Super Rugby experience than me so that’s creating plenty of competition for spots. With Skelton and Mumm leaving, there are a few spots up for grabs and we’re all working really hard at the moment.”

Palmer said it hasn’t taken long for Cron to have a positive impact on the group, after joining the Waratahs as an assistant coach late last year.

“He’s got an ability to connect with blokes from all walks of life, he’s already got a really good rapport with all the guys at the Waratahs and it was no different at Norths. He motivates and can have a joke with guys but at the same he’s a very hard taskmaster and he’s really good at managing that balance.

“He drives that compete to win philosophy which he’s bought from Norths to the Tahs and he makes everything a competition. That drives strong performances because you want to be ruthless and win every contest you go in to on the training field and on the playing field.”

While Palmer didn’t play a part in the Waratahs disastrous 2017 Super Rugby campaign, he said he felt it was the perfect time to join the group and said he’s been impressed with the work ethic of the squad so far.

“We’ve put 2017 behind us but at the same time, I think it’s an underlying motivator. We want to bounce back, have a really good season and win the competition this year. We’re not just playing to make the semis or win the Australian conference, we want to win the entire competition.”

The Waratahs head to New Zealand next week to play their opening trial of their 2018 campaign against the Highlanders in Queenstown, before returning to play the Rebels at Brookvale Oval a fortnight later.

Palmer said he was hopeful of getting some game time during preseason and said his short term goal was to stay fit and healthy and make his Super Rugby debut early this season.

“I’m feeling good with my body and I think I’m only going to continue to learn from the people around me. I don’t think you can go into a professional program and not learn and get better and if you don’t, well then you’re probably not having a go,” he said.

“There is still a lot more that I think I can improve on and hopefully in a year or so I’ll be ready to be a starting lock somewhere. I don’t just want to make a Super Rugby squad, I want to be the best player once I get there.”

It’s been a fairly long journey already for Palmer but with that attitude, you get the feeling it may only be the beginning.