Milestone man Wycliff Palu wants to repay Ewen McKenzie with a storming game in his 50th Test match.
Wycliff Palu plays his 50th Wallabies Test against France on Saturday night, 10 seasons after leaving rugby league as an oversized prop.
And he’s desperate to reward the man who convinced him to cross codes back then – Ewen McKenzie.
Palu says he’ll forever be grateful to McKenzie, who signed him from St George Illawarra and put him straight into the NSW back-row as the Waratahs charged to the 2005 Super Rugby final.
Only a year later the bulldozing No.8 debuted for the Wallabies.
If the sliding doors moment didn’t occur in 2004, Palu reckons life would be a lot different now as he prepares to play his first game under McKenzie since he left the Waratahs in 2008.
“If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he told AAP. “He gave me that opportunity and rugby is all about opportunity.
“I was playing rugby league and he gave me one. I just want to repay the favour by playing well.”
At the time, Palu was hemmed in behind front-row stars Jason Ryles, Brent Kite and Luke Bailey at the Dragons and only playing NSW Cup.
McKenzie was friends with Dragons coach Nathan Brown who felt Palu, who grew up in Manly playing both codes, may make more impact in the 15-man game.
The offer McKenzie put to him was exactly the same as his NRL contract.
“I just looked at it and thought rugby would suit me better,” Palu said. “When I went to rugby league I weighed 126kg and there’s not too many 126kg rugby league players running around.”
But is hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the big man in his rugby journey to a half-century of caps.
While he brings up the 50 at 31, nine seasons after debuting, prop James Slipper notches his milestone against France a day after his 25th birthday and four years since his debut.
A series of major injuries have taken their toll, but he’s still a highly-valued Wallaby when fit – highlighted by finishing second in last year’s John Eales Medal despite missing half the games.
“I just can’t believe how fast it’s gone; they told me back then I looked 31, and I’m 31 now,” he laughed. “And I think I’m a bit fitter.”
Palu also has another reason to repay McKenzie.
Although in strong form for red-hot NSW, he admitted the No.8 jersey could easily have gone to Ben McCalman or Scott Higginbotham who are “absolutely killing it” in Super Rugby.
McKenzie has revealed it was Palu’s physicality and maturity which earned him the nod, while Palu said he won’t be playing any different to how he always has for his initial rugby mentor.
“Ever since he’s coached me it’s always been to bring what I’ve got,” he said. “He’s never told me ‘you can’t play this certain style, you can’t do this, you can’t do that’.
“He’s just let me express myself. I will forever be grateful to him.”