Mark Chisholm eager to hit stride after stepping into some big Munster shoes
Wallaby says Paul O’Connell is irreplaceable as he vows to give his all to cause
Mark Chisholm, in action here against Ulster’s Rob Herring, says he didn’t think twice when Munster came calling. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Mark Chisholm was fully cognisant of the history attached to Munster and the players who came before him. He was a watching member of the Wallabies squad when they were beaten by Munster in Thomond Park in 2010. It’s why, with the help of his mate Paul Warwick, he chose Munster.
Despite recent results, it’s been exactly what he expected and wanted. What’s taken him aback is Munster’s professionalism. “It’s one of the most professional teams I’ve played with. The accountability on each individual, no matter who you are and how many international caps or Lions caps you have, it’s there. Everyone is subject to criticism and everyone has to strive to improve.”
If Munster are going through a transitional phase, in a sense, he’s been here before. In his second season with the Brumbies, when he was 22 and before he’d played for the Wallabies, Chisholm scored six tries in a vintage campaign. It culminated in George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff et al beating the Crusaders in that epic Canberra Super 12 final by 47-38. That generation would move on, and the Brumbies haven’t scaled those heights since.
“The years after that were difficult, but I think the hardest thing was trying to establish your own vision. You don’t have the players of the past but what you can do is build on what they’ve left behind. There is plenty of potential to achieve.”
If so, tonight is a litmus test, the kind for which Munster traditionally rolled their sleeves up and got down and dirty. He can sense it. “It will be totally different, back up there with the rugby Munster is used to. There’s no choice, is there? You either want to win and do it, or you let it go, and we’re not a team to let things go.”
With 58 Tests for Australia, 102 Super Rugby games with the Brumbies and another 89 with Bayonne, the hard-working 34-year-old looks like a good acquisition, although he admits it’s been difficult to adapt from four seasons in the Top 14. “I’ve had to learn and I’ve had to learn quickly. I’m not one of those players who accepts mediocrity. I always want to improve and be the best. I’m coping and each week for me has been better than last week.”
Sitting in a quiet corner of the Castletroy Hotel during the week, down the road from his family’s new home, Chisholm, his wife Lauren and five children have settled in well. The kids are in school, and Irish homework has been tricky for the eldest, Zachary (10), and his father.
“He came home with his Irish homework one day and I said: ‘c’mon, surely we can work this out.’ After half an hour I had to ring one of the boys. ‘You need to help me out.’ So, a long story short, we spoke to the principal, and as long as he is doing another language, everyone’s happy. I think it’s a bit late for him to get started with the Irish. But the younger kids, Xander (six) and Allegra (five), are starting to sing songs in Irish and coming home with new words, which is great.” The four-year-old twins, Tobias and Olivier, were born in Bayonne; hence the French twist. Lauren, his childhood sweetheart, is the daughter of ex-Wallaby lock Bill Campbell, but for all the rugby bloodline, coming from Brisbane, the four years in the French south west were a surfers paradise for the Chisholms.
“I did a fair bit of surfing but I said to Zach ‘you can’t come out with me until you learn how to swim and read the ocean.’ So we got him into surf lifesaving at Biarritz, and he was really enjoying it. We’ve moved here now but tomorrow night we’ve got another two hours in the pool at the UL, all learning how to swim.”
There was no rugby union in Chisholm’s own family, who hailed from Ipswich, west of Brisbane – rugby league territory. Although born in Gladstone, 550km north of Brisbane, his father James and mother Laurel moved their family of five children to Brisbane soon after. Chisholm made no representative team until leaving school when joining Western Districts, aka Wests, on foot of which he was invited to an Australian under-19 trial match in Sydney.
“I was quite skinny at that stage. I wasn’t expecting much. When the squad for the Under-19 World Cup in France was announced that night, as my name began with ‘C’ I was one of the first called out. ‘Streuth, that’s me! I’m playing for Australia’.”
They lost the final to the hosts, and there were losing finals in the 2001 Southern Hemisphere Under-21 final to New Zealand in Sydney and the 2002 Under-21 World Championship to South Africa in Johannesburg. McCaw led the New Zealand under-21s.
“I remember him trapping the ball with one foot, cleaned out and then picked up with one hand. That’s how good he was.”
Then his former club coach Wests, one David Nucifora, invited him into the Brumbies set-up in 2003. “Justin Harrison took me under his wing and I’m still in touch with him. He literally showed me the way, in rugby and life. I owe a great deal to the man,” Chisholm says. “Like George Gregan, when you faltered, you knew about it, but off the field we were all as one. There was no big dog/small dog sort of thing.”
Chisholm also cherished every Wallabies cap. Stand outs were two wins in a dozen meetings with the All Blacks, in front of almost 80,000 in the MCG in 2007, and in Hong Kong in 2010.
He missed out on the 2011 World Cup when failing to recover from a medial ligament injury and it was in December of that year he decided to join Bayonne. “I’d been with the Brumbies for nine years and I was being played, contract-wise. I would have thought I’d have had a bit more respect from them and so I looked for other options.”
He feels his Test career could have endured. “But it came to a stage where I had a family to look after. Would I love to have played for Australia again? Yeah. No doubts. I even asked the question to Michael Cheika, with the 60-cap rule, as I have 58. He said ‘no’, which is fair enough. The squad and the team were well picked. I don’t really give up on it but it’s on the other side now.”
Chisholm landed in Bayonne on December 28th, 2011. It didn’t start well. On Christmas Eve, the head coach who signed him, Christian Gajan, had rung Chisholm to tell him he’d been sacked. Last season the club were relegated. “We played relegation football since the day I got there. The calibre of the team was great and we could pull out big results. Last season was unfortunate. We had a good season but so did the other teams around us. It came down to everyone having one away win and we were the only team who didn’t have an away win.”
Chisholm was captain for the last three seasons. “Being captain you put everything, mentally and physically, into that team to get it in the right direction, and it was slowly showing.” They had also bought a house in Anglet, outside Biarritz, and had plans for life after rugby.
“But the way rugby is, as soon as you make a plan, it flips it on its head. But the best thing about it was that Munster came in. I didn’t think twice. I’m exceptionally lucky to be here with this team.”
It comes with pressure, whether emulating John Langford or some bloke called O’Connell. “I was speaking to my wife about it this afternoon,” he admits with a smile. “It doesn’t get to me. I’m not going to replace Paul. No one can replace him and I’m not going to try. He’s an Irish legend and a rugby legend, but what comes with that number five jersey is a big history, not only Paulie but the blokes before him.
“There is a certain amount of pressure, don’t get me wrong, but if I could add to what he’s given the team, I’d be happy. When I leave the team and people say ‘yeah, Chiz came here and he gave everything to the team. He trained as hard as he could and he helped bring up the standards of the team,’ I’m happy.”
He wants to leave his own legacy.