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What's your game plan?

How do you say goodbye to a team after 13 years? The team that’s helped make you the player you are today, the supporters that recognize you on the street, the backroom staff that have seen you grow from an underage start-up to captain of your national team?

It’s a big ask for anyone but James Horwill is like many rugby players in the modern game that allows transfer opportunities unheard of 20 years ago. Two years ago James followed his instincts to move from his native Brisbane, Australia playing with the Queensland Reds to Harlequins rugby club in London to try his hand at northern hemisphere rugby and take on the ultimate relocation challenge.

This is James Horwill’s game plan.

How did you prepare yourself for the move from Brisbane to London?

Firstly, I had to get my head around what I really wanted to do. I was pretty certain in my mind that I wanted to move and experience something new. I made the decision quite early so I could prepare myself. Sometimes professional athletes don’t have a lot of time and those decisions are made for them. So I think I was very lucky to be able to make the decision on my own terms without being pushed or rushed.

Why the desire to leave behind a team you played for 129 times?

I think one of the great things about the sport of rugby is it’s a really international game. From a very early age when I first started playing rugby, I had always wanted to experience playing overseas, in a different culture and a different area.

I think I’d reached the point at the Reds where I thought, “If I don’t make the decision now, I’m never going to make the decision and I’m never going to go.” I didn’t want to regret not going overseas and trying something new.

I’m a very proud Queenslander and I’ve lived my whole life there, born and raised, and so I didn’t feel like I could play for another team in Australia or play against the Reds. That’s where an international move came in.

What mindset do you need to find your feet in a new team and a new city?

I had no preconceived ideas when I came. I sort of said, “Let’s just see what happens.” Even though it’s not a huge culture shock from Australia to England there are still a lot of things that are different.

For me it was important to just go and immerse myself as much as possible in the culture and try to become part of the team as quickly as possible. I think that’s where it’s easier said than done, but that was probably the big thing.

What are the differences between leading a team in Australia and one in England?

I guess Australian rugby is 95% homegrown. They’ve all grown up in the same system. Especially at the Reds, a lot of the players come through the schools so it’s very much a homegrown sort of side where a lot of players know each other through underage groups.

I think that helps as you have that cultural understanding of what goes on and what it means to play for that team. I don’t like to say it, but it’s almost bred into you as a Queenslander; you have that motivation, that little chip on your shoulder. I think we were able to play on that a little bit as a group.

That certainly is different to here. Players do come through the academy, but there is still a much greater mix of different nationalities, different people coming from different backgrounds. I think that can be a challenge. We’ve got guys who are from South Africa, from the Pacific Islands. I’m from Australia, guys from New Zealand, Wales, Ireland, Scotland. Plus, the English guys – it’s a much greater mix of players compared to back home.

With such a mix how important is it to get the club culture right?

Everyone has to understand what the common goal is. We’re here to perform on the pitch. The team has to come first, so no matter what external factors players have in their lives, the priority is always going to be the team when they come to work.

That said, we’ve got to also be understanding of everyone’s individuality. That’s something our club is really good at; we allow players on and off the field to express who they are as an individual.

What advice would you give anyone who’s making a big career or life move?

Make sure you do your due diligence. Do your research first. Make sure you understand what it is you’re going to. The little things can make a difference as to whether you enjoy it or not.

The other thing is to stay really open-minded because as soon as you close yourself off to something, you’re never going to enjoy it and you’ll be saying, “It’s not like home. It’s not like this. It’s not like we used to do.” Culturally, things are different. Going in there closed off is never good. You’ve got to really embrace it.

And now without words, show us how you embrace your new life…

Black and white of rugby player James Horwill holding his arms in the position of a hug.
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