Former Gunnedah schoolboy Ben Gunter grew up watching the likes of David Pocock and Berrick Barnes take on the heavyweights in world rugby.
A decade later, Ben is lining up to play alongside those same Wallabies stars on a professional playing contract in Japan.
The now 18-year-old recently signed a four-year deal with Panasonic Wild Knights – a Japanese Top League club based in Ota, a few hours from Tokyo.
“I can’t wait to get over there,” Ben said before flying out on Saturday.
He initially hoped for just a rookie agreement. So to be offered a multi-year, full professional contract was “very unexpected”.
If calling Pocock and Barnes as team-mates wasn’t kudos enough, he also has former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans in his corner as head tactician.
And the young star understood the advantageous position he has found himself in.
“I’m very honoured,” he said.
Ben starts fitness testing and unit training this week with the 35-man Knights roster which also features ex-Brumbies flanker Daniel Heenan.
From there, coaching staff will nominate a final 23-player squad for games.
But in a country renowned for its sumo wrestlers, not even Gunter’s hulking 120kg frame was enough to put him ahead of the field.
“I’m middle of the pack, about average size,” he said.
“Their players are quite big.”
It’s not the first time the country star has visited Japan for rugby. He was first spotted by Knights talent scouts during a school rugby tour with Brisbane Boys’ College.
He returned to Japan last year following an offer to trial with the club and spent the last seven months in Brisbane training morning and night to ensure he was up to standard.
“I was real nervous but it was a big eye-opener,” he said of his trial, adding the gameplay was beyond anything he had experienced before.
“It’s so much faster over there ... probably the fastest rugby I’ve ever played,” he said.
Away from the rugby field, he described a Japanese culture marked by generosity and respect.
“They’re really humble,” he said.
“The people are so giving, so respectable. They will go out of their way to help as much as they can.”
It’s a world away from his rugby roots at the Gunnedah Red Devils where he remembers running the water for the senior sides.
“They’re good memories,” he said.
What’s more, he planned to one day return to town and fulfil his long-held ambition with the Red Devils.
“My dream was to always play for Gunnedah first grade,” he said.
“I want to come back and do that.”
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