Football has taken Dorrigo local AJ Gilbert all over the world. Now back on the Coffs Coast with his wife, Katy, and daughters Zara and Koby, FOCUS caught up with AJ to find out how it all began, what has brought him back to the area and the challenges and highlights in between.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
I’m a born and bred Dorrigo boy, so growing up as a kid I played all my weekend and school sport all over the Coffs coast. Every weekend was spent traveling from Grafton down to Port Macquarie and everywhere in between.
What was the best thing about growing up in Dorrigo and surrounds?
I loved growing up in Dozz, because you knew nearly everyone in the town and as a kid you really made your own fun with your mates, like swimming in all the beautiful rivers in the summer, fishing, building billy carts, riding bikes and exploring waterfalls. With not a worry in the world, it really was a great time.
Who inspired you to play football and why?
I started off playing cricket from the age of about five or six every summer, then soccer for a couple of years as a 10 and 11 year old, before finding my love of Rugby Union at 12 with Dorrigo Juniors. From 14, I played Rugby League with the Bellingen/Dorrigo Magpies on a Saturday and Rugby Union on Sunday with Dorrigo.
I remember watching the Bledisloe Cup in 2001, when John Eagles kicked the winning goal to beat NZ, and from then on I fell in love with the Wallabies. From about the age 14 or 15 I was watching Toutai Kefu and George Smith play for the Wallabies, and that’s when I decided I really wanted to do it for a living. From then I trained pretty hard and set goals every year to make the various rep teams I was aiming for.
How did you get your first big break playing football?
My goal in high school was to make the Australian Schoolboys team. I made it in Year 11, but didn’t play due to breaking my jaw a week before the first test against the Ireland Schoolboys. Then, in Year 12 I injured the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my knee, which put me out for the whole season. So I guess my first big break came from making the Word Cup Australian u/19s squad.
Through a long rehab and hard training, I was lucky enough to make the 19s team, and we went to Dubai and won the Junior World Cup. From there, I got picked in the Australian 7s side to go to Paris and London on the World Series circuit, and from there I got my first professional contract with the Queensland Reds.
After the Reds, I moved on to Sydney and spent four seasons playing in the Shute Shield premiership for Northern Suburbs, before playing for the Waratahs.
How did it feel to be selected for the Waratahs, and what was it like being a part of the team?
It was unbelievable to play for the Waratahs, and to represent my home state was definitely one of my career highlights – especially because in one of the games I got to play against the British and Irish Lions, who only play every four years and tour Australia every 12 years.
What have been some other highlights of your football career?
There’s honestly so many. Captaining Norths in Sydney was a real honour, travelling to different parts Australia and the world, such as NZ, France, England, Fiji, Argentina, Dubai, Scotland and living three years in Japan playing professionally over there was unreal.
More recently, since I’ve been back in Coffs I played with the Mid North Coast side that competed in the Country Champs, and we won our tier. That was pretty special, because my rugby journey started in a Mid North Coast jersey when I was 14.
Are there any challenges you have had to overcome?
Loads! Overcoming injury was a big one early on in my career. There were a few years where it felt like I wasn’t going to get another crack at Super Rugby after the Reds, but I just kept training hard and playing the best I could for Norths, and then almost out of nowhere the opportunity came again from Michael Cheika, the current Wallabies coach, who gave me my shot with the Waratahs.
What was it like living and playing Rugby in Japan?
It was an epic experience, and I was lucky enough to bring my wife, Katy and kids Zara and Koby with me to share the experience.
The culture, food and people were amazing; there were times where we would shake our head at the things and experiences. The best part was being able to experiment with my kids living in another culture. In her last year, Zara went to a Japanese primary school, which was difficult at first, because no one in the whole school could speak English, but after a few months she absolutely loved it – and it was tough to say goodbye when we moved back to Australia.
In Japan you play for big companies such as Panasonic, Toshiba, Toyota etc. and I was playing for the Mazda Blue Zoomers. The Rugby was at a pretty good standard. They are so committed in everything they do, which was frustrating at times, but I definitely came away with some great times – and I do miss it.
How do you prepare for a big game?
Big game prep really begins at the start of the week with food, hydration and good training to get physically ready for the weekend. On game day I like to relax, have a stretch and a bit of a play with my girls, while closer to the game I zone out with music and start going over everything I have to do in my head.
I like to get out early to have some individual prep time before the team warm up starts. I don’t generally get nervous or anxious; I just look forward to getting out on the ground by the time the warm up finishes.
What made you decide to settle back in Coffs for now?
When I finished my three years in Japan, we moved back to Coffs to be closer to our families. My family still live in Dorrigo and Katy’s family live in Grafton. I’m also working laying carpet for my cousin, Clancy, here in Coffs. So currently I am playing a bit of local Rugby League for the Woolgoolga Sea Horses and local Rugby Union with the SCU Marlins. I am really enjoying playing bush footy again and meeting lots of great people.
What are your future footy plans?
Our plans were going to be heading over to either France or Italy on a new contract, but we’re really enjoying being back in Australia. Zara is enjoying school and Katy is studying beauty therapy, so the more we stay the more we don’t want to leave. But you never know what’s around the corner …