WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Jack Cornelsen is heir to a major piece of Australian rugby history. He bears a famous name that for Wallaby fans evokes pride and warm reminiscence.
On Sept. 9, 1978 Greg Cornelsen, Jack’s father, scored four tries in Australia’s 30-16 win over the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park. Jack was on the stage in 2017 when his father was inducted into Australian rugby's Hall of Fame.
But when Jack Cornelsen likely makes his test debut on Saturday, it will be far away from Australia — in Edinburgh, Scotland — and in the red and white jersey of Japan, not Wallaby gold.
He’s in the Japan squad preparing to take on the British and Irish Lions at Murrayfield on Saturday. Japan head coach Jamie Joseph is yet to announce the match day squad, although Cornelsen is widely expected to be among the backrow replacements.
Greg Cornelsen will be cheering him on from a distance enforced by COVID-19 border restrictions and with the pride of any parent whose child excels in their chosen sport. Jack Cornelsen has followed in the footsteps of his father into rugby and into his preferred position at the back of the scrum.
He won’t now take that final step into the Australian team and Greg Cornelsen fully supports Jack’s decision to pledge his future to Japan.
Jack Cornelsen has spent the last three years in Japan, playing for the Panasonic club in Japan’s Top League. He completed his residential qualification this year and was immediately included by Joseph in his Japan squad for the tour which includes the historic match against the Lions and a test against Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.
Cornelsen first traveled to Japan at the invitation of Panasonic’s former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans for a brief trial. Even when he returned on a one-year contract, he had no thoughts of eventually playing for Japan. But as he became immersed in Japanese culture and the environment of the Panasonic Wild Knights, he saw a future he hadn’t previously imagined.
“I think by the time I’d spent a year or two and had made it known I was trying to become eligible for Japan, that was just the natural progression,” Cornelsen said. “There were definitely no regrets on the decision I had made to pursue this path.
“And even Dad, he’s so supportive. I think he loves the path I’ve taken. I haven’t been back home in a couple of years now because of COVID but we’re always on the phone talking, just getting his thoughts on things.”
Despite his famous name, his size and athleticism, Cornelsen didn’t seem to be able to attract the eye of Australian selectors, even at Super Rugby level. That eventually led to his decision to follow a new course in Japan.
“I was playing some NRC with Queensland Country and just club rugby in Brisbane while I was finishing my university degree,” he said. “Then, at the end of 2017, I got an opportunity to come over and do a two week trial through Robbie Deans."
That led to him playing for Panasonic in the Brisbane Global 10s in Australia, a tournament featuring club teams from South Africa, Japan, France and the Super Rugby franchises from Australia and New Zealand.
“It’s from that I got an opportunity to come back to Panasonic for a year contract,” he said. "I had been over to Japan before, skiing with my family. But coming over I didn’t know what to expect. It was an opportunity and I thought why not give it a crack?”
Cornelsen credits the coaching staff and fellow players at the Wild Knights with his rapid development. He has become a key member of the Panasonic team and led the Wild Knights twice this season when Japan test hooker Atsuhi Sakate was injured.
“At Panasonic we’ve got a lot of very good coaches and experienced players,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of Japanese boys that have been around and played quite a few tests for Japan.
“Coming from Brisbane and coming to a completely new setup and, in a way, a different way of playing and thinking the game has really helped me. That’s come down to a lot of coaches and the experienced players who are really willing to help out and help you get better.”
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