Teen who cheated death enters Wallabies fray
August 10, 2006

A teenager who was on his deathbed last year entered the Wallabies' rugby training camp in Canberra today in a two-horse race to make his test debut against the All Blacks.

Josh Holmes, an Australian under-21 international, is up against the Waratahs' Brett Sheehan who reportedly has the inside running to be the embattled George Gregan's backup at halfback in the Tri-Nations/Bledisloe Cup test in Auckland on August 19.

Coach John Connolly insisted yesterday his starting backline would remain unchanged despite the patchy 20-18 win over South Africa last Saturday.

But with backup halfback Sam Cordingley sidelined with a foot injury, another contender Josh Valentine also sidelined and Gregan's form under the microscope, the reserve spot is suddenly a talking point.

Holmes, 19, has been likened to former captain Nick Farr-Jones and is tipped as the next best thing in Australian rugby, but is yet to play Super 14.

His selection would be a fairytale story after he nearly died from encephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain, in March last year.

"I was on my deathbed," Holmes told the Daily Telegraph about the morning when he awoke unable to talk or walk.

"They say two out of three people who have it walk away with brain damage."

He was initially diagnosed with infected sinuses but when his condition worsened he was rushed to intensive care and put on a drip.

He spent three weeks in hospital and another eight weeks convalescing at home before resuming his career.

His progress on the rugby field continued, making a mark with Australian age-grade sides, touring Europe with the Waratahs last year then playing for Australia A against Fiji last month.

"He will certainly come across the table as a discussion point," said Wallabies' backs coach Scott Johnson who described his form at age-grade level as "exemplary".

"It's fair to say his inexperience is a negative. You have the likes of Matt Henjak and Brett Sheehan who cope with Super 14."

Connolly has poured cold water on suggestions of midfielder Matt Giteau moving to halfback, leaving the uncapped Sheehan as frontrunner.

Sheehan was understudy to Chris Whitaker at the Waratahs this year, and his added experience could mean Holmes waits until the Wallabies' end of year tour of Europe for a debut.

The focus is more on the forward pack, with flanker George Smith, hooker Tai McIsaac and lock Nathan Sharpe reportedly in line to be replaced by Phil Waugh, Jeremy Paul and Mark Chisholm after lacklustre displays against the Springboks.

"We were flat and yes we'll review everyone's performances and we'll decide over the next week whether to make a couple of changes," Connolly said.


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