Gunnedah’s Harry Wilson sets out on the rugby redemption trail when he and another former Gunnedah player run on for Queensland Reds in the Santos Festival of Rugby pre-season trial in Narrabri on Saturday.

Wilson won his Australian Wallabies’ guernsey in November 2020, as Wallaby No. 933, and played nine Tests in his first year of international rugby. But he fell out of favour with the Australian coach Dave Rennie, and has only played three Tests since then.

Rennie was sacked as Australian coach a few weeks ago, replaced by former Australian and England coach Eddie Jones, and the renaissance of Jones may open the door for a return to national colours for Wilson, who has had few opportunities to show his wares at the top level in the last two seasons.

Wilson was Gunnedah-born, to parents Mandy and Cameron Wilson, and started playing rugby for the local junior Red Devils as a four-year-old. The family left Gunnedah for Brisbane, where Cameron Wilson was appointed State Livestock Manager for Elders, when Harry was 10.

Although he rose to rugby’s pinnacle in Brisbane, Harry is still a “Gunnedah boy,” and is often referred to as that in television commentary.

Wilson has played for the Queensland Reds nearly 50 times and last year won the Stan Pilecki Medal as the Reds’ player of the year, putting him in the elite company of such luminaries as John Eales, Jason Little, Daniel Herbert, Chris Latham, Nathan Sharpe, Will Genia, James Slipper and George Smith.

Wilson made his debut for the Wallabies in Wellington (NZ) in November 2020, just before his 21st birthday, and was hailed as a “great find” for the Wallabies after a 16-all draw in the Bledisloe Cup.

He appeared set for a long career in the green-and-gold but lost his place, missing out on the 2021 and 2022 Northern Hemisphere spring tours.

The Queensland Reds hit the ground running in their 45-10 win over the Western Force in Perth last weekend, with Wilson and winger Harry McLaughlin-Phillips scoring doubles in the comprehensive six-tries-to-four triumph.

As schoolboys, both players came through the junior ranks with the Gunnedah Red Devils.

McLaughlin-Phillips lived in Gunnedah for four years when his parents, Jodie and Andrew, ran the Court House Hotel.

After moving to Queensland with his family, he played rugby on the Sunshine Coast and went to Brisbane Boys’ College for his secondary schooling, the same school as another junior Red Devils’ export Ben Gunter, who is now an international, playing for Japan.

In 2022, McLaughlin-Phillips captained the Reds’ Academy under 18 side, gained selection in the Australian under 18 team and the Reds’ under 19 side and was named Premier Rugby under 20 player of the year.

He is a member of the Junior Wallabies’ training squad leading up to the World Championships in 2023.

He made his debut in the Queensland Reds’ open side in the trial in Perth with both Gunnedah players making a strong statement with their performances.

Wilson opened the scoring for the Reds, plunging over the line after taking an inside ball from a break 30 metres out.

His second try came in the 41st minute, the No 8 hitting and spinning out of a tackle from close range. He also set up another Reds’ try later in the game.

McLaughlin-Phillips scored his two tries late in the game, the first when he ran onto a long pass from an inside player to cross.

In his second try, he miraculously kept a Western Force clearing kick in play and then took an inside pass from a support to dash 50 metres to the line.

After the trial, Australian and Queensland teammate Fraser McReight said of Wilson:

“He’s ready to put his hand up (for Wallabies selection). He’s had a really good pre-season, trying to work his way back into the fold.

“He has the heart of a lion. Glad he’s on our side.”

Both Wilson and McLaughlin-Phillips have been named in the Reds’ squad to oppose the NSW Waratahs in their Santos Festival of Rugby fixture at Dangar Park, Narrabri, on Saturday.

Trial form is critical with the Super Rugby Pacific series about to start and Wallabies’ selection on the line for the 2023 World Cup in France next September and October.

The Santos Festival on Friday and Saturday will include elite sevens matches, NSW and Queensland country representative matches and men’s and women’s Super Rugby fixtures, with the main game on Saturday evening.

The clash between the Reds and the Waratahs was last held at Dangar Park in 2021, when it drew a crowd of 3600, with officials expecting an even larger crowd on Saturday night.

The Super Rugby season will get under way on February 24-25, with the NSW Waratahs to play the ACT Brumbies on the Friday night and the Reds to line up against the Hurricanes the following night.

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