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Re-born Dunning to let actions do the talking

NZPA     28 Jun 2007    

The Wallabies loosehead prop reads the newspapers and watches television and there's kind words being said about him.

The Australian Rugby Union suddenly offered him more money and re-signed him on a two-year contract this month.

He was the centre of attention at this week's player media session and had everyone giggling at his one-liners.

But he's also a realist.

"As good as things are for the past two-three weeks with all you blokes hanging around me saying those good things, a couple of bad performances and a few wrong moves and we're back to the other stuff. That's all part of it," he said.

The `other stuff' has invariably drawn a snigger in rugby circles at the mention of Dunning's name.

The latest was a $A3000 ($NZ3350) fine from the New South Wales Rugby Union last August after a minor incident when the door hinge of a taxi was damaged outside a western Sydney pub.

Dunning maintained he wasn't intoxicated and was harshly treated, but he was still found to have breached team disciplinary protocols. It was his third such fine in four years for alcohol-related matters.

His international career appeared in tatters in 2005 when he was stretchered off Twickenham and hospitalised with suspected spinal damage after England demolished the Wallabies scrum.

And who could forget `that' dropped goal in 2003 against the Chiefs when the Waratahs were chasing a late bonus point.

He became one of few props to have a first-class dropped goal to their name but the headline writers showed no mercy: "Dumb and Dunning," one Sunday paper said.

As Dunning, 28, engaged the New Zealand and Australian rugby writers in Melbourne this week with his friendly banter, it seemed he'd brushed it all off like a pesky halfback attempting a tackle.

But there's still a feeling that media and officials have singled him out unfairly.

"There's always things you think are unfair in the press. That's your blokes' job to sell papers, not worry about my self esteem. Probably I have (been harshly treated), I'll leave it at that.

"But you can't get bitter, you've just got to get better. That's probably hampered me, I took things a bit more personally and let it maybe distract me, took it to heart a bit more."

It all changed quickly this season, which began with Dunning's career at a crossroads.

He was only a bit-part player for the Waratahs in the Rebel Sport Super 14 and wasn't expecting to add to his tally of 25 Tests, which included 24 in succession from the 2003 World Cup final to that fateful 2005 tour.

He credits hard work with Wallabies forwards coach, former Test prop Michael Foley, long stints in the gym and a positive outlook on life for turning it around in recent weeks.

His 123kg frame is now somewhat more muscle than blubber.

"When I first started it was a different kind of redispersed 124-125kg then. I had to lose a lot of weight then build it back up," said Dunning, born in Calgary, Canada, when his parents were on an extended holiday.

"There's a lot of physical areas I can still improve on. A good plastic surgeon could do a lot with my face but there's still a lot of improvements to go."

His watershed test came a fortnight ago in Cape Town against one of the most feared packs in world rugby.

Opposing the giant BJ Botha, the prop with an intimate knowledge of the tricks in the book, Dunning fronted up as the Wallabies scrum made a powerful statement.

The Wallabies might have lost 19-22 but Dunning was back as a frontline test prop.

Now there's a giant bloke his mates call Zarg looming at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the Bledisloe Cup Test on Saturday night.

Dunning and Carl Hayman first clunked heads at a schoolboys' Test in 1996.

Funnily enough, from prop to prop, Dunning describes Hayman as "a lovely bloke" and reckons there's even the occasional dry comment in the heat of battle.

"He's the rock that makes the whole thing just come together. He's pretty impressive to scrummage against.

"Every scrum, his set up is identical. His engagement process, everything he does is like a good golfer's routine. He seems to do it so easily, even when he gets tired."

Asked whether there was anything he could do to try and upset the world's best tighthead, Dunning replied with a straight face: "I'm asking you. Can you help me with it?"

He acknowledges the All Blacks have a scrum edge, but he and his front row mates Stephen Moore and Guy Shepherdson aren't about to concede defeat.

"I think we can go a long way in the game if our scrum goes well.

"At the moment our best is a little bit behind them but if we contain them and deliver our ball, maybe that's enough to get us the win."