Gamble was one of those kids – he also competed for New Zealand at a Youth Olympics in discus – and no-one was shocked when the Crusaders invited him to join their academy when he left school in 2013. The production line for Super Rugby’s most dominant franchise was deliberately demanding, with training at 6am and again in the afternoons for four days a week. Of those who don’t wash out, over three-quarters of the academy go on to become professionals.
Richie Mo’unga was just finishing up when Gamble’s class began, which included names like George Bridge and Braydon Ennor.
“Because if you can’t do it then, you won’t be able to do it later,” Gamble said.
“The discipline and just the drive and motivation that the boys train with over there is extremely high, and I definitely still carry values that I learned back then. I definitely saw people come through and get spat out, so I guess you definitely have that mentality that you are professional, right now at that age. “
Gamble played openside for Canterbury under 19s and the Crusaders’ Knights team (the franchise’s B side) and life was good. One day in 2015, as part of a mentoring program, Gamble found himself in a coffee shop soaking up the knowledge of Richie McCaw.
“The staff told me take your laptop, take your notebook, be professional,” Gamble said.
“But then I got there he goes ‘mate, you don’t need any of that – let’s just chat’.
“From the outside everyone thinks he is a bit of a robot, but he is a good bloke and, for him, it was always just down to hard work and determination. That’s what I remember taking out of it, was how hard you have to work. “
If McCaw cracked open a dog-eared book of dark arts, Gamble isn’t telling. But he was confident of taking the next step in following McCaw’s footsteps by making the New Zealand under-20s squad in 2016, under then-coach Scott Robertson, who is now the Crusaders coach. Particularly after winning player of the tournament for Canterbury in a lead-up national under-19s event.
But after playing poorly in an under-20s trial, Robertson didn’t pick Gamble and the snub sent the youngster into a tailspin.
“It was a dream to play for my country in the 20s, and the expectation around me, after winning that player of the tournament, was ‘OK, he must be a shoo-in to make under 20s’,” Gamble said.
“So to not make it and the pressure of all that, for whatever reason, from my family and friends, was pretty tough for me as a young fella. I probably thought I was a bit better than what I was, and when things didn’t happen I just started to blame everyone else. Was I working hard enough? Probably not. If I could go back in time I would do things differently, but you can’t. So, you live and you learn, and it is all part of my journey. “
A long-term foot injury followed and Gamble admits he kept “sulking”. He contemplated returning to discus before he decided the best thing would be for he and di lui girlfriend Annie seek a fresh start outside the Christchurch bubble. Gamble hit up contacts, put his CV on a rugby website, and was approached on Facebook with the offer of a gig at Petersham rugby club, in Sydney, and a part-time delivery job.
“We made the decision and flew over here inside two weeks. It was really fast, I had lived in Christchurch my whole life so I thought why not? Let’s have a year off, enjoy Sydney, do something different, ”Gamble said.
Petersham is not a top-tier club; rather an outfit that plays in the NSW Suburban Rugby competition. “Subbies” is a division down – and a world away – from the Shute Shield and the Sydney grade comp.
The story goes that Gamble didn’t know the “Shammies” was park footy, but he did. And after falling out of love with rugby, the old-school, beer-as-hydration traditions of subbies rugby was exactly the experience he needed.
“Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Gamble said.
“Going down to the park and enjoying footy, and meeting so many good people at Petersham. It was all about having fun, have a beer after training with the boys, play footy. “
Kentwell Cup is not a mug’s standard but Gamble was several classes above.
At the same time in the Shute Shield season, Easts coach Pauli Taumoepeau was searching for more backrowers as injuries hit.
“Someone goes ‘mate, there is a bloke absolutely lighting it up in subbies’,” Taumoepeau said. “I said ‘mate, please, I am not going to call someone in subbies.’
“Someone goes ‘mate, there is a bloke absolutely lighting it up in subbies’. I said ‘mate, please, I am not going to call someone in subbies.’
Former Easts coach Pauli Taumoepeau
“Then, Murphy’s Law, we lost someone else in our backrow that week, so we were actually in trouble. It was like ‘OK, let’s call this subbies guy’. “
Taumoepeau rang a mate at Colleagues, the subbies club who play next door to Easts.
“I said: ‘I just noticed you guys played Petersham, what can you tell me about …’ and he goes ‘Charlie Gamble?’,” Taumoepeau said.
“He was like ‘mate, he killed it. He said it was like watching under 8s where you give it to the big kid and he runs through everyone ‘. “
A Petersham contact told Taumoepeau: “We knew it was only a matter of time before someone would call. He is absolutely killing it every single game. “
Gamble saw out the season with Petersham – they won the comp – before he joined Easts, and after playing for Sydney in the NRC in 2018 and 2019, and starring for the tricolours, the Waratahs came knocking too.
“I find you know a professional rugby player at how much power they can build in a short distance, and he just had that. It was so clear, ”Taumoepeau said.
“It wasn’t so much a detail thing, but just his decision-making around his footwork and where to run. It was almost a 10 out of 10 he’d make the right decision every single time.
“And then he was built and he was very powerful over the ball. That’s the No.1 job description, and we expected that, but he just had time. He was able to read the game like a children’s book. “
Gamble made his Super Rugby debut for the Waratahs in 2021, and with Michael Hooper out for the start of the 2022 season, the mustachioed flanker was given the job of moving into the No. 7. The previous two tenants? Hooper and Phil Waugh.
In a sign of how strongly Gamble performed, Hooper’s absence was barely noticed, and even after the Wallabies captain returned, coach Darren Coleman shifted Gamble across to the No. 6. He had no other choice, given Gamble has been NSW’s best player in almost every game.
“I always had belief in myself but things went my way with injury, I guess,” Gamble said.
“I guess I have proven to the coaches I can perform at this level and perform well enough to play in this team. I think once you get over the mindset of ‘am I going to make the team’, you can settle down and it has given me a lot of confidence. “
Taumoepeau, who also joined the Waratahs as forwards coach under Coleman, is not surprised with Gamble’s outstanding form, given he has seen his progression at Easts. And nor would he be shocked if Wallabies selectors come knocking next year, when the Kiwi becomes eligible.
Dave Rennie spoke recently of the amount of quality rugby Richie Mo’unga played as a Christchurch junior, in three years in his first XV and then in the provincial pathway system. Mo’unga is missing a stint in subbies-his loss by him-but Gamble’s foundations by him as a footballer aren’t massively different. His Crusaders-forged quality of him has been hiding in plain sight.
“It’s no surprise he has been able to keep up and flourish with each step up, because he has been so well schooled in the basics at grassroots,” Taumoepeau said.
Gamble isn’t out to prove a point to Robertson, or not that he’s saying anyway. The Crusaders coach said this week, somewhat coolly, he was pleased “someone saw something in him, gave him an opportunity, and he’s taken it”.
In the NSW pre-season, Coleman had players open up about times in their life they’d needed resilience. Gamble shared his move to Sydney after the Crusaders dream stalled, when reality didn’t meet teenage expectation that he was always going to be good enough to get picked in every team. He spoke about finding independence away from home and growing up, and on the advice of that bloke in the coffee shop, working bloody hard to earn each jersey in rugby.
“The thing I love about Charlie is I can see there is a genuine appreciation every time he is named, every week,” Taumoepeau said.
“Everyone else would go ‘yeah, of course, he’s first picked’, but Charlie is ‘oh yes, unreal’ and he is so pumped.”
The restless Christchurch teenager is now a settled 26-year-old Sydneysider, wearing blue and loving life.
“He is super chilled. Almost annoyingly chilled, ”Taumoepeau said.
“Everyone sees what he gives on the field but off the field is just as impressive. He is always that guy hanging back to help a teammate do extras: passing, catching, lifting, whatever. You look over and it’s always Charlie. He is just quality.
“We are still trying to find a fault. Haven’t found it yet. “
Watch every match of the Super Rugby Pacific on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. This week the Waratahs host the Crusaders at 5.05pm Saturday, streaming ad-free, live and on demand only on Stan Sport.