Three weeks ago, Pat Pellegrini was at Knole Paddock having beers with his former Sevenoaks team-mates following their close-fought 23-22 victory against Canterbury.
On Sunday, the fly-half will be on the bench at the Allianz Riviera in Nice for Tonga’s Pool D match against Scotland. From working at his family’s pub in Sydney to playing in London Premier, the fifth tier of English rugby, Pellegrini has one of the World Cup’s more unlikely back stories which owes much to his own perseverance and a happy dose of circumstance.
Pellegrini was born in Sydney to parents of Tongan and Italian ancestry. He played for Randwick and West Harbour at semi-professional level but when the pandemic hit and rugby came to a halt because of Australia’s strict lockdown restrictions. It was then that Pellegrini’s agent suggested that he kept playing over with a spell at Sevenoaks.
“He told me that it was a lower level but if I stand out then I would get an opportunity elsewhere,” Pellegrini told Telegraph Sport. “At the time, Australia had an incredibly strict lockdown so I was literally doing nothing so I thought I might as well give it a crack.
“I didn’t really have any expectations. I just took it as an opportunity to play my best rugby and it just fell into place as I kept playing good rugby. It was a lower level but it is still skillful. Our team was pretty good and our coaches were great. I am still in touch with a lot of the boys there.”
Indeed the various Sevenoaks Whatsapp groups exploded when Pellegrini was called up last week as an injury replacement for Otumaka Mausia. Such was the impression that Pellegrini left in his season with Sevenoaks that a little corner of Kent will be fully Tongan on Sunday afternoon.
“We gave him the opportunity to come to our community and he really embraced it,” director of rugby Adam Bowman said. “By the end of his first training session, it was clear that he was the best player at the club and the league, but he never thought he was above it. He did analysis on the opposition and would help coach the minis on Sunday morning.\
“He hit the ground running straight away and he made a lot of friendships. He was back at the club three weeks ago having drinks with the boys. It was our first league game of the season against Canterbury, a big derby, and he stayed to socialise with the boys afterwards.”
Pellegrini’s opportunity came last year when he was picked up by Coventry following a trial. Playing in the Championship allowed his skillset as an attacking fly-half to come to the fore and on to the radar of the Tongan selectors.
“There was pressure going to Coventry but I was also excited to show what I can do and I knew I had a decent chance,” Pellegrini said. “I loved rugby and that was all I wanted to do. I knew what I was stepping into but it was still very cool getting to live the dream. It is a great standard of rugby and I am so grateful to the coaches at Coventry because they have really helped to improve me as a player.”
Nevertheless Pellegrini describes being called up to Tonga’s training squad alongside the likes of Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa as “surreal” and the novelty of being part of a World Cup still has not worn off. “I am incredibly excited,” Pellegrini said. “There was a lot of back and forth with (head coach) Toutai Kefu, it was kinda surreal and I am just so desperate to make the most of my opportunity. He has told me to take control. Do my thing. Just trust myself. He has watched my games and knows how I play and just told me to back myself. Hopefully I can bring my own style.
“Tonga has a very proud culture and all the players are incredibly proud of their roots and where they are from. I think we can really turn some heads. The more we hang out together and play together, the more we can build those combinations. We have high expectations for ourselves.”