James Hilterbrand is a veteran of the Manly Marlins forward pack. The 33-year-old has played rugby in San Diego, Scotland and South Africa, and hundreds of games for Manly, Edinburgh, Sydney Rays, NSW Waratahs, Western Force, South Australia and the United States of America.
But he’s never seen one like Langi Gleeson.
At a Shute Shield game in June against premiers Sydney University at Uni’s Oval No.2, Gleeson was taking the ball up when Uni’s winger “jammed in maybe four or five [markers] off the edge and put a decent shot on him, folded him,” Hilterbrand says.
It brought to mind what Jorge Taufua is famous for at Manly Sea Eagles.
There followed a scrum in which Gleeson made his intentions clear, according to Hilterbrand.
“He looked up from the back at No.8 and said to the whole of their forward pack: ‘You are all f***ed’.”
“They shit themselves. They all looked at their winger and said, ‘Why’d you do that?’”
Had someone sledged Gleeson?
“No, they were smart enough not to,” according to Hilterbrand. “It’s very much, ‘Don’t poke the bear’ with that fellah.”
Manly would beat the perennial powerhouse 20-10.
Today he’s training in the Wallabies squad ahead of two matches against South Africa.
Gleeson’s rise has been meteoric if bumpy with perhaps two years of rugby lost to Covid, injury and rugby league.
And thus it’s like he’s come from nowhere.
One minute he’s bopping about at Manly Oval. Next thing he’s the Marlins’ latest Wallaby after Dave Porecki and Cadeyrn Neville debuted – alongside Manly Roos old boy Michael Hooper – against England in July.
Max Douglas came up two years ahead of Gleeson at Harbord Harlequins and St Augustine’s College and has played with him at Manly and NSW in Super rugby. He says he draws confidence playing with Gleeson.
“He’s great to play with, he’s got the big shots, the big charges.
“We played together in a Waratahs ‘A’ game, it was a really stacked side. There was myself and Sam Wykes in the second-row. Lalakai Foketi was playing 12.
“The majority of the boys on the bench had played in the Super side the weeks before.
“Langi was man of the match. They signed him off the back of it.
“That was where he was ‘discovered’, I guess,” Douglas says.
Hilterbrand describes Gleeson as “a physical freak”.
“He’s got an engine that can go for 80 minutes. He’s the fastest over 40 metres at the Waratahs. They stopped him in the gym from lifting so heavy; he was already strong enough,” Hilterbrand says.
Back up? Did he say the fastest at the Waratahs? He did. Because Gleeson, the latest product from the Manly Marlins ‘Wallabies Factory’ is the fastest man at the Waratahs, equal with winger Dylan Pietsch across the 40m dash.
Not too unusual? Then consider: he’s 188cm and 107kg and he plays No.8.
He is 21 years old.
Douglas confirms the numbers as literally unbelievable.
“People don’t believe his numbers,” Douglas says.
“When he first started punching numbers in the [Waratahs] Academy, Rugby Australia called up the Tahs to check.
“They thought there’d been a mistake.”
Gleeson’s combination of size, strength and speed did not go unnoticed by the 13-man code and he spent a season with South Sydney Rabbitohs U/20s.
He came back to Manly in ’21 and did his knee in a trial against Randwick. He was taken into the Waratahs where he, effectively, lifted a lot of weights.
“It [the injury] was a bit of a gift, I suppose,” Douglas says.
“He’s always been a big unit. But the last 18 months in the Waratahs program under a really strong strength and conditioning setup, he’s worked really hard, put on a lot of weight and got really strong.”
“His ascension’s been weird,” Hilterbrand says. “He was in that weird grey area where he wasn’t playing for NSW but he also wasn’t playing club rugby. There were a couple of years he dropped off the radar in terms of playing.”
No longer. The numbers don’t lie. And Australian rugby fans will be getting to know a fellow with an Australian dad, Fijian mum, born and bred on the northern beaches.
Douglas says Gleeson is “a good man”.
“He kind of fits that stereotype of the quiet Fijian – at first, anyway. But once you get to know him he’s a good and funny bloke.”
Hilterbrand says Gleeson is “like Jekyll and Hyde”.
“Off the field he’s the calmest, nicest fellah; a typical Islander, wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him.
“Very respectful, very humble fellah … until he’s got the ball in hand and someone’s running at him!” Hilterbrand says.
Gleeson scored the match-winner in the year’s first derby fixture against Warringah at Rat Park when he beat three defenders and made something from nothing.
Hilterbrand also points to last weekend when the Marlins went down at the death in the Shute Shield quarter-final against Eastwood, despite Gleeson trotting out a typically inspirational play.
“I was just outside him in the line and we gave each other good chat – ‘get up, get up’ – and he put a shot on their tight-head prop.
“And that guy wasn’t just seeing stars, he didn’t know if he had Covid. He started transitioning into another person. He was very confused how quick Langi had got up on him, how hard he had hit him.
“It was maybe 20 or 30 metres off their line. And Langi just got up and crunched him.
“It was very good,” Hilterbrand says.