Andrew Kellaway's long and winding road back to the Wallabies

Andrew Kellaway thought the opportunity to represent the Wallabies had probably passed him by.

A former schoolboy rugby star, who then set a try-scoring record at the Junior World Championship that still stands today, Kellaway had found his feet at Super Rugby level with the Waratahs and seemed to be setting himself up for a Test career.

There was even selection as a development player on the Wallabies' 2016 spring tour.

But the 25-year-old utility then learnt how quickly things can change. Back-to-back injuries sidelined Kellaway for the best part of two years, ending his Waratahs stint in the process, and he was suddenly faced with a move to the other side of the world just to keep his career alive.

"I spent the best part of my last two [Waratahs] seasons injured. I broke my throat in 2017 and broke my foot in 2018, so I would have missed 90% of those two seasons," Kellaway told ESPN. "And I think this is probably where it gets a bit frustrating for me, it probably looks like [career] plateau to most people but for me I was injured for two seasons. And I look now and think; I wonder what could have been if I was playing but you can't be consumed by things like that because it's not how it was.

"Moving on from the Waratahs to Northampton was not something I wanted to do at the time, but I look back now and that experience I had at Northampton was monumental for me in terms of the way I approached life and rugby.

"And if I am lucky enough to get a Test in this series I think I would have a lot of people in Northampton to thank for that because I went over there in a pretty strange place and came out feeling a lot surer about myself."

Speaking to ESPN on the phone from the Gold Coast as part of the Wallabies squad for the first time in five years, and this time as a bona-fide member with a chance to play a Test, it's clear Kellaway is lapping up every minute of the experience.

Arguably the biggest bolter in Dave Rennie's 38-man squad for the three-Test series against France, the 25-year-old completed his return to the Rebels only at the start of the Trans-Tasman competition and never really with the intention to actually play.

But the Rebels convinced him otherwise and through a succession of strong performances, culminating in a determined chase and tackle to deny Crusaders flyer Will Jordan in the competition's closing round, Kellaway received a Wallabies call he honestly thought would never come again.

"To tell you the truth, I wasn't going to play the Trans-Tasman games at all, I was just going to come back and take a bit of time off," Kellaway said. "I'd spent seven months away from my family and my partner, that was tough on me and tough on them, and at one point I was just going to come back and point the toes, more or less.

"But Melbourne were great in accommodating the whole thing and making it work and I was pretty happy with how I was playing, but at no point did I think that Wallabies was on the cards. Again, without sounding pessimistic, I was thinking that I was probably a bit too old to be in the mix there with the way things were going in Australia at the moment.

"So no, I didn't think it was an option, I had a holiday booked to Hamilton Island with my Mrs, so it was a little bit of surprise to be honest."

As well as the season at Northampton, Kellaway also spent time in New Zealand with Counties Manukau while his return to the Rebels earlier this year followed a stint with NEC Green Rockets in the Japanese Top League.

While Kellaway says he would potentially reconsider the Japanese move if he had his time again, the opportunity to experience the Mitre 10 Cup was a huge addition to his rugby development.

"I would have been a fool to pass up the opportunity to play over there with New Zealand being the benchmark for rugby," Kellaway told ESPN. "That was an unreal test, an unbelievable opportunity to test myself against those guys because they are consistently the benchmark.

"So for me to be able to go over there and see how they do things from a preparation, performance and recovery point-of-view, it was awesome. And as I said you go from England to New Zealand to Australia and all of a sudden you've got three sort of banks of experience to draw on when things get a bit strange or you're not quite sure what's going on."

In camp on the Gold Coast, which has been subject to a three-day lockdown to combat a small COVID outbreak in south-east Queensland, Kellaway says the vibe within the Wallabies is good.

The Australian teams won only two of 25 Trans-Tasman games, but with a number of in-form players across Rennie's squad expectations are high for a series with a France side missing some serious star quality.

"It's an interesting one, everyone was probably deflated after the Trans-Tasman Super Rugby [defeats]," Kellaway said when asked what style of rugby the Wallabies were hoping to play. "But when you go over it you think well we were probably only really, I would have said maybe 40% of the games we were really genuinely beaten and not in the game. I think for the better part of most of those teams, well certainly four out of the five [Australian] teams, we were all in games at different points.

"And I'd just like to see us build on that, playing attacking footy and trying to throw the ball around and not be deflated by those experiences and actually being able to build on them. The French are no slouches and if we don't front up in that regard and we don't back ourselves to play, I think it could be a tough series. But the way things are going here at training, I think it's looking pretty good."

It may be the case that Kellaway doesn't get a run against the French, but with a Bledisloe Cup series, Rugby Championship and a spring tour to come in 2021, the Wallabies will require a big squad to see the year out.

He knows he may have to be patient, and with only a "point to prove to myself" really keeping thoughts of what was a flickering Wallabies dream alive, the prospect of non-selection won't be keeping him up at night.

He puts that mentality down to experience, something he might not have got had injury not pushed him to Northampton.

"I went over there at 22, and those English winters will put hairs on your chest at the best of times. But on your own, at 22 years old, it's a tough old experience, you're forced to turn to your support networks and when you don't have them [nearby] it's you versus everybody else a little bit. But you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about others and the way you need to do things in order to get them done.

"For me I think I came back with a really clear process, a really clear mindset around how I needed to prepare; how my weeks looked; I guess it's called 'maturity' in some senses of the word. But there's probably a longer discussion than what I can offer right now."

Kellaway can now look at his rugby career from two perspectives.

The first portion featured schoolboy notoriety, Junior World Championship success and an introduction to Super Rugby, the second truly learning how to be a professional and what it really takes to be on the cusp of a Test debut.

He has advice for other rugby players who might be in either camp, words that can be adopted by anyone whose career might have hit the crossroads, be it early or late on their professional journey.

"If it was me and the advice I would give to myself, it would be back yourself and be a little bit more confident," Kellaway said. "Fortunately, unfortunately, it took me about four years and a trip around the world to work that out.

"I think the other thing is, we're seeing it so much more in Australia, that if you're over the age of 25, you're too old. The potential of younger guys is being used more and more, and that can be pretty deflating for some people. More and more, particularly over in Europe and other places, we're seeing that there is no substitute for experience.

"So go and get experience, if it's not in Australia it can be somewhere else. It's never too late to come back."

You never know, it might just blaze a trail back to the Wallabies.