Tough times strengthened Toomua

Matt Toomua overcame several obstacles on his way to the top, writes ALEX BROUN.

There have been some dark times in Matt Toomua’s life. Times when he felt like giving up, walking away. When he asked himself, ‘What’s the point?’

Perhaps the toughest of those times came back in April 2009. Toomua was in his second season at the Brumbies, struggling with injuries and limited game time. Then tragedy struck. His flatmate and Brumbies teammate, Shawn Mackay, was killed after being hit by a car while on tour in Durban.

Mackay’s death hit the 19-year- old Toomua like a ton of bricks. A photo of him leaving Canberra Airport just after hearing the news is particularly gut-wrenching.

‘There are reminders of Shawn all the time and often in the strangest places,’ he said at the time. ‘A piece of clothing lying somewhere in the apartment, a TV show he loved, a photograph. Even a protein drink container labelled with the name “Macca” sitting in the kitchen cupboard.’

Toomua thought long and hard about whether it was time to move on. 

‘There were times when I came close to leaving the Brumbies,’ he says, the emotion still clear in his voice five years later. ‘At the time it seemed like the end of the world but later on you realise those experiences strengthen you. There was a period when every year something [bad] kept happening. The memories of Shawn didn’t help. It was a fair few tough years.’

But something kept Toomua going. He knew deep down Mackay wouldn’t have wanted him to give up.

‘A bit of belief goes a long way,’ says Toomua. ‘I’d like to say it never waned but that would be a lie. I definitely questioned if I was good enough to do it and there were times when I thought I wasn’t. But deep down I thought, “I haven’t had a genuine crack yet. I’ve always been interrupted by injury or something else.” I knew if I could get some back-to-back games I could show I belong at this level.’

'At the time it seemed like the end of the world but later on you realise those experiences strengthen you'

And Toomua had more than proved that in his school days. Born in Melbourne, he and his parents, who are Christian missionaries, moved to Brisbane when he was young. His dad signed him up to the Logan City Rugby Club when he was just six, starting a childhood love affair with the game. That culminated in his selection for the all-conquering 2007 Australian Schools team out of Brisbane State High, where he played alongside current Wallabies teammate Rob Horne and recent Wallabies Ben Tapuai, Jake Schatz and James O’Connor. Toomua was the starting flyhalf, with O’Connor at fullback.

He signed with the Brumbies but things didn’t go as smoothly as he thought they would. A troubled 18 months hit a low point with Mackay’s passing and Toomua looking for an exit door. But saviours often come in the most unlikely forms and for Toomua in 2009 it was a short spell for Western Province in the Currie Cup.

‘It was pretty random,’ explains Toomua. ‘[WP senior professional coach] Rassie Erasmus got in touch with [Wallabies coach] Robbie Deans and said they were looking for a flyhalf. And Robbie suggested me.

‘I loved the experience. It was a very professional union, and I really enjoyed it. I think it helped me when Jake White came to the Brumbies a few years later. I had that South African experience to draw upon.’

Deans was also clearly impressed as he called Toomua up for the Wallabies’ end-of-year tour as a late replacement, selecting him to start at flyhalf against the Cardiff Blues in a midweek match. But again the injury curse struck with Toomua going off in just the second minute to be replaced by Quade Cooper.

There was more bad news when he returned to Canberra as his path to the No 10 jersey was blocked by new signing Matt Giteau. Toomua’s progress was held up another two years.

Then in 2012 he thought his time had come. Giteau had left and he’d edged ahead of flyhalf rival Christian Leali’ifano. But during the Brumbies’ 29-26 loss to the Sharks, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, ruling him out for the entire season. Again he had to draw on his inner reserves.

‘I was devastated when I injured my knee,’ he remembers. ‘It made me reassess. While rugby’s important, it can’t be the be-all and end-all. Your happiness can’t be decided by how you play on the weekend, even though it means a lot to you. I enjoy the balance of life. I enjoy rugby, but it’s important to get away from it.’

That balance, and his growing relationship with Ellyse Perry (dual Australian international in cricket and football) helped him get through another heartbreaking setback.

In 2013, finally, he got his chance. After an impressive Super Rugby campaign with White’s Brumbies, he was thrown in the deep end by new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, making his debut against the All Blacks in the first Bledisloe Cup clash of the year.

Despite the 47-29 scoreline, Toomua was retained for the return clash in Wellington and he went on to play 10 Tests in his debut international season.

As the Wallabies began 2014 with a clean sweep of France, Toomua was one of the first names on the team sheet. As he will be in the Rugby Championship. He was eagerly looking forward to another shot at the All Blacks, and the Boks.

‘South Africa have quality players and they’ve been through a lot together. They only lost a couple of games last year. They’ve got big-match players so in the Rugby Championship, they lift for those games.

‘We saw that when we got touched up by them last year [38-12 in Brisbane and 28-8 in Cape Town]. There are limited opportunities but they really take them.

‘It’s a physical game and every ruck is a genuine contest. There are also a lot of guys with the X factor, so there isn’t much room to hide in defence or attack at that level.’

But then Toomua won’t be looking to hide, no matter who or what he comes up against. He has been through a lot in his short life and come out the other side, tougher and stronger. The big hits will be proof of that.

– This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt