ICED: The curious case of Isaia Toeava and the bloody grey jersey.

The Phenom

In April 2005, an 18 year old Isaia Toeava burst on to the scene during the under 19 championship, where he tore apart defences with regularity, scored 62 points in four matches including 5 tries and 37 points with the boot, carrying the under-19 All Blacks to runners’ up in the 2005 championship.

In September 2005, without a single minute of NPC or Super rugby, just after his 19th birthday, Sir Graham Henry (Just ‘Ted’ back then), snatched the young man from relative obscurity and elevated him to the highest of rugby honours, with selection on the 2005 Grand Slam tour of the home nations.

The young utility back and newly capped All Black, was named the IRB 2005 under-19 player of the year. Sadly, it was a title that would haunt him. Not the player of the year, but the ‘utility’ tag.

Lucky 13?

Back in 2005, there was much debate around the selection of such a young, untired player. But the All Blacks were riding a form wave. And Henry was seen as such an astute judge of talent, that it was assumed he’d spotted a diamond in the rough to rival the selection of another teenage prodigy, Jonah Lomu.

Toeava had starred as a midfield back for the under 19s, and with Umaga retiring and Conrad Smith also still young and struggling with injures at the time, he was seen as the man who might fill the All Blacks number 13 for years to come. Personally, I consider the All Blacks number 13 jersey to be second only to the number seven in terms of profile, stereotype, importance, and just plain awesomeness. To me, a great 13 must be able to do it all. Pass short or long, gas it through a gap; though they don’t need to be the fastest, but they need to have the speed to get around a player or chase one down, take it back into contact, be the muscle in support of the outside back.

And tackle. Oh boy does a good 13 know how to tackle. A bootlaces tackle on an opposition back who just thinks he’s broken the line is one of the most pleasing plays to watch. To me, the 13 is the seven of the backline.

And in all the years I’ve watched the All Blacks, my favourite players have been in the 13. Bunce (the timeless), Tana (the king), Snakey (the thinking man’s centre). But maybe they’ve been my favourites because of their time spent in the saddle (Bunce – six years), (Tana (four years), Smith (10+ years). I need to look at the numbers, but I’m certain that periods of extreme All Blacks success have coincided with periods of a settled presence in the number 13 (and to lesser extent in partnership with a settled 12).

Do you remember the dark days of the late 1990’s –Early 2000s? The centres tried then include Walter Little, Mark Mayerhofler, Mark Robinson, Norm Berryman, Pita Alatini, Daryl Gibson, Aaron Mauger, Christian Cullen, Mark Ranby, Paul Steinmetz, Regan King, Ben Atiga, Ma’a Nonu, Mils Muiliana, Caleb Ralph, and Casey Laulala, before Tana shifted in to the middle, and was later succeeded by Smith.

Now, I have decided that I will never bag an All Black. I will never say that so-in-so was the worst All Black, such-in-such should never have been there, and whatisname was just useless. Every All Black has done what I haven’t done, played big, and earned that black jersey. If they didn’t exactly set the game alight, well, there’s a million reasons why that could be, some completely unrelated to their own performance. Rugby is about combinations, timing, conditions, rules, and luck. Lots of luck. It could be that a player had a quiet game because someone else was having an absolute blinder. It could be the opposition just targeted an All Black to make him have a bad game. So for my mind, none of those players was bad, it just didn’t work with them for whatever reason.

Whoa, some detour! Back to Toeava.

Finding his place

So Ted picked him to go on the end of season tour. Personally, I had great faith that Henry had unearthed the next awesome thing. I vaguely remember when questioned about his selection, Coach Henry would adopt a knowing look, almost a twinkle in his eye, like he knew something we didn’t, and just say something like “he’s got a lot of talent, we think he’ll do well” though I believe they thought he would do better than well.

So I watched, and waited for this phenom to begin to blow us all away. He played just the one game on that tour, the final to seal the slam, against Scotland. He started the match at fullback. The All Blacks won 29-10 in what my memory tells me was an ugly match, and I remember a few breaks, and a few spilled balls, but he was reasonably sound in defence. So no, his big announcement did not come on that tour. But I patiently maintained my faith in both Ted and Toeava. I put it down to early nerves and lack of opportunity. And maybe, just maybe, playing out of position?

So he came back and finally began his Super rugby career. Raised in Auckland, he would have imagined himself falling straight into the Blues. Not the case. He was dropped into the draft and landed at the Hurricanes. And what a year to arrive in the capital! Blessed with a virtual All Black line-up from almost one through to 15 (Schwalger, Hore, Tialata, Tito, Eaton, Collins, Masoe, So’oialo, Weepu, Umaga, Nonu, Fa’atau), and into the bench (Tamait Ellison, Thomas the Tank Engine), the Canes finished with a 10-3 record and a place in the final against the Crusaders. The infamous “Foggy Final” didn’t end well for the Canes, but Toeava finished the season as the starting fullback. But throughout the season he had played on both wings and at centre at various times. As a ‘utility’, he was the obvious choice to shift positions, whenever reserves came on.

He had just the one season in Wellington, but it looked like he was a talisman of sorts as when he returned to Auckland and the Blues in 2007. He starred as they reached the semi-finals for the first time in years, before losing to the Sharks. Riding this momentum, he was selected for the All Blacks team to travel to France for the 2007 Rugby World Cup. I remember thinking, okay, clearly he’s done alright in the All Blacks environment and its flowed through into his super rugby. He’s young, I THINK he’s really fast, and I THINK he’s got really good hands, and I THINK he can spot a gap from anywhere. I mean, Ted has great faith in him, so I should, right? I’m not exactly sure where he is gonna play. He’s been awesome at fullback for Auckland. But then we’ve got Mils at fullback for the ABs. I guess he’s wing cover? Or Midfield cover? He’s a utility right? He can play anywhere?

He actually did have all the tools. A mighty fend, good pace, a good step, instinct, but….I dunno.

Youtube has a good tribute to him. But it’s at about the 1’25” – 1’45” mark that I think his career is summed up. So nearly, nearly there.

And then he pulled on that bloody grey jersey.

Cardiff

Toeava was on the bench for that match along with Nick Evans. He was there to cover positions 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. Now this isn’t the story to talk about the loss in Cardiff. Many words have been spoken about that game, the penalties or lack thereof, the decision-making, the ref questioned etc. The simple fact is, according to the late great Jock Hobbs, “we should just have taken the bloody drop goal”.

Toeava came on in that match. A 20 year old in his 15th test. He’d come on for an injured Nick Evans, who’d just come on for an injured Dan Carter. This caused another reshuffle of the backline. Starting Second five Luke McAlister moved to number 10, Toeava came in at 12 inside of Muliaina at 13. So a number 12 was now directing traffic from 10 with a fullback who’d played 11 of his 15 total tests at centre, playing inside the man destined to become NZs longest serving fullback at 13 who played just seven of his previous 54 tests at centre. And then ANOTHER utility back in Leon McDonald at fullback!!

Of course we all know what happened. McAlister would only play nine more test for NZ, losing three of them. McDonald only five more tests. Muliaina would play another 45 tests, but would never again wear the number 13.

Now, when the bloody grey jersey first came out, I was actually okay with it. It was an ABs jersey the casual fan could wear as a shirt, you know? It was a “utility” jersey. It wasn’t white like England. Sure, it was an adidas gimmick, but what the hell. Now, that grey jersey is synonymous with failure and disappointment. And my enduring image of Isaia Toeava, is in that bloody grey jersey.

Too good to leave out, but where to put him in?

I had no problem with the reappointment of Henry post world cup. Our record had been good and I believe they learnt a lot from Cardiff. Especially about the use of ‘utility’ players. In the words of “the other guy’s marketing campaign from 1998’s Wag the Dog, “you don’t change horses midstream.” [England had shown that winning a cup was actually an eight year process. And it was proven again by the ABs in 2011. SIDE NOTE: Hmmmmmm by that logic, Wales should actually win this cup…. ]

The next four years was all about moulding a 22 who could win the cup for us at home. Toeava continued with the Blues. Their form was fairly indifferent with finishes of 6th (2008), 9th (2009), and 7th (2010). They timed their run though, finishing fourth in 2011, losing to eventual champion the Queensland Reds in the semis. In that time he scored 18 tries. Interestingly, that coincided with a fairly quiet phase for all NZ super rugby franchises. Apart from a win by the Crusaders in 2008 (no doubt because their ABs were sooooooo well rested), the best finish was a runners up medal to the chiefs in 2009 (and they got trashed by the Bulls 61-17 in the final).

Again, off topic.

The pool of talent available to Ted & co expanded in the years leading up to RWC 2011, especially in the backs division. Cory Jane, Richard Kahui, Israel Dagg, Zach Guidlford all emerged. Sonny Bill Williams also decided he’d like to be part of it all. Rico Gear and Sitivini Sivivatu were both left out, and left our shores pretty quick as a result. Interestingly of the group mentioned, most were specialists. Though Richard Kahui, exceptional at centre for the Chiefs, would star for the All Blacks on the wing. Likewise, Jane, the hurricanes fullback, would also win a place on the wing.

Sonny Bill presents as a sort of Toeava 2.0. Multi-talented, physically gifted and imposing, Williams had the one thing Toeava did not have at his introduction to the All Blacks, experience. It might have been in the other code, but he’d played big matches, and a lot of them. But Ted stuck with Toeava, selecting him in that All Blacks squad for the 2011 RWC.

Why did he keep getting picked for All Blacks teams?

Was it Ted not wanting to admit he’d been wrong? Maybe he trained the house down. His team mates were always quick to praise his training, and couldn’t say enough about how good he was in the drills. The more cynical might suggest he had ‘photos’ or something over Ted. I prefer to think that maybe he was just ahead of his time. Or just in the wrong time all together. Like Matt Todd or Marty Holah arriving at the same time as Richie, Toeava arrived at the same time as Mils, Conrad, Sivivatu, Nonu, Gear, Jane, Williams, Kahui.

A nearly man across the whole backline. Blocked every time he was primed to make a position his own. Someone else always seemed to grab the headline, break the line, score the try. It was the bloody utility title that he just couldn’t shake. If he didn’t have a great test, it was because, he was not in his specialist position. But he couldn’t play in his specialist position because we already had a specialist there and we needed him on the bench to cover the specialist positions.

Anyway, he would start on the wing against Tonga, at Fullback against Japan, off the bench on to the wing against Canada, and off the bench at fullback in the quarter final against Argentina. Then never again would he pull on the black jersey. Ted tried and tried and tried to find a space, a place, for his pet project. Yet by this time, the All Blacks centre for the future, Conrad Smith had been found. He’d missed the chance to develop as a wing, and been overtaken by other specialists. Likewise at fullback.

In total, Isaia ‘Ice’ Toeava played in 36 tests. He would start 20 of them, half at centre the rest split between fullback and wing. The 16 matches off the bench were a mixture of positions across the backline. During the 21 matches following the Cardiff nightmare, he would start consecutive tests in the same position just three times (once at full back, twice on the wing). In his first 14 tests prior to Cardiff, he played 10 times at centre, including five consecutive tests in 2007. The All Blacks record in those 14 matches, which included South Africa (3), Australia (3), and France (2)? 14-0.

I’m a little sad to say that he was very quickly forgotten by me. He left the Blues that season and went to Japan. I wonder, if he’d stayed around, still only 25 at the time, would Hansen have picked him for his next ABs team?

History will say he was alright. He had an 83 percent win rate as an All Black, he scored eight tries in 36 matches. He scored four tries over two world cups, and…..he is a world cup winner.

Personally, I’ll always see him as the ultimate victim of the “utility” title that led to three simultaneous almost-okay-careers, instead of just one bloody good one.

Oh, and the ultimate victim of that bloody grey jersey.

Contributed by Dom “The Mallet” Gibbs