Tough man for a tough job
THERE was always a contradiction between the 5ft 6in choirboy and the way Geoff Toovey chose to play the game of rugby league. It was, as a generation of bigger opponents testified, a bit like being crash-tackled by the Milky Bar Kid. It earned the New South Wales and Australia scrum-half or hooker the reputation as the toughest player, pound for pound, in the code.
Now Toovey is the little man with the big job of making his beloved Manly Sea Eagles world champions once more. The circumstances of him achieving that task certainly make it tough. Manly won the NRL Premiership last year, despite their administration being at war all season with their then coach, Des Hasler. He announced midway through the season that he was going to Canterbury and was ultimately sacked amid unprecedented acrimony.
There was little doubt to whom the Sea Eagles would turn in order to steady the surfboard. Toovey was a player there for 12 years and was on the coaching staff for the last four.
"It's not as difficult as it sounds," he says. "There's a good core of experienced players at the club who have made the transition a lot easier than it could have been. You don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water."
The question that has been posed is whether those players will believe in Toovey the way they did in a dominant character like Hasler. The first test of that is at Headingley tomorrow night, when Manly play Leeds in the World Club Challenge.
Toovey goes back a long way with this particular event. He was a young reserve-grader at Manly in 1987 when the Sea Eagles flew to England and lost to Wigan in the first match of its type.
"It came too early for me," he recalls. "I didn't get the trip, but I still remember how excited senior players - blokes like Cliffy Lyons and Dessie Hasler - were about it. They'd already played in England and they were looking forward to meeting old friends, I think."
Toovey made his full debut in first-grade the following year, against the Great Britain tourists. Those of us who saw his brilliance for the first time that night had just one reservation: Is he big enough? He went on to have a career that answered all those doubts and made him an icon for undersized players everywhere.
One of those was growing up in West Yorkshire when Toovey was in his prime. Rob Burrow, now Leeds' half-back or hooker, admits looking up to him (if that is the right phrase) and that the Australian - watched on imported videos - was an inspiration to him when people hinted that Burrow might be too small to go all the way in the professional game.
"I never had any doubts at all, but it helped that a guy of his size was making such a success of it," says Burrow, whose career has carried the same hallmark of exceptional courage. Nor does he have any doubts that Toovey is the right man to pick up the pieces after Manly's recent traumas. "I'm sure he's got the ability to do that," he says. "He's been ingrained in the club for years."
The admiration is entirely mutual, because when Toovey looks at Burrow he can hardly avoid seeing a reflection of his younger self. They are the same height, give or take a fraction of an inch, and both approached the half-back role with a mixture of technique and tenacity... and both found themselves playing a fair bit of hooker to maximise their involvement.
"I was over here on the coaching staff three years ago," says Toovey, recalling Manly's victory then over Leeds at Elland Road. "Rob was already an integral part of the Leeds team then, and he's even more important to them now. What he lacks in size, he more than makes up for by playing with such great skill and spirit."
Those same qualities saw Toovey gather 13 Australian caps, including playing in the 1995 World Cup in Britain, where he was the half-back, and no less a luminary than Andrew Johns was shunted to hooker.
Toovey would have loved to play club football in England, but says that he never had an offer.
"Nobody ever came for me except Manly," he says. That might be the downside of being synonymous with a particular club.
Not that being synonymous with Manly is a guarantee of universal popularity. Such is their status as the supposed bloated plutocrats of the game in Sydney - "the team you love to hate" - that there will be Australians watching on television hoping for Leeds to win.
"It's like the old joke,"added Toovey. "You support two teams - your own and whoever is playing Manly. I'm sure that there will be some like that, but we are over here representing the NRL and I would like to think everyone will be behind us.
"Really, the era of the Manly-haters should be over. People should just enjoy the way we play the game."
It sounds like what in Australia they call "a big ask".