Geoff Toovey: Little gem with huge incentive to become king of the world

A pocket rocket of a player, he is now eyeing glory as a coach. He talks to Dave Hadfield

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".

Smith out of headingley showpiece

Lee Smith has been ruled out of tomorrow's World Club Challenge at Headingley, leaving Ben Jones-Bishop to make his first appearance of the season for Leeds on the right wing.

Smith was in line to play in his third WCC against Manly, but damaged his ribs in the defeat at Wigan on Saturday. It will be Jones-Bishop's first taste of the occasion.

Also included is the centre, Kallum Watkins, who missed the Wigan game with a rib injury. His presence will allow Carl Ablett to move back into the pack, while Ian Kirke is also named in the 19-man squad at the expense of Richard Moore.

The Manly coach, Geoff Toovey, has no new injury problems and is able to name the Australian international, David Williams, on the right wing. His unrelated namesake and fellow Test player Tony Williams is listed in the second row after causing all manner of trouble as a substitute in last autumn's Four Nations.

Dave Hadfield

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?