Toovey toughs it out in contemporary style

Dave Hadfield on the man Australia believe will make all the difference in tomorrow's rugby league World Cup final
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The Independent Online
Last year in Sydney, a book was published celebrating the hardest men that the game's history has produced.

Its subjects were a mixture of hulking monsters and ageing but still teak-hard giants - forwards to a man - but the player they chose to launch the book and epitomise the virtue of contemporary toughness was a scrum- half standing a fraction over 5ft 6in who looked like a half-grown Milky Bar Kid let loose among the adults.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who watched his display against New Zealand on Sunday that the player in question was Geoff Toovey - described by his coach, Bob Fulton, after that match as the best, pound-for-pound, that the code has produced.

Toovey is an inspirational club captain for Fulton at Manly, so he is well used to the idea that his contribution is out of all proportion to his physical stature.

There have been few half-backs who have tackled forwards with the relish or regularity that Toovey brings to the job. For his club he is also a creative mainspring, although it has taken a political upheaval to win him a regular place in the Australia side and a change of role to maximise his value during the World Cup campaign.

With scrum-halves like Ricky Stuart and Allan Langer available, Toovey had been limited to just two Test appearances, both against Papua New Guinea in 1991 when the other two were injured, until this year.

Then, with Langer and Stuart ruled out by their Super League affiliations, he played in all three victories over New Zealand, making him a certainty for this trip.

An opening match defeat at Wembley, however, and the presence of a gifted rival like Andrew Johns breathing down his neck threatened to make him a selection casualty, just as Langer was after the first Test there last year.

Fulton, a coach who does not make changes lightly, came up with a different and largely unsuspected option, bringing in Johns as hooker and extra play-maker to help out Brad Fittler, and using Toovey at acting half-back.

Toovey still feeds the scrums, but at the play-the-ball he now has the extra duty of being the first man to handle the ball before it goes to a ground-making forward, or to Fittler and Johns to open up play.

To regard that as a demotion would be to misunderstand the nature of modern rugby league, in which nothing is more central to the success of a side than a good service from acting half.

Fulton was delighted with that aspect of Toovey's play against New Zealand, plus the way that he was able to pick his moment to use his own deceptive pace over a short distance to make breaks through the heart of the Kiwi defence.

If Australia get England on the back foot at Wembley, there is a strong likelihood that the blond hair and boyish countenance of Geoff Toovey will be in the vanguard.

That was undoubtedly the case when a British international side first came across Toovey, then still in his teens, on their 1988 tour.

Toovey, looking even more like the runt of the litter in those days, sparked Manly to an embarrassing 30-0 defeat of the Lions, and there has been a healthy respect for him in Britain ever since.

The recurring question in the hard school of Winfield Cup rugby, however, was how long a player of his stature and style could survive head-to-head confrontation with players who towered above him. Other scrum-halves advised him to change that style for the sake of longevity, but Toovey never has.

Now 26 and a survivor of shoulder problems that would have finished the career of less resilient characters, Toovey has answered any doubts.

The temptation to run at the little fellow comes naturally to rugby league players, but experience has taught that they get little change out of this particular member of the breed.

England have to find Australian weaknesses tomorrow. Geoff Toovey, even in a transformed role, is unlikely to be one of them.

He is, after all, well used to toughing it out with the big blokes. If he did not exactly write the book on the subject, he has certainly read, learned and inwardly digested it.