Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Isaia melts away as career put on ice

Injuries have frequently hampered Isaia Toeava's ability to play at the highest level. Photo / Getty Images
Injuries have frequently hampered Isaia Toeava's ability to play at the highest level. Photo / Getty Images

Entrances not exits are Isaia Toeava's thing. He got our attention in 2005 when he earned his first cap as a 19-year-old and the only thing known about him was that vowels outnumbered consonants in his name by almost three to one.

But he didn't make a peep as he shuffled out of New Zealand this week to begin his new life in Japan. His silence was borne of a reticence to discuss inevitable questions about the troublesome hip that has robbed him of the sporting future he seemed sure to inherit seven years ago.

Any prolonged discussion with Toeava would have contained a strong element of sadness; a sense of potential unfulfilled and what might have been.

Toeava is barely 26 but the chances of him returning to New Zealand to relaunch a second phase of his career are considered small.

The intention at this stage is to regain match sharpness and rebuild his confidence in the aerobically demanding Japanese competition.

This is not a mid-career financial top-up and mental refresher the way it was for Leon MacDonald in 2004 or even Tamati Ellison in 2010 and 2011. This is it - the end of the road for Toeava in terms of All Black aspirations.

Toeava, at his own expense, has seen the pre-eminent medical authority on hip injuries. While the medical team are confident the condition has finally been fixed, Toeava knows he can't bank on a long career.

He might get lucky and eke out another five years or more but he might not. Probably not since Jonah Lomu has there been a player so obviously held back by a debilitating, degenerative physical condition.

"When we were playing the Highlanders in Dunedin last year," says former Blues assistant coach Bryce Woodward, "I can remember Ice was really struggling in the warm-up. He felt like he was losing the power in his glutes and was probably only able to operate at about 60-70 per cent and yet no one would have noticed in the game. It takes a special player to be able to play through an injury like that and not have it be obvious to anyone."

That's the sadness of Toeava's career - barely at any stage since his dramatic All Black selection has he been able to operate at full physical or mental capacity. His early elevation to the Grand Slam squad was, as has been agreed by all those involved, a mistake.

Barely out of Mangere's De La Salle College, the painfully shy Toeava wasn't equipped to deal with the demands of being an All Black. And the expectation which came with being labelled by the All Black coaches as a "special project" was every bit as inhibiting as the cracks that would develop in his hip.

"I think he was definitely someone who would have benefited from a season in Super Rugby before his All Black call-up," says Woodward.

The irony of that call-up wasn't lost on Woodward either. At the time, he was coach of the New Zealand under-21 team and had attended the national under-19 trial to get a handle on who was coming through the system.

"There were two players who stood out, really stood out in those trials. One was Ice and the other was Kieran Read. Toeava had such great pace and this incredible skill set. He could beat people so easily, he was a great passer, a kicker and a good defender. I think everyone could see that he and Read were going to be All Blacks."

The New Zealand Rugby Union had introduced a rule that players could have only one year in an age-grade team, ruling both Toeava and Read out of featuring for both the under-19s and under-21s in 2005.

It was designed to prevent physical burn-out and young men having too many demands made of them; yet Toeava was able to tour with the All Blacks later that year.

The comparison is revealing. Questions linger as to whether Toeava was exposed to an overly demanding training regime too early.

Read, on the other hand, was introduced slowly and even deliberately held back by the All Black selectors in the middle of 2008. He'd played his way into the squad but they wanted Read to rest, play in the ITM Cup and then they brought him in for the Grand Slam tour.

Look at Read now after that careful management - he is the best No8 in world rugby and has been for the last two years.

There could, though, still be a second coming of the 'Isaia'. He's endured long periods out the game each of the past five years and now that he's free of pain and not troubled by his hip, he wants to make hay while it lasts.

"He's conscious of wanting to help support his wider family," says Woodward.

Maybe his outlook will change if he can rediscover that searing pace, trust his body to be at full power and not be dragged down by the constant, nagging pain.

He's young enough and good enough to resurrect his All Black career in 2014 and by then his mind may be more than willing. But the bigger question as always with Toeava is whether the body will be able.

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 28 Dec 2014 21:37:20 Processing Time: 604ms