Former World Cup-winning All Black Isaia Toeava has delivered a sobering perspective of what a life of rugby does to the body.

The 33-year-old, who was part of the All Blacks' 2011 World Cup-winning squad and plays in France, said he "doubts" he will be able to walk when he's 50, after a lifetime of heavy impact hits on the field.

Toeava has undergone eight surgeries in his injury-ravaged career and just last year his season was cut short after he ruptured the rotator cuff in his left shoulder during a European Champions Cup game.

Toeava told French publication Midi Olympique he worries about the state his body will be in post-career and said although the sport has made efforts to promote health and reduce injury, the purpose of the game would always remain the same.


"For 80 minutes, you try to crush the guy in front and he does the same, he tries to crush you," said Toeava, who played 75 Super Rugby games for the Hurricanes and the Blues.

"What impact will all these rugby pro years have on my body in the medium term? I hope I can still walk at 50 years old. Sometimes, I doubt it.

"Rugby is the sport I love ... But the sacrifice [it] imposes is great."

Toeava said he wouldn't let his children play rugby for fear of what it might do to their bodies.

"My children are the most precious thing in the world. It is already hard to see a teammate hurt himself," Toeava, who plays for French side Clermont told Midi Olympique.

"For my children, I would not stand for it … I know my sport too well and it destroys the body."

Clermont's Isaia Toeava tackled by Northampton Saints's Dylan Hartley. Photo / Getty
Clermont's Isaia Toeava tackled by Northampton Saints's Dylan Hartley. Photo / Getty

The Samoa-born, Auckland-raised utility back played 35 tests for the All Blacks and between 2005 and 2011 took part in two World Cup campaigns.

Toeava left New Zealand in 2012 to play several seasons in Japan before joining Clermont in 2016.



Here's what NZME rugby writer Gregor Paul said about Toeava's injuries in a piece published on July 22, 2012:

Toeava, at his own expense, has been 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.