Edinburgh’s Aussie-born lock is the complete package and key to their hopes in Friday’s European final against Gloucester
WHILE some aspects of the game change like the fashions on a Milan catwalk, other things remain as constant as a Swiss timepiece and the need for two different and distinct types of lock forward is one of them.
The Jonny Grays of this world are regarded as gritty, physical enforcers whose best work comes in the tight confines of the set piece, the ruck and the maul. The Richie Grays of rugby are the more athletic types who run around the field like an extra flanker, pass, carry and catch the eye. According to his club coach, Edinburgh’s young Australian second row Ben Toolis is both things rolled into one imposing 6ft 7in unit; the complete package.
“He is both an enforcer and an athletic lock,” said Alan Solomons while purring about Toolis’ performance in the European Challenge Cup semi-final win against the Dragons. The Welsh club scored a try early in the second half and briefly threatened to make a game of it. Just minutes later Toolis displayed his athleticism by charging down a clearance kick to score the first try of his professional career, snuffing out the Dragons’ nascent fightback at a stroke.
There are several reasons Edinburgh have elbowed their way into Friday’s Challenge Cup final. Scrum-half Sam Hidlgo-Clyne is the find of the season and Alasdair Dickinson is in the form of his life but the big Australian lump of a lock has played his part in guiding Edinburgh to the showdown at Twickenham Stoop and, unlike the others, he has landed from Planet Nowhere. Toolis enjoyed just two league starts for Edinburgh last season; this campaign he has had 12 and he made his Test bow against Italy in the Six Nations defeat by Italy, winning his first international yellow card to boot. He is a big unit but athletic with it and, at 23, he is barely out of second-row nursery school. If he maintains his current trajectory Edinburgh will have a world-class lock on their hands, which isn’t bad going for someone who was offered terms to play professional volleyball as a teenager.
Brisbane born and Scottish qualified, Toolis is one of twins who both joined Edinburgh at the start of last season, although his meteoric rise has left brother Alex in his wake. The boys boast family in Glasgow and cousins in Balerno who have helped them settle halfway around the world, but as a youngster Ben Toolis spent several years in Queensland concentrating on volleyball which he played at age-grade level for Australia. At 19, he made a conscious decision to uncouple from the sport despite offers to turn pro.
“Rugby was always my first love but I did really enjoy volleyball,” says the hirsute lock who looks like a refugee from the Grateful Dead. “I was quite good at it. I did what I wanted to do with it, playing in Asia and things like that. I got scholarships to play in Canada and contracts in Sweden so I could have done that. I chose to give all that up and have another crack at rugby and it’s all worked out quite well so far. I’m quite pleased.
“It’s quite surreal when you think about the year I’ve had so far. I’m getting good game time with Edinburgh and loving every minute of it. The Scotland cap didn’t come in the best circumstances but it was just awesome to be in and around the team environment and you just want more of it. That’s why I want to keep playing well for Edinburgh.”
Their young lock may be going places but the capital club remain an enigma. Their league form is patchy at best, they have lost exactly as many games as they have won and their points differential is -33. In the European Challenge Cup they are a different animal. Beating Bordeaux in France in the opening round seemed to breathe some belief into the squad, just as that victory over London Irish kick-started the Heineken Cup adventure three years ago.
The semi-final win, against a Dragons team fresh from beating Leinster, remains the high-water mark. They were aggressive and relentless, accurate and ruthless, finishing five tries to one winners. Only their ill-discipline kept the Welsh region competitive into the second half and, with Greig Laidlaw, pictured below, and James Hook in Gloucester’s squad that is one area Edinburgh need to improve.
Friday’s final is a huge opportunity for Scottish rugby to emerge from the long shadow that professional rugby has cast over the sport but listening to Toolis talk about the match it almost seems like their first European final must take a back seat to more pressing matters. “The Pro12 is basically our most important competition because our goal is to make the Champions Cup next season,” Toolis claims. “We want to make the top six, we need all the points we can get in the Pro12.
“Next Friday is obviously a really important game for us, it’s important for Scottish rugby and Edinburgh as well. They [the league and the cup final] are both as important and next week is a special occasion to get an extra piece of silverware for us and give us that confidence leading to next year and letting everyone know that Edinburgh rugby is getting better and improving and we can take any team in Europe. They are both as important as each other.”
He is backed by coach Solomons. “I would say it’s a massive game,” he said before comparing Friday’s final to the inter-city 1872 Cup. “Those [derbies] are the equivalent of a final in my opinion.” In terms of intensity he may have a point but, in terms of the message it sends to the rest of the rugby world, there is no comparison. The 1872 Cup remains the only silverware won by a Scottish pro-team only because no one else can compete. At least the Challenge Cup throws up some serious opposition and several of European rugby’s big beasts have lifted the trophy in recent years. If it is deemed worthy of winning by the likes of Northampton, Clermont, Leinster, Harlequins and Bath then both Edinburgh and their Aussie lock need to get their game face on come Friday.