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Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Exclusive interview
Matt Toomua 'nothing but the best'
Brett McKay
July 11, 2013

With the Brumbies' place in the play-offs secured, and celebrations after the gutsy and history-making defeat of the British & Irish Lions finally done, the two-time champions will switch back into Super Rugby mode this week for the final-round clash against Western Force at nib Stadium in Perth on Saturday night.

The young man who played a key role in that impressive win over the Lions will be front and centre for the Brumbies as they head into their first finals foray since 2004, and there's little coincidence that the club's nine-year finals drought has ended in boom fly-half Matt Toomua's best season to date. What's somewhat surprising about that statement is that Toomua doesn't necessarily see it the same way. Rather, he's putting his breakout season down to an uninterrupted run of injury, something he has never really had in his six seasons with the Brumbies.

"Each year I've never put more than six or seven games together, so this year's been great," Toomua told ESPNscrum as Australian rugby reintroduces itself to Super Rugby this week. "In a way, this year has been my induction year, but I do have a bit of a base to work on. It's not brand new to me."

It's hard to believe that Toomua is still only 23; it feels like he's been around forever. In a way, he has. He made his debut in 2008 as an 18-year-old, but he still hasn't played 50 Super Rugby games because injuries have blighted his career to this point.

Toomua has taken his game to another level in 2013, though, and it's interesting to hear him speak of those changes and how many factors he puts them down to.

 
"I've got Jake, and even Brian Smith, really challenging me every week. You think you've had a good game and you come back and they're still wanting to make improvements. And then I've got 'Bernie' reminding me that it's No.10 on my back, and not No.8. It's getting the best of both worlds."
 

"I'm going to the line a lot more," he said. "I'm playing flatter. Early on in the year I focused on playing a bit flatter, and my defence, and in the last few games I'm getting a lot more touches as playmaker, and creating opportunities, and that's something I feel I've grown into.

"Earlier on in the year, Jake [White, Brumbies head coach] was seeing my strengths as a physical '10', a defensive 10 very similar to Butch James, and I probably got into that mentality of being up and down. It's a balance being able to switch from defensive mode into attack mode, and I struggled with that earlier in the year; I'd carry when I shouldn't, or I'd clean out a lot or something like that. That's something I'm working on getting the balance of. For me, it's now also about not losing that strength, defensively, and growing another aspect while keeping that strength.

"The system I'm in [at the Brumbies] is perfect. I've got Jake, and even Brian Smith [Brumbies consultant defensive coach], really challenging me every week. You think you've had a good game and you come back and they're still wanting to make improvements. And then I've got 'Bernie' [Stephen Larkham, Brumbies backs coach] reminding me that it's No.10 on my back, and not No.8. It's getting the best of both worlds.

"It's something that comes with starting every week, and that's something I'm certainly enjoying. Jake's put a lot of faith in me, and saying 'you're starting', and starting consistently means I can work on things and to not feel too pressured to try too many risky things. That's definitely helped me a lot [this season]."

Matt Toomua has improved his playmaking in 2013 © Getty Images
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For the young Brumbies, it's been quite the last month to six weeks. They've maintained and secured top spot in the Australian Super Rugby conference, and added three more Wallabies representatives to their ranks - with Jesse Mogg, Christian Leali'ifano and skipper Ben Mowen each making an impressive debut during the Lions series. Suddenly, the number of Wallabies in the Brumbies ranks is a far call from that which Jake White inherited on arrival.

All attention now turns to the Super Rugby play-offs, though, via one last regular-season match in Perth. It's far from a nothing game for the Brumbies, too, as a win over the Force will lift them into the top two and put pressure on the No.1-ranked Bulls who take on the Stormers in Cape Town.

For the Brumbies, now, the focus is on winning the competition, albeit taking small steps along the way.

"Yeah, of course," Toomua told ESPNscrum. "Whenever you're in a season, you accept nothing but the best, and it's not until four months later that you can look back and say, 'was it a pass mark or not?'. And so for us, we're in the season and we always want to win the next game, and it was good to beat the Lions, but now we push on.

 
"If I'm not in the [Wallabies'] plans, then that's fine. I'll be honest with you, I'm having the time of my life playing consistent footy for the Brumbies, and if this year goes on and I play every game and I don't make any tours beyond [the Super Rugby season], then I'd still consider it a successful season."
 

"Playing the Force is still a big game for us because we can really set up the nature of the finals, whether that be a top-two finish, or an assured top three. And I don't want to say we're taking it week-to-week, because that's so annoying when people say that, but it's a cliche for a reason."

White has spoken for the past two months in terms of knockout rugby for the Brumbies, and make no mistake that's the attitude of the players too. The equation is simple: win every game from here on, and you're Super Rugby champions for 2013.

Beyond that, and despite his name being mentioned quite regularly as the fly-half the Wallabies need but haven't found, Toomua has very deliberately stepped back from Test expectations. Despite touring with the Wallabies in 2009, and having all subsequent seasons cruelled by injury, he's not been sitting by the phone this season waiting for it to ring. He even says he's found out about Wallabies squads only by being told by others, rather than waiting for announcements.

The changing of the Wallabies coaching guard may yet involve a recall from the Test wilderness for Quade Cooper, yet the plaudits will continue to flood in for the young Brumbies No.10. For all the talk about what coaches want from attacking and defensive perspectives, there remains a strong train of thought that Toomua is the most complete fly-half in the country. He doesn't have the flash of Cooper - no-one in Australia does - but in terms of that all-round defend-up-front-run-to-the-line player, Toomua is the man.

So does he feel he's getting closer?

"It feels like I'm getting closer, for sure, but at the same time that's up for the coach to decide ... if I'm in the plans or not," Toomua said with no hint of trying to bat the question away. He spoke to Robbie Deans only occasionally in the months leading into the Lions series, and with Ewen McKenzie's Queensland Reds also finals bound there may not be any discussions with the new Wallabies coach for the next few weeks, either.

That suits Toomua just fine.

"If I'm not in the plans [for the moment], then that's fine. I'll be honest with you, I'm having the time of my life playing consistent footy for the Brumbies, and if this year goes on and I play every game and I don't make any tours beyond [the Super Rugby season], then I'd still consider it a successful season, because in the past I haven't been able to do that.

"Am I getting closer?

"I guess I'll find that out later."

© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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