Legend Q&A: Clinton Toopi

Clinton Toopi rose to prominence with the Warriors in their stunning run to the 2002 grand final before his career took a couple of detours.

A free-running centre, he was part of the team which created history by making it all the way to the premiership decider alongside the likes of Stacey Jones, Ali Lauit'iti and Francis Meli.

He played 156 NRL matches for the Warriors and the Titans as well as 22 Tests for New Zealand before hanging up his boots in 2011.

This article first appeared in Rugby League Week in October, 2016

Clinton Toopi, Q&A

You were an international centre, but is it right you started your career as a forward?

Most of my younger footy years were all in the forwards. But James Leuluai, a legend and centre himself for New Zealand, said 'I'll chuck you in the centres' when he was my coach at Otahuhu Leopards. My debut for the Warriors was in the second row, but they soon put me in the centres. I ended up playing the same style as James. He was such a softly spoken person but an animal on the field. That was what I tried to emulate.

Did you always want to play for the Warriors?

I used to have Warriors posters on my wall and it was a childhood dream to run out alongside those guys. I saw Matthew Ridge out (on the town) one day, and he was on one of my posters, so I said 'one day I’m going to take your position'. He said 'come on then mate. It's there for the taking. But what are you doing out here at the clubs?' Within a year Mark Graham had given me an opportunity at the Warriors and Ridgey and I were the last ones left in the beep test at training. He just pipped me! That was my induction into professional footy.

Within three years you were playing in an NRL grand final. What do you take out of the 2002 decider against the Roosters?

Until you experience a grand final, all your hopes and dreams are about just making it. It's not that we didn't want to win, but our goals had been achieved. I got caught up in the atmosphere and I was just happy to be there. But it all goes in an instant, and you think 'if I only I could have done this'.

But a lot of childhood dreams had come true for a lot of us. We got decent contracts, we got to play with our local team and we got to carve out history for the club in our first few years of playing together.

Clinton Toopi in action for the Titans against the Dragons in 2010.
Clinton Toopi in action for the Titans against the Dragons in 2010. ©NRL Photos

You scored a hat-trick twice against Australia for the Kiwis, in 2003 and 2005. Fond memories?

I still treasure those memories like they were yesterday. When we first got our international stripes the culture was - not that it was spoken - that Australia is the best and we can't beat them. But I was a young buck and I was there to win, to kill and go for gold.

We had a great group of guys go from the Warriors to New Zealand, so it was like playing for the Warriors– and then you add to that the experience of the Puletua boys and David Kidwell. We had a psychologist who'd joined our campaign and there was a relentless culture of success that was starting to form.

Everything stuck that day in 2003 at North Harbour (a 30-16 win for New Zealand). When you beat Australia it doesn't just take one person. It takes the whole bloody team to fire. In 2005 our best centre, Nigel Vagana, was playing five-eighth. My centre partner Paul Whatuira had just won a grand final. Manu (Vautuvei) was a young beast coming on the scene. We had a vibrant team.

In 2003 you were voted by international journos as the best centre in the world. How did you cope with that?

I appreciated the accolade and it was a nice touch. But playing alongside guys like Stacey Jones, Francis Meli, Jerry Seu Seu and Mark Tookey made my job easier. Can you imagine what it was like when five people tried to tackle Ali Lauiti'iti in his prime?

Surely there is some joy for the guy he can pop an offload to, and I was grateful to be that person. I'd risen to the top quickly and I was appreciating everything.

The one thing I do regret is later taking all the hard work for granted. I think my form did drop off which saw me fall out of favour and led to me slowly exiting out.

And that is one of the unfortunate things I see with players at the Warriors. If we are not wanted we go for the easy out, rather than sticking around and fighting it out.

Why did you leave the Warriors at the end of 2006?

I didn't see eye to eye with Ivan Cleary. There are no bad feelings towards him or anything … but I don’t think he had any faith in me. At that time I was in a lull in terms of form, so that didn't help the situation.

We had built up such a successful club and made the finals four years in a row (from 2001-2004) so for us to go backwards it was like 'this is not us. We are regulars in the top eight'. We were a young club and we didn't know how to cope.

Clinton Toopi tries to make a break for New Zealand.
Clinton Toopi tries to make a break for New Zealand. ©NRL Photos

You went to Leeds and played 30 games in a row in 2007 and won the Super League title at Wembley. Great days?

CEO Gary Hetherington had that club running like you wouldn't believe, in terms of professionalism and getting it from the ground up and the top down.

A lot of England internationals were there like Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire. They weren't on a lot of money but they were there for the love of the game.

A wonderful culture and strong bond came with it because they were all there for the big picture and not to fill their pockets. To win at Wembley alongside Webby (Brent Webb), Ali (Lauiti'iti) and Kylie Leuluai is up there with my all-time greatest memories.

But you sustained a knee injury and things went south for you in 2008?

In the World Club Challenge against Melbourne I had Billy Slater in my arms and I thought 'I'm going to slam him down into the ground'. I did that but dislocated my shoulder at the same time.

I was out for three months, and two weeks later I did my knee. I had two major operations in one year but I was still contracted for 2009. Gary Hetherington, and this shows the champion operator he is, said 'You've got two options. Take the severance pay and go on you merry way with our blessing. Or, because we want you, we we'll sign you for 2009 and 2010 on a bit less money so we can have another centre come in while you recover'.

But being young and naïve I said 'I'll be right. I'll go back to the NRL with a new knee and shoulder'.

Around 2009 you could hardly walk. What happened there?

I'd come back to New Zealand and I didn’t get the professional rehab I needed. I went to the Bay of Plenty, where my wife is from, and played rugby for Whakatane Marist where I really enjoyed the rugby culture.

But I made my knee worse and re-injured it. It got to the point where I couldn't even play with the kids. My wife said 'your body is telling you something. Maybe it's time to give it up'. My knee surgeon said to me 'I've seen inside your knee. It is no good. You won't play again'.

But you had other ideas?

I did, so I got in contact with our old Kiwi physio Michelle Booth and she became my physio/psychologist. We went on a high intensity, push the envelope training regimen and she got me backfiring.

There were times I didn't think I'd be able to do it, but Michelle kept pushing me and I kept the flame alive.

Clinton Toopi speaks to young players as part of his work with the NRL Community team.
Clinton Toopi speaks to young players as part of his work with the NRL Community team. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

And two months later you got your final NRL deal?

We'd thrown some feelers out to some clubs and the Titans gave me a lifeline and I was back in the fold again. I enjoyed my two seasons at the Titans.

After retiring I worked alongside Presto (Preston Campbell) and was able to get out and do some worthwhile community work. I found a new passion and was able to transition out of the game.

I'm five years out of the game now and I have just got to the point where I no longer go 'I'd love to still be playing'. This is the first year I'm cool with it, because it is a privilege and special walk that we get to walk as players. So many good things come out of it.

 

Clinton Toopi now works for the NRL as a Community Programs Deliverer