Duffie reveals debt to Slater and the Storm
The texts were flowing in as Matt Duffie celebrated his All Blacks callup like a callow schoolboy whose first crush had agreed to go on a date with him. He flicked through the salutations, pausing only as fiancee Perri broke out the bubbles to toast the landmark moment in time-honoured fashion.
But he stopped at one that stood out. He read it again. And again. He let its resonance wash over him. It was from a former Melbourne Storm team-mate, and meant the world to this resolute Aucklander who has been through more than your average footy player to realise his All Blacks dream
The message was signed just ‘Billy’. It was from Storm, Queensland and Kangaroos superstar Billy Slater, and for Duffie it was one of the more poignant moments since discovering he was to become a fully fledged All Black on this month-long jaunt north.
‘‘Billy has been a massive part of my career, and as a team-mate he’s probably had the most impact,’’ Duffie said. ‘‘That was nice to hear from him. We kinda had a similar couple of years there in our careers, and got through the other side.’’
The thing to understand is that the story of Matt Duffie the rugby player, ex-Saint Kentigern College, and now a standout wing with the Blues and North Harbour, simply cannot be told without incorporating the tale of Matt Duffie the rugby league player whose tortuous NRL career was nearly the breaking of him, but was probably the making.
Duffie joined the Storm straight out of school in 2008, jetting across the Tasman two days after his final exam. He had had to turn down the chance to represent his country in AFL at the age of 17 because of training commitments in Melbourne. Even then he knew the pathway down which he was heading.
But once at the Storm that route turned precipitous, as evidenced by the fact he played just 61 games for the club in five seasons. He had four shoulder operations and two major ACL injuries (another four surgeries) all before he was 24. He once went 847 days (even now he can rattle off the exact rounds) between first grade appearances while he rebuilt his knee and essentially learned to run again.
Mental strength is one thing this kid is not in short supply of.
‘‘You go through the shitty times, and you have to deal with that stuff. But I had great support around me, and the Storm was a great place to be,’’ reflects Duffie. ‘‘The club looked after me, my partner and family looked after me, and the best feeling about coming through the other side is to see the smiles on the faces of those people.’’
But, yes, Duffie had moments when he pondered whether a professional football career just wasn’t meant to be.
‘‘After my second ACL it took me 14 months to get back on the field. I had completely forgotten how to run. My proprioception [yes, it’s a word] of where my leg was going to land, how hard I needed to push off, was all off. At that point I was ‘holy shit, I don’t know whether I’ll get back on the field’. It took nearly two years before I felt completely comfortable.’’
But the Storm stuck by him. His team-mates rallied round. And coach Craig Bellamy made it clear he wasn’t going to leave his young Kiwi hanging high and dry.
‘‘After my second ACL he came in and had some wise words for me. I’ll always remember that conversation. Then extending my contract an extra year was massive. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know where I would have been.’’
Which brings us back to Slater’s kind wishes. It means so much to Duffie because it was Billy the Kid who took the young Kiwi under his wing at the Storm, showed him the ropes, and set the standards for him to aspire to. Later Slater would endure his own injury horror story, missing the bulk of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with two shoulder reconstructions, before reemerging triumphant in 2017.
‘‘When I turned up he was about 26, in the prime of his career, and I was just a snot-nosed 19-yearold,’’ recalls Duffie. ‘‘By what he did at training, and on the field, and how much he demanded from the guys around him, he showed me what a true professional was. Away from footy he was just a down-to-earth nice guy.’’
Duffie feels he had the ‘‘perfect’’ professional apprenticeship at the Storm, a place that ‘‘brings out the best in you’’. He counts his blessings every day, even through the myriad of injuries, that he landed where he did.
All of which made the decision to leave them at the end of 2015 so agonising. But a burning desire to return to rugby, the arrival of his chief rugby mentor Tana Umaga as Blues coach and a feeling it was ‘‘now or never’’ in his career all conspired to send him back to the 15-man code. It has not all been smooth sailing. His Super Rugby debut against the Crusaders in 2016 featured the now infamous ‘‘Nemani Nadolo moment’’ when the giant wing flattened him on a rampaging run.
‘‘Even after my debut where I played horrible and ended up on the highlights video for all the wrong reasons, I was still 100 percent I’d made the best decision ... I was in depressed mode for a couple of weeks, but once I started laughing at myself and being a bit more relaxed about the whole situation, I came out the other end.’’
So what makes this a successful tour for a rookie who will be the oldest of the outside back contingent?
‘‘It’s not about games,’’ he says. ‘‘A successful tour for me is learning as much as I can and being the best team-mate I can be. I want to work hard and earn the respect of the guys around me.’’