Duffie re­veals debt to Slater and the Storm

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport - MARC HINTON

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.’’

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