Riding with wing of the Melbourne Storm
Melbourne Storm sensation Matt Duffie may be on the brink of NRL stardom and his first Kiwis cap but he still spares a thought for his earthquake-afflicted Christchurch club. The 20-year-old played two seasons for the Kaiapoi Bulldogs in his early teens after a job transfer took his family to Christchurch from Auckland.
So when Duffie heard the now-Northern Bulldogs lost their clubrooms and home ground at Kaiapoi's Murphy Park in the September 4 earthquake, he responded as quickly as he does to a Billy Slater break. He heard through Russell Tuuta – one of his coaches at Kaiapoi – that "the Bulldogs' ground got pretty beaten up". Tuuta's son, Michael, was one of his closest Kaiapoi High School mates. Duffie said he "spent a lot of time at Murphy Park when I was in Kaiapoi, so I sent over a bit of gear that they could auction to raise money for the club."
Duffie won't mind one bit if the Bulldogs claim him as the first Kiwi to graduate from their junior ranks. He's not getting ahead of himself, mind, even though he's been hotly tipped as a bolter for the Kiwis' Anzac test squad to play the Kangaroos on the Gold Coast on May 6. Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney, who tried in vain to lure Duffie to his Parramatta Eels club, believes the young wing is ready for test duty.
If Duffie does get a Kiwis' callup, he says it's "likely to be a tug of war" between the Bulldogs and the Pakuranga Jaguars to claim him as their own. "My dad is a pretty proud supporter of [Pakuranga] and he always told me I'm a Jaguars boy. But I don't mind if the Bulldogs [claim me too]."
Auckland-born Duffie played rugby union as a nipper but had two years of rugby league with the Jaguars before he came to Christchurch as a 13-year-old with his mother and younger brother when his stepfather got a job here.
On winter Saturdays he played rugby union for Kaiapoi, starring at centre or at lock as his team won North Canterbury junior titles. On Sundays he donned a Bulldogs jersey and played rugby league in a team coached by the Two Tuutas – Russell, a former New Zealand Residents representative, and Brendon, a former Kiwis utility with professional experience in Australia and England.
Brendon Tuuta was down at Murphy Park yesterday helping clean out the Bulldogs' clubrooms before demolition day on Tuesday. He said Duffie was a dead-set cert for sporting stardom. "He was always going to do something, professionally. He stood out amongst all the players. We used him as a second rower or loose forward but I think he was going to be special in any position he's going to go to. He's just so dedicated. You just knew football was going to be a career for him."
Tuuta, who played a total of 45 Australian first-grade games for Western Suburbs and Perth's Western Reds, said the Bulldogs club was delighted at Duffie's progress in the NRL and "would love to" claim him as a homegrown Kiwi. "We will claim anything at the moment." He said the club appreciated Duffie's donation of gear. The items were meant to be auctioned at a fundraising dinner featuring Australian great Wally Lewis. But it had to be postponed after the February 22 quake.
The Bulldogs were Duffie's last club before the Storm. At 15, he returned to Auckland and enrolled at St Kentigern College and helped the first XV win the Auckland secondary schools competition.
He was a track and field standout too, winning Auckland titles and making national schools finals in the high jump and sprinting events.
But Duffie remained a real rugby league fan and was "a season ticketholder at the Warriors for a couple of years". He was snapped up by the Storm after linking with Australian players agent Jim Banaghan. "Near the end of my last year at school, the Auckland Rugby Union asked me to join their junior development programme. But I had already signed for Melbourne by then."
Duffie has no regrets about his career choice. He moved to Melbourne at the end of 2008 and scored 25 tries in his first full season on the wing as the Storm won the Toyota Cup under-20 premiership. He thought he might make his first-grade bow last year, "but not until around [State of] Origin time when the big stars were away".
But he got thrown in the deep end against his boyhood idols, the Warriors, during the most tumultuous week in the Storm's storied history. Just days before Duffie's debut, the Storm were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 titles, fined $500,000 and forced to play without points for the rest of the 2010 season after being found guilty of severe salary-cap breaches.
But the firestorm did not deter Duffie from scoring two tries on debut against the Warriors "in front of 25,000 people".
He figured he might get "one or two games" in 2010 so he was "pretty stoked to play 14" and score eight tries. He would have had more but he missed the final run-in with ankle and shoulder injuries. Not 21 till August, he has been a first-grade fixture this season and has now extended his try-scoring record to 13 in 18 NRL matches. He's the Storm's top finisher this season with five touchdowns – one more than Slater.
Duffie's looking forward to playing the Warriors again in Melbourne on Monday night in front of "my mum and little brother". His family remain staunch Warriors fans though he says he has "pretty much converted them [to the Storm] now".
Life's good in the Victorian state capital after the initial shock of "being away from home, with no family around". Duffie committed himself this week to a three-year contract extension in Melbourne. He was flattered to get an offer from the Eels where Kearney, a former Storm assistant, and Brad Arthur, his Toyota Cup Melbourne mentor, are now based. He admitted it had been tempting, "especially with [Kearney] being national coach".
He "took a while to make up my mind" but said he loves Melbourne as a city, "the boys at the Storm are pretty cool" and he believes he can best develop his game there. Rated by coach Craig Bellamy as a sponge for the way he soaks up knowledge, Duffie values playing alongside Queensland and Australian fullback Slater, "who has taught me a lot, as another outside back".
Duffie's forward days are long gone and the 1.92m tall flank man, noted for his pace and aerial ability, believes wing best suits his game. "I'm not big enough to move in any closer yet".
He's conscious he has had "bugger all first-grade games" so he's not having his head turned by talk of Anzac test selection. "It's my dream and my goal to play for the Kiwis some time in my career. But at the moment I'm just thinking about playing good footy for the Storm."