Monday, 29 June 2015

Meeting Mr Toga

Apisai Toga: a giant in every sense
I pressed ‘send’ and my hand was actually shaking.

When you’ve grown up with the name Apisai Toga spoken in awe, given legendary status - a mountain of a man, made folklore - sending a text to his brother inviting him to lunch felt like a momentus action.

Inosi Toga - that’s pronoucned ’Tonga’ everyone - played alongside his late brother at the St George club at Kogarah in the Southern suburbs of Sydney for three years; drawn to the club at Apisai’s insistence to test himself in a competition the Dragons had dominated for a decade. It was, at the time, world club Rugby League’s sternest challenge.

Fast forward fifty years and I’m melting in the heat of Sydney’s Autumn heatwave. I’ve been stood in the shade at Circular Quay for an hour. Inosi’s text says that the traffic is awful and he’ll be late.

I’d spent a couple of days wondering how it’d feel to finally close the loop on the story of a genuine Rugby League giant. Inosi had said in his emails how honoured he was that the club remembered ‘Api’ with such reverence, love and respect. How he treasured the medal that would be taken ‘home’ to Fiji to rest alongside his brother.

From tracking him down in the midsts of a cold, wet UK autumn, to standing here outside the MacDonalds on the corner of Alfred Street, it had been an exciting, emotional journey - but as the minutes ticked by there was a realisation that - for both of us - this was a pretty big moment.

Then there he was. Squeezed behind the wheel of a small hatchback, a grin as wide as the harbour bridge, a shovel of a hand extended through the open window. “Jim,” he boomed, “my friend. I am sorry we’re late.”

Alongside Inosi was his wife Olivia, dressed in a brightly coloured dress: “I asked Olivia to wear something traditionally Fijian, then you would know it was us” he laughed. For the first of many times, Olivia raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation and invited me to sit in the front passenger seat.

Big Shoes to Fill: Meeting Inosi Toga
at St George Leagues club
“I’ve arranged for us to have lunch at the St George Leagues Club”, said Inosi, pausing to take a call from Steve ‘the sledge-hammer’ Edge. Edge was the St. George Dragons hooker in their 14th and 15th grand final wins who played alongside Apisai and Inosi (he also captained the Parramatta Eels to their 1st, 2nd and 3rd premierships - and was NSW’s  Hooker in the inaugural State of Origin in 1980.).  

He is now on the management team at St George and Inosi had lined up a meeting in honour of my visit. I suddenly felt a bit under-dressed…

As Inosi steered the car out of the city and down the Princes Highway, he told me Api’s story.

He said that Apisai was not just a gifted footballer, but a prodigious athelete - the very best of an emerging generation of Fijian rugby talent. He saw the opportunity to play in England as a chance to mature and develop his game - and he often spoke of how playing for Hornets in the cold, the wet and the mud of an uncompromising competition gave him the harder edge he needed to become a world-class footballer.

When St George came knocking he saw that as the ultimate challenge - the best side in the best competition in the world. He was a revelation in the second row - a genuine star. Inosi admitted that he didn’t have Api’s skills, but when your big brother calls and says ‘come play alongside me in Sydney’, it’s a hard offer to turn down.

Inosi spoke of how the club employed the Toga boys as ‘painters’ at the League’s club - given overalls and step-ladders to do odd-jobs around the club as a ‘day-job’ around their training. I get the impression that they didn’t do a lot of painting.

Then Inosi spoke of the event that tore his family apart. Reporting for training after a visit home, Api didn’t feel right - carrying an infected cut he’d picked up whilst swimming during his break. Api was running alongside Inosi and Steve Edge at Kogarah Park when he collapsed. He was rushed to hospital, but died of his infection.

Api Toga in full flow: Playing for Hornets
gave him the edge to become
a world-class player
The shockwave hit the Toga family hard. Inosi had always seen his big brother as invincible: “He was my hero, I looked up to him”.

Api’s body was taken home.The St George club persuaded Inosi not to go to the Funeral: “They knew that if I went home, my mother would want me to stay. That I wouldn’t come back”, he said, his voice almost a whisper.

Within a year, his mother too was dead (“… of a broken heart”) and, in 1974, St George released Inosi from his contract. He had no club, no family and, it seemed, no prospects alone in a city far from home. After a move to play Queensland Cup fell through, Inosi called it a day on his career.

“I was in a dark place,” he said. “I would find myself in ‘the Cross’ (King’s Cross  was - and is -  a notorious district of clubs, bars, strip joints and massage parlours) - drinking, picking fights, women…” his voice trailed away. Olivia squeezed his shoulder.

He told me that in the darkest of those days, he needed to find another path if he were to avoid the worst possble fate. “I knew nothing of God”, he said, “But I knew I needed something”.

In 1980 Inosi joined a local church - seeking support and solace. It was the alternative path he was looking for. With renewed purpose and a new outlook on life, he became a pastor and transformed his life.

Recently retired he’s still actively involved in community work and it’s clear how appreciative he is that he got a second chance.

Arriving at the St George League’s club ‘Mr Toga’ is warmly welcomed at reception and we are shown through to the restaurant. Steve Edge greets us with a crushing handshake - and thrusts a huge parcel of St George memorabilia into my hands. It’s a hell of a welcome.

Inosi and Olivia hoot with laughter as I present him with one of Hornets’ Fiji-themed world-cup away shirts. “Palm trees - on an English jersey…”

Over lunch Inosi tells me of plans in Fiji to launch a 7s tournament in Apisai’s memory, of how he will tell the people ‘back home’ of the respect and generosity of the people at Rochdale Hornets. 

But most of all - again and again - he thanks us all for remembering his brother.

"Wouldn't swap it for the world"

Hornets' Elder statesman Ray Myers tells how Wally McArthur hooked him on Rugby League.