Ben Toolis aims to channel inner noisy neighbour against All Blacks
With more than four years spent living in the country and a mother, Linda, from Carluke, Brisbane-born Ben Toolis feels very much Scottish these days.
Playing his part in the fine win over the Wallabies in Sydney during the summer marked a further important step in that transition but the Edinburgh lock admits he may be drawing on a bit of his Aussie roots this weekend when Scotland attempt to beat the All Blacks for the first time in history.
While the New Zealand rugby team are treated with something approaching awed reverence in Scotland, Toolis grew up in a country that views Kiwis more as the bumpkin little cousins. The All Blacks may be well ahead in the head-to-head with the Wallabies but, in general terms, Australia tends to look down with a mostly friendly, though not always, contempt for its fellow Anglo outpost at the end of the world.
“Yeah, I think so,” said 25-year-old Toolis when asked if he might be mining a bit of that trans-Tasman needle on Saturday evening. “Growing up in Oz you always have that next door neighbour enemy lines I guess and if that’s what’s going to help me get into the right mindset I’ll definitely bring that.
“I think it will help us as a team if I’m involved and deep down there’s always that aggressive edge in wanting to beat them in anything. Even when I was playing other sports, playing against New Zealand you always wanted to get one up on them as well, so yes, I’m excited.”
Australia are the country who have played New Zealand the most and have beaten their old rivals 43 times in total, with 111 defeats and seven draws. In comparison, South Africa have beaten them 35 times and England just seven. The northern hemisphere country with the most successes against them is France with 12.
Scotland remain stuck on a duck, with only two draws, 0-0 in 1964 and 25-25 in 1983, since 1905. When the Sevens team beat the Kiwis back in May en route to winning the world series Twickenham event it was the first time a Scotland team in any form at any age level had beaten a New Zealand side.
Such utter dominance must lead to a kind of psychological block which is notably lacking in the Australian mindset. The All Blacks have reasserted their authority in recent years, including some thumping wins, but the Wallabies beat them 23-18 in Brisbane last month.
Since Australia emerged as a serious rugby union player in the late 1970s and 1980s there has been a healthy “bring it on” feeling from the gold and green when faced with that intimidating wall of black. Who can forget David Campese’s insouciant disregard for the sacred haka? The great wing wizard chose instead to go down into the corner of the field and do some catching practice, oblivious to the war dancing unfolding on the halfway line.
Toolis feels he has inherited a bit of that from his Queensland upbringing but he is viewing this Saturday’s match mainly through a Scottish lense, with a burning desire to create history.
“I think maybe a few years ago, yeah, but the fact that Australia have struggled to beat them in recent years has taken that away,” he said. “But the fact that I’ve been living here in Scotland and playing for them now, I have an understanding of how important it is that we want to win the game and make history as well, so that’s brought a new edge to my mindset.
“My heritage is here and obviously I’m Scottish now. That’s what I’m looking to do. I guess at the back of my mind I have that enemy growing up, but now with the mindset living here and being part of the group we know what we want to do and I think that’s taken over what I’m used to, so that’s my mentality at the moment.”
Toolis is set to be named for his sixth cap when head coach Gregor Townsend announces his team this afternoon. With Tim Swinson out of the series due to a hand injury it would be expected that Toolis’s Edinburgh team-mate Grant Gilchrist comes in on the bench.
Another meeting with the land of his birth looms a week on Saturday but Toolis can’t begin to contemplate that with such a massive game on the immediate horizon. Last Saturday’s 44-38 win over Samoa was his first Scotland appearance at BT Murrayfield since an ill-fated cameo in the loss to Italy during the 2015 Six Nations whitewash.
After featuring in all three of the summer Tests he was happy to bank a more positive experience at the home of Scottish Rugby. As an extra bonus he enjoyed an audience with Scotland’s most famous fan when he and flanker Hamish Watson met JK Rowling after the match. “It was quite cool. I think she usually goes to the games and me and Hamish went and saw her and We spoke to her briefly and it was really nice,” said the avid Harry Potter fan. “It was good to see her supporting us and the boys and for someone like her who takes time out of her day to come and support us is quite special and means a lot to us.
I’m a big fan. Who isn’t?
“She just said well done on the win and that she was looking forward to the next few games. She even said to a few of the younger boys well done on their debuts, which was nice.”