Just like in everyday life, rugby players have their good days and their bad days. Seasons can be like that too – some are memorable while others are completely forgettable. A great season can make a player’s career and a bad one potentially spoil it.
Julian Huxley experienced each of the latter two. They were significant seasons in their own right but were particularly poignant for him, as they came in back-to-back years. Not only that, what transpired in the latter year was way, way bigger than the game itself.
The 2007 season was a breakthrough one for Huxley – an excellent provincial campaign, Wallabies selection for the first time, a trip to the World Cup. Bloody fantastic.
Then the calendar rolled over to 2008 and his fortunes flipped. He suffered a seizure during a game and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumour. Clinging to his life rather than his Wallabies jersey became the primary focus.
More on that later. First, let’s hover the magnifying glass over 2007. Huxley is 27 years old, about to partake in his fifth full season of Super Rugby and pretty much entering his prime years as a player.
He had rejoined the Brumbies – the team with which he spent his rookie season in 2002 – after four years with the Queensland Reds. The Brums are nearing the end of a great era. Legends George Gregan and Stephen Larkham will move on at season’s end, Jeremy Paul too.
There are high hopes of a championship send-off, but their start is rocky. The ACT side lost four from seven to open the season, with two of those defeats real stingers – a 15-17 loss against the Blues in Round 2 followed by a 10-11 heartbreaker to the Hurricanes a fortnight later.
“That Blues game was a bad one to lose,” says Huxley. “We had the lead late in the game then Isa Nacewa scored a try in the corner on the stroke of full-time and converts it from the touchline to win. If we win that one and the Canes game, we probably finish first.”
He’s dead right. After that sluggish start the Brumbies won their last six games, including beating the Highlanders in the final round to lift them into fourth spot.
But that lasted only a few hours. The Bulls just needed a win later that day to leapfrog the Brumbies, which they did in emphatic fashion. Their 92-3 crushing of the Reds in Pretoria meant the Ponies were goners. It also meant that the four teams above them could collectively exhale.
“I don’t think anyone wanted to face us in the semis,” says Huxley. “Not the way we were playing in the second half of the season. It was the slow start that cost us as well as not picking up enough bonus points during the year.”
Huxley was a huge part of the Brumbies’ second-half surge. He was all over the unbeaten Sharks in Round 8 when he notched 16 of his team’s points as they prevailed 21-10 in Durban.
A week later Huxley feasted on more South African opposition. This time he collected all of the points as his side trumped the Lions 14-9. Despite the win and points haul, Huxley still harbours one small regret about that game.
“I remember Larkham – who was just such a freak – drew in about three defenders then floated one over the top for me to score in the corner,” he says.
“My conversion then hit the post, but if that went through, I would have had a try, a penalty, a drop goal and a conversion in that game – a full house!”
Huxley’s impressive Super 14 form caught the attention of Australian selectors. Having not represented his country previously, he was picked to play in six winter Tests before travelling to France for the Rugby World Cup.
Huxley ended up playing in nine internationals – seven as a starter – in 2007, with the Wallabies winning eight of them. At the end of the year he was awarded the Australian Rookie of Year.
“It was my best season,” he says, “and that’s what made it so difficult the next year.
“After a long journey to the Wallabies I felt like I was finally where I wanted to be with some of the all-time greats in my position (Larkham, Latham, Burke) retiring after the World Cup. I was looking forward to hopefully locking down that fullback position and seeing how much I could improve with some more top-level opportunities.
“Then something so unrelated to rugby jumps up and takes it all away in a heartbeat.”
It’s In Round 3 of the 2008 season when Huxley suffered a seizure on the field against the Reds. Scans are taken. Diagnosis: a brain tumour.
So Huxley exits the rugby battlefield to face the epic battle of saving his life. First an operation, then one month of radiotherapy followed by six months of chemotherapy.
He survives and makes a full recovery. There’s even hope that he may play rugby again.
Huxley highlights his trials of two years prior as having helped stiffen his resolve for getting through the whole tumour ordeal.
“When I was with the Reds in 2006 I remember worrying about things too much,” he says. “Back then something as little as not being first choice in a training drill would rile me.
“I began reading the book Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons. There were stories in it of wounded soldiers who crawled into the jungle at night to die, knowing their mates would never leave them and that the pursuing Japanese troops would catch them.
“My problems were nothing compared to what those soldiers went through. Their stories imbued in me an immense pride to be Australian. From then on I just tried to simplify my approach to life.
“After every session, game or regular day I just wanted to be able to be proud of my efforts no matter what the result was. That was the only thing I could control and in effect that gave me my roadmap to getting where I wanted to be.
“I took the same approach in 2008 when I had the tumour. I was able to accept my reality and that I could die, which was important in allowing me to focus on the things I could control, such as appreciating every day and making the most of whatever time I had left. In the end I believe that this calm enabled me to heal.”
With a clean bill of health, Huxley set his sights on returning to the footy field. He got back to full fitness, then – after a long wait – the medical clearance to play.
Two years and 25 days after his last appearance Huxley was back on a Super Rugby pitch. He was greeted by a standing ovation from the Brumbies faithful when he came on as a replacement against the Chiefs. It was an amazing moment and a truly remarkable achievement.
Huxley saw out the 2010 season in the ACT, the Brums finishing just outside the play-off positions.
The following year he joined up with the expansion Melbourne Rebels. In his pair of seasons there the fledgling side struggled to adapt to the high demands of Super Rugby.
“People probably don’t realise how hard it is to start a new team and be successful,” he says. “New players coming together, new calls and a new system of play. It’s really difficult.”
The Rebels were 7-25 combined in their first two years. There were undoubtedly many trials and tribulations but also some special moments weaved in.
“In 2012 we beat the Crusaders, which was amazing,” says Huxley. “It has got to be one of the all-time great upsets. Certainly the biggest one I’ve been involved in.”
That season would not just be Huxley’s last in Melbourne but his final one in Australia. At its conclusion he moved on to Narbonne in France for one final rugby tour of duty before retiring.
In all, Huxley played 81 games in parts of ten Super Rugby seasons. It was a very fine career for a much-underrated player.
Not blessed with the biggest of frames or the fleetest of feet, Huxley played the game with a well-developed skill set and keen instinct. He was a team player whose critical contributions may not have always made the highlight reels.
“I think I was an enabler and I always tried to implement the game plan for the team,” he says. “I tried to create opportunities for guys around me to get into space and do damage.
“I was a small kid growing up. I had to play the game with my head and be crafty. I never overwhelmed anybody with my size.”
While never over-hyped in the media, the lad with the clean-cut, boyish looks was certainly held in high regard by his teammates. After his first season with the Reds in 2003 Huxley won the Stan Pilecki Medal for players’ player of the year. Considering the names around him – Chris Latham, Toutai Kefu, Elton Flatley, Daniel Herbert, Ben Tune – that was no minor feat.
Huxley’s kicking out of hand was a standout feature of his play. As he played mostly fullback and flyhalf, it was a very handy attribute. Torpedoes of over 60 metres downfield were routine. The short game – chips over the top and gather – was another sharp tool in his kitbag.
Huxley has kept involved with rugby since hanging up his boots seven years ago. He has worked in various coaching capacities with Warringah, Penrith, the Sydney Rays and now Manly.
Being active with semi-pro rugby has illuminated for him the disconnection between the game’s different layers. Huxley believes that Super Rugby and international players should be playing with their clubs and connecting more with young, impressionable fans.
“I remember when I was a kid my dad used to take me to Concord Oval to watch matches,” he says. “When you stood by the railing you would be within a metre or so of the players as they came on the field. Campo gave me a wink one day, which was amazing and made me feel special.
“You’d then be allowed to run around on the field after the game where you’d just seen your heroes playing. I’d go to the same spot I’d seen Camp or Marty Roebuck score a try and do my own re-enactment! It was a massive buzz. Are we giving kids that buzz these days?
“I know I refused two or three lucrative overseas offers during my career because I wanted to play for Australia. I stuck around to achieve that because this was a journey that started for me as an eight-year-old at Concord Oval.
“We need to find a way to get Wallabies playing several games of club rugby every season. It would give young people the chance to meaningfully connect with our top players.
”It would be incredible for young aspirational club players to learn off them in the heat of battle, and who knows how many juniors might be inspired by being ball boys and watching these guys from a front row seat? Imagine the impact Michael Hooper could have if he played four or five games for Manly. A lot of players would love to do it but need permission from the governing bodies.”
With rugby audience numbers, sponsorship dollars et cetera all going south, it seems like good sense to strengthen the ties between the professional game and its grassroots.
It would be a healthy development for rugby in this country, a sport that is trying to stave off illnesses and survive in a competitive sporting landscape.
Julian Huxley is somebody who knows all about fighting major afflictions and succeeding. Rugby in this country is currently facing adversity, but it can recover and emerge again just like he did.
“Adversity simplifies life and it becomes very clear what’s important,” he says. “It is an opportunity to refine your values, formulate a simple plan, and above all to show people exactly what you stand for.
“Rugby Australia and the state bodies need to start seeing themselves as servants of community clubs and not the other way around. Otherwise, where are the next Wallabies, fans and sponsors going to come from?”
Good question. Hopefully the brains trust at Rugby Australia read these wise words and take heed.