The Medical Joker – Rugby’s Rare Breed

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Castres' medical joker Chris Tuatara-Morrison at training
Castres’ medical joker Chris Tuatara-Morrison at training
CASTRES, FRANCE – Even in rugby, a game known for its strange and often highly specialised specimens, medical jokers are a rare and unusual breed.

They are super-powered chameleons, ready, willing and able to leap on to the nearest plane heading in roughly the right direction at almost no notice to take up a short-term contract with a club that is desperately seeking player cover.

Their job is to fit in with their new team – fast – and fill a hole until it is mended.

Sometimes, they fill the hole so perfectly that what starts as a short-term, typically three-month, medical joker contract turns into a permanent deal.

Clermont’s monster at eight, Fritz Lee, joined the club as a medical joker when Elvis Vermeulen was injured. Three powerhouse performances later, the powers that be offered him a three-year deal. He accepted… and the rest is history.

Rory Kockott is another. The South African scrum-half who’s currently being touted as France’s next big thing at nine after qualifying for Les Bleus on on residency grounds, joined Castres Olympique in 2011 on a three-month contract as cover for the now-departed Thierry Lacrampe.

Last season, Kockott was a big target for deep-pocketed and determined Toulon. It cost Castres a reported €400,000 to get him out of a pre-contract with the Var side and sign him for another three seasons.

New Zealand-born Australian Chris Tuatara-Morrison hopes he, too, will be able to turn a three-month medical joker deal into something a little longer.

The quietly spoken ex-Western Force inside centre was putting his feet up after the Super Rugby season finished in July when Top 14 side Castres came calling at the end of August.

An injury to Sitiveni Sivivatu, here playing for Clermont, prompted Castres to look for a medical joker
An injury to Sitiveni Sivivatu, here playing for Clermont, prompted Castres to look for a medical joker
They needed a temporary replacement for marquee signing Sitiveni Sivivatu. The Fiji-born winger had joined the Tarn side from Clermont at the end of last season on a reported €45,000-a-month contract. But he has been forced to sit out the first three months of the season after undergoing surgery on a troublesome shoulder injury was aggravated in a pre-season game.

So the club knocked on Tuatara-Morrison’s door.

Castres’ general manager Matthias Rolland said in a statement at the time: “It was important to shore-up the squad in the centre quickly following Sivivatu’s injury.

“Chris is a genuine player, a good defender and he has the required attacking qualities to fit in to the style of play developed by the coaches.”

It’s safe to say it hasn’t been the best of starts for the 2013 Top 14 champions. They’re languishing at the bottom of the table after four defeats in their first five games.

And Tuatara-Morrison’s Top 14 debut quickly turned into a hellish baptism of fire after another Castres new boy, number eight Johnny Beattie, was sent off 11 minutes into the game at Montpellier. The 14 men of Castres could not handle the power and pace of Fabien Galthie’s side, eventually losing 43-10.

The 28-year-old Tuatara-Morrison said of his first experience of Top 14 rugby: “It was definitely a sink-or-swim situation, but it was a good start in terms of who I was up against and to see where I was at.”

Despite the big defeat, he was quietly pleased with his performance, saying: “It was the first game I’ve played since the middle of July, so it was good to blow a few cobwebs out and play against a good team.”

Chris Tuatara-Morrison is hoping his short-term medical joker contract at Castres turns into something more permanent
Chris Tuatara-Morrison is hoping his short-term medical joker contract at Castres turns into something more permanent
Tuatara-Morrison had been in the France for little more than a week and barely had time to get to know his new team-mates in bleu et blanc when he stepped into the cauldron of the newly named Altrad Stadium – but such is the life of a medical joker. Time is not alway an option when a deal can be whipped off the table as quickly as it appears as clubs look for a Mr Right-Now.

The 28-year-old said: “I had a day to decide whether to accept the offer. I had a lot to weigh up – whether to stay in Australia and pursue my Super Rugby career a bit longer, or come to France and try and establish myself here as a Top 14 player.”

In the end, he decided his future was French. He said: “I think the lifestyle appealed to me; being in Europe appealed to me. It’s a new adventure.”

His Castrian adventure isn’t the first opportunity Tuatara-Morrison has had to play rugby in France. It isn’t even his first chance to live and work in southwest France. The former rugby league man was offered a contract with Catalans in 2012, but turned it down in favour of a shot at the 15-man game with Western Force.

He does not regret his decision to stay in Australia for two more years. He said: “I took the chance with both hands and I think it’s set me up really well to come and play in France now.”

The difference in coaching and playing style between the two countries is something Tuatara-Morrison has had to get used to just as quickly as he’s had to gel with his team-mates.

He said: “It’s obviously the same game, but things are completely different here.”

It’s the little things that make a big difference, he said, adding: “There’s not as much detail in French rugby.”

He’s not the only one to notice the emphasis on attention to detail is more favoured by coaches outside the Top 14. In a recent interview with Rugby World Magazine, Grenoble’s fly half Jonathan Wisniewski said that he was finding the regime under Bernard Jackman was very different to his time at Racing Metro under Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

Wisniewski told the magazine: “There’s a lot of structure and planning at Grenoble, things are well organised. But at the same time Bernard wants us to play with ‘French flair’. It’s a good mix. We’ll play expansive rugby but will be pragmatic when necessary.”

It must be working. Wisniewski has made a blistering start to the season, scoring 55 points in the first four weeks, before being rested for Saturday’s 40-27 defeat at Oyonnax. He has quickly turned into a not-to-be-easily ignored outside bet for the French number 10 shirt sooner rather than later.

Tuatara-Morrison has quickly discovered much the same thing, only in reverse.

He said: “The coaches pretty much let you go, and I’m just trying to assert myself in a way that I can help the team.

“It’s good to have a little bit of free rein, but I do sometimes miss that little bit of discipline. In the club I came from, there are a lot of little details that you need to know and little jobs that you have to do.”

And it’s not the only thing he’s got to get used to. There’s the small matter of the language barrier, too. He admitted: “I’m trying to get a hold on the language. I start lessons next week.

“The club offered to help with my French, but I’m getting my own lessons as well, as I’m not really that good in a class room.”

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"