Toothy Tens 2017: Turning tragedy into a force for good
The third running of the Toothy Tens takes place this Saturday in Quirindi, with 16 teams on board to celebrate the game of rugby, and the life of a lost son, brother, friend and much-loved local. How the family and friends of Nick Tooth have rallied together to turn the tragedy of his loss into a positive force for good in the game, and pioneered a movement that will be of significant benefit for future player welfare, is an inspiring and heart-warming story of courage, dedication and selflessness.
April 19th 2015 is a day the folk of Quirindi will unfortunately never forget. Nestled in the North West slopes of New South Wales, some 350kms north of Sydney, it is a farming town of just under 3,000 people, and a close-knit community as a result. So when tragedy struck the local Tooth family that day, with young son Nick losing his life through a tragic accident whilst playing rugby for the Quirindi team, it was a loss felt by all.
Any of us who love rugby, be that through the experience of playing the game, the joy of watching it, or simply being a part of its own close-knit community, couldn’t help but be affected by the tragic events that day. The brutality, physicality and warrior-like nature of the sport when 30 men or women go into battle is one of its overriding and enduring drawcards, and as a result, we are all mindful of some of the consequences of warfare. But losing a life on the field is something that is simply too devastating to contemplate.
As with the terrible events involving Warringah’s Lachlan Ward just a few short months ago, it was something that shook everyone of an oval-ball persuasion to the core. What was even scarier, was that the collision which ultimately led to Nick Tooth’s untimely passing at the age of just 24, was by all accounts, fairly innocuous.
Ed Nankivell grew up with Nick, a friendship that became stronger when they both moved down to the big city to continue their education, and their rugby. He takes up the story.
“We were just good mates, we both grew up in Quirindi and ended up playing rugby together for the Lions. He was a couple of years older but we went to the same high school in Sydney, and then the same University. In life, he was the kindest guy you could hope to meet. He would throw himself into anything and get the best out of people around him, and he was a real competitor on the field. He just loved playing footy and loved being around the boys, whatever club he was in.
“Nick also played for Eastern Suburbs, and then we hooked up again at Woollahra Colleagues in Subbies. He was a bit of a Mr Fixit there and covered a few positions, but he was predominantly a blindside flanker – with a massive sidestep! He wasn’t the best player in the team but he was a toiler and put in the hard yards.
“Historically, Quirindi has had some really strong teams but recently, they’ve struggled a bit. So whenever we were up there for holidays or to visit family etc, we’d play for them when we could. On this day, Quirindi were playing Narrabri in the Central North competition, and one of their guys has gone into tackle Nick. It wasn’t a hugely aggressive hit, just a run-of-the-mill challenge really, but it must have caught Nick in just the wrong spot, and there have been similarities made to the injury suffered by the cricketer Phil Hughes.
“He struggled to his feet, collapsed back to the ground and was airlifted to the Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, but he never regained consciousness. We didn’t realise at the time how serious it was, but things got progressively worse, and when all his friends and family congregated at the hospital the next day to see how he was, it turned out we were there to say our last goodbyes. His life support was turned off that afternoon.”
Understandably, the loss of Nick hit hard. For his family, his friends, and both the Quirindi and rugby communities. Three thousand people turned up for his funeral.
But it was in this time of darkness and sorrow that followed, that the genesis of what is now the Toothy Tens was born. It was a means of turning tragedy into a positive force for good, and to honour the memory of a damn good bloke, lost far too soon.
A former team mate at Colleagues, Gus Graham, was the one who stood up and said “We’ve got to do something,” and from there, the idea of a Tens tournament in Nick’s name came about. A farmer from Harden, a few hours south of Sydney, Gus offered up the use of some of the land on his property as a venue, and within just a few short weeks, the inaugural Toothy Tens took place in October 2015.
“People asked ‘What was the connection between Nick and Harden?’ but there wasn’t one,” says Nankivell. “There was just a bloke that loved him, loved being around him, and wanted to do something for him. He got all his workers down at the farm to turn this block of land into a footy field, called up people that he knew, and then myself and a couple of other guys from Colleagues put our hands up and helped to get this thing on the roll.
“We only gave ourselves a couple of months to organise it, but within about three weeks I had all the teams signed up, and everything was booked up and paid for. All twelve teams that entered had a connection with Nick one way or another and they were all keen to be involved. We had a team from Easts, from Colleagues, from Quirindi, Dubbo, the college he went to, we had blokes who hadn’t played footy since high school get together and make a team just to be a part of it. It was this crazy cross-section of really strong footballing teams and blokes who came for a beer. It was a phenomenal response.”
The event was an unmitigated success, with around $60,000 being raised, and the idea to begin channelling that money into concussion and brain injury research took hold. As a result, the creation of the Nick Tooth Foundation was announced at the second running of the Toothy Tens last October, this time back on his home soil of Quirindi.
“We really wanted to bring it home,” explains Nankivell. “We went from having it in a field and renting loos to an actual rugby club and all the facilities that come with it, and we had a whole year to prepare for it. And while the first one was an amazing event considering the time we had to organise it, going back to Quirindi last year and holding the event on the pitch where Nick was tragically injured, was incredibly emotional for everyone who was there.
“Throughout all this we have had the support of Nick’s family, and over the last two years, and particularly since the Foundation was formed, it has really become their baby. Julie, Nick’s Mum, is an incredibly driven woman and she has taken over the role of organising and delegating, and we’re all committed to helping her in whatever way she needs to make things happen.
“Alex, Nick’s little sister, runs the social side of things, does the PR and is the creative force behind all the stuff we do to try and promote the event and the Foundation, and that make the day itself so good. Myself and the rest of the Organising Committee just follow their lead, and also try to look after the teams and the sponsorship side of things.”
Momentum towards the Foundation’s end goal of making rugby union a safer game and to understand why concussions happen, received a significant boost when the patrons of another charity – the Ian Tucker Foundation, named in honour of a 23-year-old who also lost his life playing the game he loved in similar circumstances back in 1996 – contacted the Tooth family to offer to join forces. As a result, the Nick Tooth Foundation has now raised an incredible $140,000, and an ongoing rapport with the ARU has proved to be rewarding for all parties involved.
“The ARU have assembled a Sports Science team, and a portion of the money will be going to them for the study of brain related injuries every year, and we also contribute to other charities and services, the most important being the Westpac Rescue helicopter service,” says Nankivell. “It was they who took Nick from Quirindi to the hospital in Newcastle that day, and if he did have a fighting chance at all, it wouldn’t have been possible without them. The availability of that service, particularly for those people living out in the sticks, is invaluable.
“The ARU have been fantastic in helping us to get the message out there about what we’re trying to do, and in giving us good direction in terms of who to speak to. We know what we want to do but not necessarily how to go about it, and they’ve been really helpful in analysing where we should be focusing our energy. It’s a relationship that I think will only get better and better as we go along.”
Part of the initial research has led to the introduction of the ‘blue card’, a tool for referees to use if they suspect any player of suffering an on-field concussion. It is a system that has been trialled in Newcastle, the Hunter region, the ACT and New Zealand provincial rugby with positive results, and is now being rolled out in other areas.
“The blue card trial is just one of the ARU’s many initiatives to improve player welfare and safety in our game, and follows over two years of extensive research on concussion and concussion management from World Rugby down through each nation,” explains ARU chief medical officer Warren McDonald.
“Our concussion guidelines are there to ensure that everyone in our game is educated on how to manage concussion, and ultimately the aim is to gather feedback from the upcoming trials and work towards rolling out the blue card system nationally across our grassroots competitions at both junior and senior level.
“The blue card is a visual cue that a player has a suspected concussion and they will be removed from the field of play and won’t be coming back that day. It’s about recognising and removing a player that is suffering the effects of a head knock.”
Once a player has been shown a blue card, he/she must follow clear to play protocols. These include a minimum of 24 hours rest, a minimum stand down period of 12 days for adults and 19 for children, a graduated return to play program and a medical clearance. Given their input, it is no surprise that the introduction of the blue card for this year’s Toothy Tens, has been warmly welcomed by all involved with the Nick Tooth Foundation.
“It’s about giving the referees, and the club officials, the power to take off a player and make sure that they are safe,” affirms Nankivell. “We’ve seen it in rugby league and it’s been a great success, and it should give anyone involved in rugby the peace of mind that the game has the best interests of the player’s at heart. It’s part of making the game safer and that’s the end goal for the Foundation, so any way in which we can do that is better. It’s a fantastic initiative.
“A lot of parents are changing their minds about tackle sports, and while I don’t think the game would ever disappear completely, it’s definitely going to hurt us if players are sucked out of the game to play ‘safer’ sports. We’ve got to be looking after the players first and foremost, and I think we are starting to address that in the right way.
“Out of the tragedy that happened, and everything that Nick’s family and friends have been through, this tournament, and this level of community involvement with the game, is hopefully helping to make the game safer, and to prolong the existence of rugby on the world stage.”
The 3rd Toothy Tens gets underway this Saturday 7th October at 9am with the rugby competition running throughout the day, followed by a live auction, dinner and entertainment. All proceeds go towards the Nick Tooth Foundation and Westpac Rescue Helicopter. Spectator tickets are $50, which includes entry into the ground, dinner and entertainment, or $10 for general admission into the ground. T-Tens merchandise is also available via the booking link. CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS
DATE: Saturday 7th October, 2017, from 9am till late
LOCATION: Quirindi Rugby Club, Werris Creek Road, Quirindi
CONTACT: For enquiries please contact Alexandra Tooth on 0439 066 618 or email firstname.lastname@example.org