THERE cannot be too many rugby players who, like Robbie Fruean, have a couple of heart operations yet carry on playing the game. The 29-year-old has had more than his share of other ailments too, yet here he is, not only still playing, but perhaps embarking on the most influential stage of his career to date.
That, at least, is the hope, of Fruean himself and of Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, who signed him on a two-year deal in the summer. If the aim is to help a young, inexperienced back line find a tougher, more competitive edge, who better to provide some on-field assistance than a man who has wrestled with adversity and come out on top?
The centre’s first outing was certainly an indication of what he can do. He took a while to familiarise himself with his new surroundings in Friday night’s match against the Dragons, spilling ball a couple of times and looking a little rusty. But he soon came on to a game, and gave evidence of his value by laying on Edinburgh’s third try for Junior Rasolea, then scoring the fourth himself in the closing minutes of the 25-18 victory.
The ability to score himself and lay on tries for others is very welcome, of course, but Fruean also has that far less tangible role to play by shoring up the self-belief of those around him. He remembers well what it was like to be a young, inexperienced player, and was guided through games by some of the greatest players in rugby history – an example that he is sure will stand him in good stead in Scotland.
“I was part of the Crusaders, and coming through I was obviously one of the young guys,” he explained yesterday. “I was playing with some big names there, like the All Black captain Richie McCaw, and Dan Carter. It was just a case of going out, knowing what I needed to do for the team, and just putting my hand up every week.
“Richie never really did much talking. A lot of his talking was done on the field. He was one of those guys who led from the front, so that’s kinda what I took away from the Crusaders environment. There are people who can talk their way through life and there are people who just do it. Richie was the type to do it. Dan Carter was more a talker than McCaw – he was awesome to play outside of.
“Coming over here, I’m not the young guy any more. I’m the more experienced guy that’s trying to help the young guys coming through.
“That’s how I’ve been treating this transition, because I’m normally the young guy, being the joker, mucking around – not mucking around, but I like to make sure the boys are always smiling. Now I make sure the boys are smiling, but I make sure they’re doing what they need to to be able to perform on Friday.
“On Friday I was a little bit nervous, and I think I let the nerves get the best of me. Even though I’ve had 10 years in the game, I still get nervous. Whether it’s my first game or my 50th game, I still get nervous every time. If I can prepare myself the best I can during the week, then I know that I’ll be comfortable and confident to be able to go into that game knowing my role and knowing that I’m happy where the team is and things like that.”
It goes without saying that Fruean’s role at Edinburgh is not completely selfless. The better he plays himself, the more influential he will be on his team-mates – and the greater his chances of achieving international recognition. Although he was born in Wellington and played all his rugby in New Zealand before his move to Bath in 2016, he is of Samoan heritage and is hopeful that a series of good displays will put him in the running for a place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad. “This move was still a big move in regards to just where I want to go with rugby. I’ve got aspirations to be a part of a World Cup, and I have the opportunity to do so if it’s still open and if Samoa are still keen. That was one of the main reasons I moved here. It played a big part in that decision.”
It is now a decade since Fruean first had heart surgery for rheumatic fever, and four years since he had another operation to repair damage to a valve that resulted from his earlier problem. As would have been obvious to anyone who saw him go through 80 minutes against the Dragons and contribute more the longer the game went on, he is perfectly able to perform every task on the field of play.
His training in these first few weeks with Edinburgh has been a little different from the bulk of the squad, but only because of a patella tendon irritation. And he regards that difficulty, along with other injuries he has had, as almost irrelevant compared to his heart condition.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty tough,” he said when asked to assess his career to date. “But because of the fact I’ve been through two heart surgeries and two minor surgeries, since 2013 it’s just been a case of injuries. Coming back from a heart surgery, it seems so minor when you’re breaking your forearm or ripping your pec. You go from something life-threatening to just breaking something.
“I’m used to dealing with it. It has been tough mentally at times, wondering whether I’d continue on and keep putting my body through this. I’ve got a little one now, so I’m starting to realise the importance of being able to run around with her, dance with her at home, make her cheer up and things like that. I am starting to realise that, and that’s why I’m taking care of my body a little bit more now, and just making sure that whenever the trainers are telling me I can train, I’ll train, and not trying to push it.
“It is definitely great to still be involved. I have a couple of friends who have heart conditions very similar to mine. They have had to stop playing rugby simply because of circumstances. For myself I appreciate being able to be involved in rugby at a high level every day. I’ve never taken it for granted, so it’s cool.”