Former NRL star Tony Caine on life after his career-ending injury
David Riccio chief sports writer, The Sunday Telegraph
January 20, 2019
The first thing you notice is that Tony Caine bounces when he walks.
There’s no hobble or limp.
Rather, the 32-year-old is all buzz, energy and “how are ya, champion?”
He’s ecstatic to be a dad with two beautiful daughters and blissfully happy to be married to wife Bryony.
He’s “lucky” to be working as a mortgage broker, and he makes special mention of the “perfect” amount of parking spaces there are near his office.
He’s sweating from the “tough, but quality” Tuesday morning gym session he’s just completed and is eagerly ordering two coffees before he’s even sat down at a Caringbah cafe.
“I couldn’t be happier,’’ Caine says.
That is, until The Sunday Telegraph pulls out the newspaper clippings from 12 years ago.
“They’re bloody hard to look at,’’ Caine says, as what appeared to be a permanent smile begins to fade.
Before the 2006 NRL season, Caine was firmly in the crosshairs as one of rugby league’s “next big things.’’
But that May, on a cool Saturday night at Shark Park, Caine’s lifelong dream of becoming an NRL star lasted just four minutes.
The 19-year-old’s entire family sat together in the grandstand to watch the moment their boy received his debut game call-up by Cronulla coach Stuart Raper.
Then came the moment.
Caine stepped out from his dummy-half position and began lowering the football to punt down field.
In that one moment, Caine’s career and dreams were snapped in two when his lower leg bore the full impact of a charge-down attempt from 106kg Warriors prop Steve Price.
Two Cronulla trainers carried his limp body off the field.
Twelve years on, the photo of Caine’s right shinbone, inexplicably bent and curled around the falling right shoulder of Price, remains one of the sport’s most graphic images.
Such was the immediate shrill of Caine’s agonising screams, TV producers hurriedly turned down the volume of the sideline effects microphones.
“I felt like the bottom half of my leg wasn’t attached to the top half,’’ Caine said.
“It literally felt like nothing was joining the thigh to the calf.
“So in my heart of hearts, I knew it was over.’’
The hooker required surgery to repair torn anterior and lateral ligaments, partially ripped posterior ligaments and a calf muscle that had been ripped away from the bone.
For the first four weeks, Caine couldn’t get off his lounge.
For an entire month, the teenager who had the rugby league world at his feet, couldn’t take himself to the toilet.
The bend in his right leg was so extreme he was unable to start the rehabilitation process until it had straightened.
The weight of old telephone books piled on top of his knee helped to force his leg to straighten.
For nine months, he would wake at 3am to perform a stretching routine.
“I couldn’t quit the game I loved on just those four minutes. It would’ve eaten me up,’’ he says now.
The youngest brother of former Wests Tigers winger and Channel 9 commentator Joel Caine didn’t have a contract with the Sharks beyond 2006 when he started the season.
It was a deliberate tactic from the rising star on the minimum wage, who believed in himself enough to trust that a breakout year would lead to increased interest from rival clubs and a subsequent spike in his bank balance.
“We didn’t come from a wealthy family, so I thought that (NRL) was my ticket,’’ Caine said.
“I’d seen Joel do it and financially, what he had done for our family off the back of his success.
“I thought, OK cool I get to help Mum and Dad now.
“I hadn’t re-signed with Cronulla yet. I was 19 and I wanted to back myself.
“The planets were aligning for me. I was the first-choice number nine for the club. I was going to be a Shark forever. And then four minutes later, it’s gone.’’
In the lead-up to the injury, Caine had eight NRL clubs chasing his signature.
But as fate would have it, he chose to sign with St George Illawarra just a few weeks before that Saturday night on May 27, 2006.
To the Dragons’ credit, they remained committed to Caine, even when he had to learn how to walk again in the nine months after the injury.
“I’ll always be grateful to Nathan Brown (former Dragons coach) because he took a punt on me with the knee,’’ Caine said.
“He didn’t have to do that. I got back and played nine games the following year.
“But ahead of the 2008 pre-season at the Dragons I’d torn my hamstring a fourth time.
“The operation on my knee included the use of some of my hamstring for tendon use and so my hammy was always weakened and my training just wasn’t what it ever was.
“I couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t a Cameron Smith. I was always going to be a Danny Buderus-fitness type player.
“And I knew that what I was feeling, never 100 per cent, wasn’t going to enable me to train like I used to train. Ask any of my coaches and they’ll tell you, my fitness was always my edge.
“But I just knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t going to train like I could. That’s when I knew it was over.’’
So in early March 2008, Caine drove from his Sutherland Shire home to Wollongong to tell Brown he was finished.
Having originally signed a two-year deal with the Dragons, Caine could have stayed at the club in 2008, contributing little, but still within his rights to collect his six-figure salary.
“I actually spoke to Dad in the days prior and I said, ‘I can take the salary for the year and do nothing, or I can go and get a real job’,’’ Caine said.
“So I walked into Browny’s office and Craig Young and assistant coaches Mary (Paul McGregor) and Wriggles (Kurt Wrigley) were there and I shook their hands and I said, ‘Guys, I’m no good to you. I don’t want any more money’.
“And I walked away. I just knew that the earlier I started a working career, the better.
“On the way home, I was shattered. I knew that was it. I’d played since I was six years old.
“The one thing I do have is, is that I didn’t feel like I was walking away from something that was possible.
“There was no other choice — I couldn’t run.
“A year later, I’m on a train to the city every morning earning $38,000 a year working in an office for 10 hours a day and I’m thinking, how did this happen?
“I was always interested in finance and so I went into a financial planning course and began working at AMP as a financial advisor.
“I then worked for a guy called Harry Moustakas at a firm in Brighton Le Sans, who was my Wayne Bennett. He taught me how to look after people.’’
Caine spent 12 months crunching numbers as opposed to front-rowers. All the while, his love for rugby league remained.
A stint playing park football with the Coogee Dolphins led to an unexpected invitation to be part of the Sharks’ 2009 NSW Cup squad.
“I was just playing for fun really, without the pressure that the NRL asks of you,’’ Caine said.
“The last thing I expected was to play an NRL game again.’’
Working behind first-choice Sharks hooker Corey Hughes in 2009, Caine received a shock call from former coach Ricky Stuart to play in round two of the 2009 season.
“I ended up playing off the bench for the first three games and then Corey got injured, so Ricky started me in the next three games,’’ Caine said.
“For the life of me, I could never tell you that I played that well.
“That was a really tough period for the Sharks as far as depth was concerned and I’m sure I was just Ricky’s only option — but still, I was glad to be out there again to play with guys like Trent Barrett, Blake Ferguson, Anthony Tupou and Luke Douglas.’’
Caine played his last NRL game on June 7, 2009. He was 22 years old.
“It was a lifelong dream to play in the NRL, I’m glad that I got there, but sad that it didn’t last,’’ Caine said.
“I would’ve loved to have seen how far I could take it.
“I still have the news clippings of the injury at home and they’re hard to look at.
“But I think you have to be pragmatic about it too. There’s five-year-olds in hospital with cancer.
“So I’m realistic about it. I’m a lucky guy.’’
For the past two years, Caine has run a mortgage-broking business, Next Lending Solutions.
From a burgeoning career shattered, Caine is one of rugby league’s great success stories.
His client list is long and familiar, with NRL coaches and stars on his books.
The 32-year-old has also employed Dragons forward Jeremy Latimore, who is eager to chase a career in the finance industry.
“I love my job — and being a former player myself, I know how daunting it can be to leave the game,’’ Caine said.
“The players I work with, I speak to them about having financial structure so that from day one, you can start the job you want to do.
“Because the benefit for rugby league players is, they underestimate their disciplines. They’ve got a massive edge over the general population.
“For me, the players need to think about it (career) years in advance, not months in advance of their retirement.
“That’s the biggest problem and that’s a problem I can sympathise with, but one of which I get great satisfaction in helping not just footballers, but everyday plumbers, secretaries, anyone with achieving their financial goals.’’
It’s not until the end of our interview that Caine’s broad smile returns.
“Ha, ha — everybody asks me that,’’ he replies, when asked if he holds any animosity towards Price.
“I think he was just doing an effort-play for his team. I’m not filthy. I don’t know him, but he doesn’t look like a bad bloke.
“Some people say he had a track record, but I don’t see it like that.
“I played against Johnathan Thurston and Sonny Bill Williams, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Anthony Minichiello — that’s what I look back on.
“I played in an Anzac Day game against the Roosters and in two local derbies, one for the Sharks and one for the Dragons.
“You won’t find me on the Wanda sandhills breaking records, but I can chase my kids around and that will do me fine.’’