Toby Williams’ Rugby League career hasn’t taken the usual path in, it’s fair to say. His collective experiences have ranged from landlocked Midlands and the Lochs of Scotland to lockdown in France. He sandwiched that around two years in Australia, as well.
The prop forward, who hails from Derby, made a snap decision to move to Mackay to play for Souths Sharks after leaving university, before joining French side RC Carpentras XIII. What followed can only be described as a Rugby League back-packing adventure that most students would only dream of.
After being launched out of his comfort zone and ready to taste the life of Australia and France, hardship has played a supporting role in this story as well. Work-related difficulties and the prospect of being away from home have not deterred Williams from his sole focus, however, to carve a road well-travelled.
One that began in the Midlands, no less. Not your average Rugby League hotbed but, as you soon uncover, this isn’t another average Rugby League story. Some of the professional towns in the sport do feature, at the beginning of his grounding in the sport, but unlikely destinations are Williams’ preferred setting.
“I’m from Derby and my dad’s from Edinburgh,” Williams told Total Rugby League. “I was brought up on union and at the end of the season, we played Rugby League down at Derby City Dragons when I was about 11.
“I got serious when I was about 13 when the Midlands Academy picked me up. That’s when it all took off.
“I was on the books at Coventry Bears but I never got a game, I was in the Sheffield Eagles system as well. I decided to quit Coventry because things weren’t quite going my way, I was probably a bit too immature for it at the time.
“Then I went off to Northumbria University and played under former Newcastle Thunder head coach Jason Payne. The facilities there were unreal. I got signed by Keighley Cougars when I was there but then injuries only meant I played three reserve games.”
His sporadic role with the Cougars saw him link-up with someone who would become a close friend. Gavin Reed, who featured for the Keighley first-team, played alongside Williams for the Scotland Students team.
The prop forward had initially captained the Scotland U19s side, while at the Sheffield Eagles system, and represented his paternal lineage. While at university, Williams continued to feature for the Bravehearts alongside his studies.
Many of his fellow teammates have since gone on to represent the first-team, with the Students set-up giving them all a dress rehearsal of major competitions. More importantly for Williams, he also tasted the life he wanted at the other side of the world.
“We played in a Four Nations, in Edinburgh, and at a World Cup as well, in Australia,” he added. “The Student World Cup was actually what swayed me to move to Australia.
“The experience was amazing. Little old Scotland got to the semi-finals, where we were beaten by the Pacific Islands and I honestly thought we were going to win the World Cup.
“A lot of that team have gone on to play for Scotland and the Student set-up has given them a route that a lot of the other Home Nations don’t take as much.
“They’ve got our former coach, Nathan Graham involved in the first-team set-up now so there’s a real route for us to play for the first-team.”
After helping Graham’s Students’ side to a semi-final at the World Cup down under, Williams opted to stay. He contacted well-known Rugby League recruitment consultant Luke Srama to get him a contract in Australia and, before he knew it, he was back on the plane.
Featuring for the Students team reignited a flame for the forward to play the game professionally, after his chance in the UK had seemingly slipped away. Lunging into the set-up with Souths Sharks in Mackay was a brave move for Williams, as the reality of a working Visa would provide a test or two.
“It would have been easy to give up at that point and I’ve thought about it a lot,” Williams recalled. “My dad suggested to me to go over to Australia for the summer just to try it out and play there, so I looked into that.
“I got in touch with Luke Srama and he ended up hooking me up with Souths Sharks in Mackay. I just thought, why not go for it.
“With the working Visa, I had to basically get a new job every six months. I worked in labouring, promotions for their radio station Star FM and then I was delivering bed sets and mattresses.
“It was a stressful time getting a job every so many months, but thankfully my student loan got me a fair distance. I was only intending to go for the summer but I was there nearly two years in the end.”
Helped by the fact that one man features again in this journal of a Rugby League nomad. Gavin Reed, his ex-Keighley teammate, was with him every step of the way in Australia.
“He messaged me and asked me what I was doing for the next year, in terms of clubs,” Williams explained. “I told him I was going to Australia and he didn’t believe me.
“I told him to make his own highlights and send them over to Luke. Our coach saw them and asked me about him.
“He ended up signing for Souths and it was pretty good to have one of my mates join me. I was just going to go on my own.”
Williams would then plot his next move alone, moving out to RC Carpentras XIII in France’s second tier. Moving closer to the UK was also the preferred next stop for Williams, with his Australian girlfriend now in tow.
But this nomadic former Northumbria University student might have finally found a place to hang the backpack for good, with serious intentions of playing in the top flight, after his life in Australia came to a seemingly abrupt end.
“I was getting a bit unhappy with things over there,” he admitted. “My job ran out and things just weren’t going my way, it felt like the end. I got back onto Srama and I saw he was posting about French contracts.
“He hooked me up, I had two clubs interested and I went over to Carpentras. I really wanted a challenge outside of Rugby League, I really have got one.
“It’s been really difficult, especially with jobs. I can only really get strawberry picking which you’d need a car for. I had one but it broke down, it’s been a rough ride, but I’m living it out.
“Right before the quarantine hit, my parents came over and got the very last flight back to the UK from Marseille. I’ve had loads of points where I didn’t have a job here, I haven’t been able to work during lockdown either.
“It’s worrying when you’re in another country but I’ve got my missus here. I met her in Australia, she was into footy as well and we hit it off after a game.”
“We’re really happy over here, I’m hoping to try and give Elite 1 a crack and then hopefully play professionally in the UK for real one day.”