It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly 10 years since Julian Huxley was first diagnosed with a brain tumour, having suffered a seizure on-field while playing for the Brumbies against the Reds early in the 2008 season.
He would make a full recovery and resume playing with the Brumbies two years later, before signing with Melbourne Rebels for their inaugural season in 2011.
He finished his playing career with French club Narbonne and returned to Australia where the seeds of a coaching career took hold remarkably quickly.
“I actually wanted to have a break from rugby, because that’s all I have done since I left school,” Huxley told RUGBY.com.au this week, ahead of his NRC coaching debut this weekend with the Sydney Rays.
“I really missed the game. I was watching footy and dissecting it to all my mates and they were like, ‘shut up mate, we’re just watching the footy’.
"I obviously still had a burning passion for it, and far from being one of those guys who say, ‘I don’t want to talk footy’, I’m a bit of a tragic - I just love it.“The biggest thing I really struggled with when I left the game, which is becoming more prevalent and we are understanding a lot more with the recently retired players, is the camaraderie and the human contact.
"I realised that no matter what I was doing in life, that connection is a good source of mental health, and I definitely wanted to get back into it.”
Huxley admits that there is an element of wanting to give back to the game that gave him so much, particularly during his recovery from the brain tumour, but there’s also a bit more to it than that.
Rugby, Huxley said, can prepare you to deal with pretty much anything life throws at you.
Through coaching, Huxley has the perfect platform to share what he’s learned through the game he loves so much.
“I realised through my brain tumour, the initial diagnosis, staying calm and making good decisions around surgery and treatment and understanding my role in it, that the things you need to get through most challenging things I learnt through rugby, and through cool, calm concerted application over time," Huxley said.
“I realised that if I hadn’t had my rugby career there’s a great chance that if you don’t learn those lessons, that is the sort of thing that could break you.
"In terms of coming back to footy, obviously I love the game, but it’s so much more important as a medium to teach life lessons to young kids and young men.
“In fact, coaching at Penrith this year in that non-traditional rugby environment, non-private schools, I really feel passionately about rugby being a code for life.
"A passion for the game and to give back to it, and to hopefully give to other rugby people and help them discover the lessons I did.”
After annoying his mates one too many times, Huxley’s rapid introduction to coaching commenced soon after, and it’s taken a different route at almost every turn so far.
The Rays coach for the 2015 season, Gordon mentor Geoff Townsend, needed a backs coach and so that was Huxley’s first taste of the coaching caper - a baptism of fire straight in at NRC level.
Then, Rays hooker Luke Holmes, who was and still is the Warringah General Manager, suggested Huxley join the Rats as an assistant coach to Greg Mar for the 2016 season.
“I was pretty proud of the team and we got all the way through to the semi-final," Huxley said."I actually applied for the head coaching job at the Rats (for the 2017 season) but it wasn’t to be - Darren Coleman has done a great job.
“I had a really good mate up in Queensland when I first went up there in 2003, Pete Numata.
"He’s a Penrith player, an unbelievable prop and one of the loveliest blokes you would ever met.
"The club was in a serious amount of distress, and he rang me up and asked if I’d be interested and I said, ‘bloody oath’.
“I was probably your non-conventional head coach and I probably needed Penrith for the opportunity as much as they needed me, but the rest is history.
“In terms of making an impact in rugby, while it’s a massive job, if I, along with a bunch of other fantastic people out there could turn the Penrith club around, that could be an absolute jet engine for Australian rugby.
"The playing stocks are unbelievable. If we get the club right it’s a chance to do something really meaningful for the game.
“So, I jumped on it.”
Huxley has re-committed to the Emus for the 2018 season and is excited by the challenge while at the same time not at all shying away from it size of it.
“Bloody oath, there’s lots of work, but after 18 losses in a row I haven’t seen anything like it.
"The club was gaining in excitement and spirit every week.
"All the boys are coming back next year and that sort of commitment, they have struggled in the past to get.
"We finished the year on a bit of a high, ironically, after 18 losses, but we’re all really pumped to get into the really hard work for next year.”The Rays had their most successful season to date in 2016 under Simon Cron, reaching the NRC semi-finals, and Cron had no hesitation in endorsing Huxley for the Rays’ top job when he signed with the Waratahs to assist Daryl Gibson.
Cron has been acting as a sounding board for Huxley in the lead-up to this season’s campaign.
“It’s been a quick ascension (for me) in some respects, but it’s only possible given that Cronny’s there as a resource to help me get started, building the squad and a bit of planning that has all been invaluable," Huxley said.
"He is stepping back now that the season is starting, because you have to go on your own sometime or another, but I’m really looking forward to it."
The Shute Shield competition finishing in Sydney the weekend before the NRC commenced, with two of their partner clubs Warringah and Northern Suburbs facing off in the grand final, meant that though they had a bye in Round 1, the Rays didn’t really gain any huge preparation advantage.
While the eight other NRC clubs took to the field for the first time in 2017, Huxley’s full squad was coming together for the first time at a training camp.
“It seems like an extra week to outsiders but by the sheer coincidence of it, our foundation clubs were almost the top four sides.
"So, when a lot of the players throughout the other clubs either didn’t make finals or dropped out in the first week, they have actually had a bigger head start than us even though they played first round.
“It’s always a challenge if you roll straight into NRC the week after Shute Shield, that you risk burning the guys out at the back end of the NRC, which was a tough one for us last year.
“We had a hell of an injury toll by the time we hit the semi-finals, but it is what it is.
"It’s a balance and a punt and you have to make sure the guys get some break, but also get them in so we can try and get results early in the comp.
"You don’t get too many chances to slip up as the comp is so short.
With their bye now out of the way, the Rays effectively have an eight-week sprint to replicate their finals appearance last year.
It means a good start is crucial and it begins this weekend at Macquarie University, where the Rays will host the Greater Sydney Rams while sharing the spotlight with the second leg of the Aon Uni 7s.
Huxley knows the size of the challenge his team faces, with the Rams proving last weekend in toppling NSW Country 44-23 that there’s a lot more to their game than the very obvious set piece and line out drive strengths they played to last season.
“I wasn’t surprised at all, because when you put two and two together you see the Eastwood DNA there now in both the players and the coaches," Huxley said.
"Last year they were that big western-Sydney based Polynesian impact player, but they have balanced that out this year with that Eastwood DNA.
“There are some great teams out there this season, and I reckon its gone to another level.”