Keep it in the family: Beasties’ title chase has a personal twist

Photo: SPA Images

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It’s been a long time between drinks down at Woollahra Oval. This year sees the 40th anniversary of Eastern Suburbs’ last 1st Grade Premiership in 1969, and there’s no greater reminder of that than the club’s current head coach Murray Cox.

Undertaking his first year in charge of 1st Grade after five years running the Colts sides, Cox is inextricably linked to that title-winning side all those years ago. His father John Cox played on the wing for Easts from 1965-72, and was an integral member of that champion team as a prolific points-scorer, contributing from both open play and his position as regular goal-kicker. Having maintained a keen interest in the fortunes of the club ever since hanging up the boots, he can now be found on most Saturday’s watching his son’s progress with interest as he aims to steer his side into this years finals.

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Playing for the Beasties back in 1995 – Photo: SPA Images

Murray himself represented Easts as a fullback/winger for five years up until 1996, before broadening his rugby experience with three seasons in Europe, where he also first sank his teeth into coaching. He says that although his Dad is proud to have been a part of that Premiership-winning side, he doesn’t reference it at all, and certainly doesn’t place any weight of expectation on Murray’s shoulders to emulate the feat.

Both his parents are simply happy to see him doing something he enjoys at a club that means a lot to him. Indeed, rather than feeling any pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps, he sees this year as “an opportunity for the current playing group to write their own chapter in the club’s history.”

But before they can even look that far, they have to secure a place in the top six. Currently lying 5th on the ladder, their Round 18 loss to Gordon from a final minute field-goal was a devastating blow to their chances, and with their last four games of the regular season against West Harbour, Sydney University, Warringah and Manly, they’re really going to have to step up to the plate and perform to keep their necks above the water.

I caught up with Murray before their crunch match against the Pirates to find out about the transition from coaching Colts to 1st Grade, some of his coaching beliefs, and his side’s chances of lifting that elusive trophy come September…

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What was your first year of coaching at any level, and where?

“I coached junior and senior sides when I played in Europe, then had a couple of years off due to work commitments when I got back to Australia. In 2003 I coached a junior club called Saints U16’s, and as we were the only U16 side in the southern zone that year we also formed the Randwick U16 team that contested the State Championships.”

How many years were you in charge of the Colts at Easts before becoming 1st Grade coach this year, and what are the big differences you’ve noticed between the two roles?

“I had two years with 2nds Colts from 2004-05, and three years with 1sts Colts from 2006-08. A lot of those young guys I coached had come through age rep. schoolboy programs and their approach to their rugby was very professional. So in that respect the transition to first grade hasn’t been enormous.

“Obviously the players I’ve got now are bigger, stronger and faster, but more importantly a lot of them are experienced first graders who think intelligently about the game. So for me it’s a case of remembering that these guys don’t need to be overcoached or restricted in terms of what they can and can’t do on the field. There is obviously a lot more focus on our results and performance at this level. But again I don’t feel there is pressure on us, rather more an incentive to work hard and succeed.”

Do you get more enjoyment from working with younger inexperienced guys and having the chance to mould them, or from working with a squad of players who are a bit further down the road and can actuate your intentions on the pitch accordingly?

“I definitely enjoyed developing a certain playing style with my Colts teams in the last few years. I think you need to devise tactics that suit your playing group rather than stick to one core ideology or style, and it was enjoyable to watch the Colts embrace a fairly free flowing and expansive style that suited our personnel. My philosophy has always been that as long as you are comfortable with the skill-sets of your players then you provide them with a general framework in which to operate, and that within that framework they have scope to see and exploit opportunities that arise.

“I have certainly been very happy this year with the way the first grade group has responded to certain changes we’ve attempted to make to the playing style of the team, and the way they have been able to exploit certain opportunities that we have identified through video analysis of opposition teams at times. So I guess I get enjoyment from both.”

When you first took charge, what did you think needed addressing first – were there one or two things that you focused on that needed improving or instigating, or did you think more drastic change was required?

“Easts have been a top three side for the last three years in a row, so there was obviously a core of talented players getting those results and a system in place that was fairly successful. We sought the input of experienced guys like Tom Egan and Anton La Vin as to what was required to take the next step in the first instance, and blended that with some of our own thoughts on how we thought the group could move forward.”

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Calling the shots: Cox and assistant Jason Aldwinckle watch on – Photo: SPA Images

And what was the outcome of those discussions?

“The key results were a heavy focus on doing the basics well – set piece, catch and pass, tackle contest and kicking, and an awareness that we wanted to peak and play our best football in September, while still doing enough to get to the finals through the course of the regular season.

“There is also an increased effort to try to link the past with the present at the club. For example, we have instituted a practice of having a past Wallaby or 100-plus first grade game player present the first grade jerseys and speak to the group before home games, which has been well received by both the current and past players. Our hope is that the more our group learn about the past challenges and successes of those who’ve gone before them, the better their work ethic and standards will become.”

How did those identifications of the team’s attributes or deficiencies inform your recruitment policy?

“We felt we had a very competitive squad that didn’t need much alteration. We aimed to fill a few holes left by departing representative players, but generally we backed the young players coming through the club to continue to develop and improve. The squad had a pretty handy track record so we were looking to be successful straight away.”

Were you successful in recruiting and/or replacing the positions you thought you needed, or are you still looking?

“Some serious injuries in areas where we probably had the least depth have necessitated some renewed efforts to recruit players during the season.”

You obviously started the season with an idea of how you wanted the side to play. We’re now into Round 19 and you’ve had some good wins, some poor losses, plenty of injuries, and you now know more about the strengths and weaknesses of your players. Are you still playing the way you originally intended, or have you had to adapt to deal with these vagaries throughout the year?

“There are some slight changes that we’ve made to the make-up of the team, which we have identified as improving the way we play. And yes, we have also varied the way we have wanted to play at various times due to the availability or unavailability of certain players. But coaching is about constantly adapting to your strengths and weaknesses at a given time and those of your opposition as well, and trying to stay one step ahead.”

The side has had a lot of injuries in key positions this year and a changeable backline as a result, which is obviously not beneficial in terms of consistency. How frustrating is it watching that scenario unfold throughout the year, and knowing that it may have cost you another three or four wins and a position higher up the ladder?

“You can’t change the past – and the future is a clean slate! The job is simply to deal with whatever challenges confront us and continue to perform and improve each week. I’m a big believer in staying positive, and the flip side of the injuries we’ve had is that guys who would not have otherwise got an opportunity have risen to the challenge at first grade level and will be better for the experience.”

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Pat Dellit is one of several 1st Grade rookies to have shone this season – Photo: SPA Images

Which rookies have shone in particular?

“The four main guys would be Rob McMickan at tighthead, Fergus Dorney in the backrow, Luke Irwin at halfback, and Pat Dellit at fullback. All of these guys have spent significant time in second grade, mainly last year but also this year, and each is now performing at a consistent level, which demands their selection in first grade.”

This season has seen a higher quota of representative players/Wallabies than normal feature in the Shute Shield. But while it’s fantastic to watch these guys go round in club land and the improved standard that they inevitably bring to the table, how do you integrate these players into a familiar cohesive unit that has performed well for the rest of the year?

“I think you need to differentiate between those players from Super 14 who are in the Wallabies squad, and those who are not. For those who are not they have been with their clubs now for seven or eight weeks, and I think the likes of Randwick, Eastwood and Warringah in particular are benefiting from that.

“Conversely the guys in the Wallabies squad have been in camp during most weeks, and only get released on a Thursday to link with their club sides. They have been worked pretty hard all week – as you’d expect – then have to suddenly re-focus on a team and group with whom they are not that familiar, often after missing game day selection for the Wallabies. So integrating those guys is a whole different challenge. Is it worth it? Yes it is because they are class players who learn quickly.”

So, how do you man-manage those guys who have been good all year and done nothing wrong, but have to sit-out because a rep player is available?

“As long as you are transparent about who the club has recruited and what your policy will be when they are available, it’s hard for them to argue.”

Bizarre question, but do you have the right as a coach to ever say – thanks, but no thanks?

“Could you leave out a Wallaby? Yes, I think so. But their individual ability to perform the basics and their potential to be match-winners is such that I don’t think you ever would.

Talking of star performers, Gavin DeBartolo has been on fire since his return from Churchill Cup duty with the USA Eagles, which has coincided with an upturn in results for Easts after a patchy run through mid-season. He’s a good talker and organiser on the pitch, and he obviously weighs in with a fair haul of points. But what do you see as his real qualities?

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Gavin DeBartolo has been in sensational form in recent weeks Photo: SPA Images

“There is no doubt that Gavin has hit a purple patch of form since his time in the U.S. I think you have identified his key qualities in your question by highlighting his on-field talk, which is invaluable, and his knack of scoring points. His general kicking game is also one of the best in the competition.”

In recent weeks he has scored a hat-trick of tries and all the points against Randwick, followed by a record 40-point haul against Parramatta. Did these performances surprise you?

“No. I think when Gavin is playing with confidence in an environment that he is enjoying, he’s capable of extraordinary things. As a team we understand that if we can put him in space he will finish the job, and in both those games the guys inside were able to create opportunities for him, which he took with aplomb.”

Is he getting better?

“In my opinion, yes. He has improved certain aspects of his game, continues to do extra sessions on his kicking, and his work ethic at training has been outstanding.”

He’s moved around that backline a bit this year as well. What do you feel is his best position?

“He can be equally effective at fullback or wing. But with the emergence of Pat Dellit at fullback this year for us he has made the transition to the wing and done it very effectively.”

Back to more general matters. Easts is a club with a proud tradition and great ambition, but with little to show for it in the trophy room of late. How do you deal with the expectations of the club and it’s supporters?

“Their expectations are a healthy thing. I certainly wouldn’t want to be operating in an environment where mediocrity was rewarded or accepted.”

So what would be a realistic and/or satisfactory result for you in your first year – is it simply making the finals, or is that not going to be enough either for you or the board?

“There are no demands placed on us by the board. The demands we place on ourselves are fairly high, and our goal this season is to win the Premiership. We’re not here to participate or make up the numbers, and anything less than winning it will be viewed as a disappointment.”

The loss to Gordon was obviously a heartbreaker, both in terms of the circumstances and the ramifications it had on your ladder position. What’s your take on the game now?

“Hugely disappointing. We led 21-7 after 60 minutes and had put ourselves in a position where we should not have been beaten. Unfortunately we showed a lack of composure and some very ordinary decision making skills, especially in the last quarter of the game that allowed them back in. Given what was at stake in terms of the ladder positions and who plays who in the run home it was a decisive game, and we knew that. So to let it slip away was hard to stomach.”

What positives, if any, can you take from that game into the final four matches?

“That for three quarters of the game we played very well, and had we shown more mental toughness we could have closed it out. We know we can compete with the other top six teams, and if we get smarter and hungrier in the back end of these games we can win them.”

It’s a pretty tough run home, have you set yourself a points target that you think will be sufficient for a spot in the finals, or do you just approach each game as it comes?

“The reality is that we are currently in the top six, and if we win all our games from here on we’ll stay there. We still have to play the two sides attempting to get past us, so those results will be pivotal. I’m less confident we’ll make it than I was halfway through the second half against Gordon. However, I’d like to think we can take some lessons out of last weekend and apply them going forward, and if we do that we’ll be there.”

Let’s stay positive and assume that you do make the finals. Who do you see as the biggest threat to your chances of going all the way other than perennial favourites Sydney Uni?

“The three teams that have benefited the most from the influx of Super 14 players we mentioned before – Randwick, Eastwood and Warringah.”

Finally, this has been, by all accounts, the best season of Shute Shield in living memory. But is there anything you would change to improve the competition in any way?

“The only changes I would make would be to schedule a few night games or Sunday games for grade or Colts. That would allow some people who have other obligations on a Saturday afternoon to get to games they wouldn’t otherwise see, and also allow the club’s supporters to watch both grade and Colts rather than one or the other.”

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Original version published by clubrugby.com.au on August 11th, 2009

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