Captain Cox raises the bat for the Two Blues

Photo: SPA Images

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Captaining your club in 1st Grade is something of a rare honour, given the number of players participating in the Shute Shield every season and every year. At a rough estimate, most clubs use in the region of 30-40 players in 1st Grade across a season, with one regular captain and a replacement if said captain is injured. Crunch those numbers and you’re left with a little over 5% chance of being the man who leads the team out.

Getting to do that 100 times then, is something special in itself. And when it’s for a foundation club with as rich a history as Parramatta’s, then it is truly a moment worth saluting. At Chatswood Oval this afternoon, Andrew Cox will lead the Two Blues top grade side out against Gordon to become only the second player in the club’s 135-year history to do so one hundred times.

His forerunner, Allan Minett, was a big, bustling loosehead prop whose career at Granville encompassed the late 60’s and early 70’s, and earned him New South Wales representative honours. Minett racked up an incredible 151 games as captain, some target for Cox to aim at. But still aged only 26, you wouldn’t put it past ‘Mr. Consistency’ to knock that landmark off as well.

Respected universally by his team mates, opponents, coaches, referees and supporters alike, Cox has earned that goodwill through his dedication to the Parramatta cause, his unwavering loyalty, and his qualities as both a rugby player and a person.

When Waratahs and Two Blues legend Tatafu Polota-Nau says of him “He is one of the behind-the-scenes leaders at Parramatta, and his tenure at the club is invaluable. It’s great to see such commitment in this game we love,” he is speaking from first-hand experience of the role Cox has played in helping Parra through those darkest of days only a few years ago, to a side that reached the finals in 2012, and may well be in contention again in 2014.

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Follow my leader: Cox leads the charge against Randwick in 2010 – Photo: SPA Images

Cox has Two Blues blood in his veins. Raised in the nearby Hills District area with an Uncle who played for the club and a Dad who went to Parramatta High School, he never entertained the thought of playing for anyone else when the opportunity arose.

“I started at the Junior Parramatta club in the under 7’s and I’ve been there ever since,” the quiet but fiercely competitive young leader told me this week. He made a rapid rise through the ranks.

“In my last year of colts in 2007, I got picked by then coach Gary Ella to come off the bench in first grade at the age of 19, and the following year I was lucky enough to make the jump straight into first grade,” he explained.

One hundred and twenty games later – all bar one in 1st Grade when he turned out for the 2’s on the way back from injury – the loose forward has seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly at Merrylands RSL Rugby Park.

That first full year of grade football in 2008 ended with the dramatic fall of Parramatta off the field, with the collapse of the financial lifeblood that was their Leagues Club. A mass exodus player-wise followed, and all of a sudden, a 21-year-old Cox was thrown the captain’s armband and told to do his best. Round one of 2009 saw a nightmare start that would only get worse.

We got touched up by Gordon by about 60 odd points, so it is one I remember unfortunately!” he says. “With all the guys leaving, we had a lot of players who had to step up from the lower grades who probably weren’t ready, and the next two years were just about survival as a club. We scraped a few wins in ’09 and avoided the wooden spoon, but the following year was even worse.

“The last few remaining guys left, the numbers at the club were terrible, and morale was pretty down for most of the time. But as a club we showed a lot of strength during that time, and a lot of core guys across all four grades stuck together.”

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Celebrating victory over West Harbour at Concord Oval in 2012 – Photo: SPA Images

Being the player that team mates look to when the chips are down is not unfamiliar territory for any captain. But trying to hold it all together at such a young age and in such dire circumstances, must have been particularly difficult.

“It was very hard at the time,” he admits. “Especially when the numbers at training were low and we were getting hammered by an average of 50pts a game, and we actually lost a couple by 100pts that year. It was hard, but if you’re getting to pull on that first grade jersey it’s still an honour and the guys put in as much as they could, and those guys that were forced to step up that year became better footballers because of it.

“That was the lowest you can get as a club, those two years,” he continues. “But I think it does make you stronger, and two years later we were two games away from a Grand Final.”

And how sweet that achievement must have felt given all that had gone before. From shipping over a hundred points to Manly at the Village Green in round one of 2010, to facing the Marlins at the same venue two years later for a place in the Shute Shield’s final four.

From hovering over the abyss of mere existence, the Two Blues had rebuilt themselves. Financially thanks to the actions of a new board and the benevolence of local sponsors, and on the pitch under the guiding hand of coach Glen Christini. Cox remembers vividly the moment that their redemption began in earnest.

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Cox finished a creditable third in the 2012 Ken Catchpole Medal standings behind winner Hamish Angus and Two Blues team mate Iese Leota – Photo: SPA Images

“In 2011 we won our first game in over a year when we beat Warringah up at Rat Park,” he recalls. “We’d gone close a few weeks before that, but actually getting that win really sticks out in my mind.

“In 2012 we had virtually the same team but we started to win the close ones that we had been losing the year before, and it was my most enjoyable year of rugby so far. I think I played probably my best footy and I finished third in the Ken Catchpole Medal listings, but to be amongst a team playing good footy and with everyone just enjoying themselves doing it, was great.

“We earned our respect back from the other clubs. Before that, opposition teams may have rested blokes when they played us, But from that year on, no-one took us lightly. They’re sending out their full-strength sides now and they know they are going to have a game on their hands.”

A raft of injuries cruelled their attempts at back-to-back finals footy in 2013, but with a new coach on board, Christini’s former assistant Gerrard Fasavalu, their ambitions lie firmly in one direction. One win from their opening four matches is scant reward for their efforts thus far, a different bounce of the ball here and there and they could well have gone into today’s game with three wins under their belt. But Cox is dismissive of any ‘hard luck’ theories.

“Ball security let us down at crucial times in the Warringah game in round three, and last week against Norths it was just discipline,” he reflects. “We were the better team, but you can’t give away that many penalties within kicking range and expect to win. We outscored them five tries to three, but giving away five penalty goals was our own undoing.

“Last year was disappointing not to make the finals, so we have an expectation to do that again this time around, and there’s no reason why a Parramatta first grade side shouldn’t be aiming for that now. We’ve just got to start nutting out those close ones and you’ll see the results on the ladder. Gerrard knows all the boys from his three years as an assistant coach and he’s taken a fresh look at things. He’s a different coach to Glen and has his own ideas, and the boys all have faith in him and in what he’s doing,” he says.

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Cox runs in against Norths last weekend – Photo: Pat Dunne

For his part, Fasavalu is simply pleased to have someone like Cox on board, and he was only too willing to sing his captain’s praises when asked. “Andrew is an outstanding representative of our club who has given invaluable service to the Two Blues over the years. He’s one of only a few who have fought for Parramatta through the tough times and has been instrumental in the club’s rebuilding,” says the coach.

“On and off the field, he embodies the values of our club – including loyalty, hard work and commitment. He provides strong leadership, experience, and a calm head for his team mates in high pressure situations,” he continued. “He is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most consistent players at our club, and I would go so far as to say one of the most underrated across the Shute Shield. The Two Blues would like to congratulate Andrew on this amazing milestone, and thank him for his endless contribution and loyalty to our great club.”

Underrated is right. Putting aside the 119 1st Grade games with 99 as captain, Cox is a damn good footballer who puts in nothing less than 100% week-after-week-after-week. He may not be the flashiest backrower going around. But if it’s hard work, commitment and consistency you’re after, plus an eye for the try line – he has scored 30-plus in those 119 games – then Cox is your man.

Andrew Cox quotes

However, with representative honours confined to a handful of appearances for the Aussie Barbarians, Cox is under no illusions as to his likely lot in rugby’s landscape.

“I guess you know pretty early on if you’re going to get a chance to go further up and be fully dedicated to doing that, so I’m pretty focused on my club footy right now,” he reasons. “While I’d obviously like to go as far as I can, my focus is on Parramatta doing well.” As a result, he has put all his efforts into a successful career off the field, and in a role that must provide both emotional strain and reward in equal measures.

“I’ve been working full time for a few years now as a consultant for the Australian Defence Force,” he explains. “I oversee the return to work and rehabilitation of those who have served, and if they get medically downgraded, I organise their rehab and get them back into work.”

It’s an honourable vocation that seems perfectly suited to his demeanour and the qualities he brings to Parramatta. Tatafu Polota-Nau perhaps sums it up best. “Stepping into the role as captain at such a young age demonstrated his maturity beyond measure, and his capability of getting the best from each player with such passion is a testament to his selfless character.”

Maturity and selflessness but most of all, loyalty. When virtually everyone else left Parramatta as it sunk to its knees, Cox was one of few who stayed, becoming the rock upon which the club rebuilt its foundations, despite better offers elsewhere.

“There were a couple of clubs interested in me but that first year out of colts I had a good year and won Best and Fairest, and I just wanted to commit to the club. I didn’t know things were going to get as bad as they did, but I’m glad I stayed and I’m glad we got through it.

All my best mates were at the club, it’s a great club to play for and I’ve been here since I was a junior. I love the place.”

Andrew Cox, a rare breed indeed. Congratulations.

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First published by Rugby News on April 25th, 2014

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