300 not out: Easts’ Rhys Ward reflects on a historic milestone

Photo: SPA Images

“I would never dream of playing for another club, I love this place,” says Eastern Suburbs prop, Rhys Ward, when asked about his longevity at Woollahra Oval. The 35-year-old carves out his own slice of Beasties’ history today when he turns out for the 300th time in the tricolour jersey, becoming only the second player in the illustrious history of the club to achieve such a feat.

Having walked through the gates at Easts for the first time in 1997, Ward has racked up an unbroken stint of 17 years service, adding 14 years of grade footy to his three years in colts. In that time, he has graced all four grades, winning Premierships in 2nd Grade (2009) and 4th Grade (2010 & 2011) and lifted three best and fairest awards.

While the majority of his career has been spent in the lower grades, he has still accrued 35 Shute Shield appearances and was on the bench for the Grand Final against Sydney University in 2007. In fact, his last turnout for the Beasts was in 1st Grade, coming off the bench to help out in round 8’s shock defeat of high-flying Eastwood. The ultimate clubman, it was a perfect example of his willingness to put in for his team mates.

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Early Days: A youthful Ward back in his colts years at Woollahra – Photo: SPA Images

“I played all four grades that day, I think I was on and off the pitch five times,” he says. “It makes it a long day and I’m knackered after one game these days, let alone four but I’m happy to help out wherever.”

That was his 299th appearance and while the club had prepared to celebrate his significant milestone the following week, fate intervened when he incurred a knee injury whilst playing in a charity 10s tournament in Thailand a few days later.

“I’ve been playing grade for 14 years and might have missed one week here and there but never two weeks in a row in all that time,” he says. “Then I play this tournament in Thailand, which I’ve competed in for the last six years, and I went and did my medial ligament in my knee and haven’t played for eight weeks.”

Plans to honour his achievement therefore, have quite literally been on ice ever since but in defiance of the doctor’s 12 week recovery prognosis, he returns a month ahead of schedule for Easts’ final home game of 2014 and what should be an almighty celebration.

“They’re making a massive deal of it, a bit bigger than I thought,” he humbly explains. “I’m sort of feeling a bit embarrassed because we’ve got so many people coming and they’re making such a big day of it so it’s going to be quite confronting. I never played all these games for any accolades, I just did it because I loved it.”

A product of Waverley College, where he took his fledgling rugby steps alongside future Wallabies Adam Freier and Ryan Cross, Ward was always going to adopt the game they play in heaven as his chosen sporting pursuit. After all, it’s in his blood.

The name Rhys is a legacy of his late father Anthony, a proud Welshman who represented the Welsh schoolboys side before arriving on these shores at the age of 20 with rugby coursing through his veins. If Ward has any regrets about his time at Easts, it’s that his Dad, who passed away in 2006, didn’t get to see him play 1st Grade footy.

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Champions: A proud skipper covets the Henderson Cup after the 2011 4th Grade Grand Final – Photo: SPA Images

Originally a no.8, Ward made the inevitable move to the front rowers union in his early 20’s after a diet of youthful ‘clean’ living rendered him surplus to requirements in the back row. “I started working at a restaurant and had a good off-season with lots of alcohol!” he recalls.

“We used to finish work at midnight and then go out til 5am and I certainly learned a lot about life at that time. I went back to Easts about 15 kilos heavier and they said ‘We’re gonna change you to the front row’ and I’ve been there ever since!”

Such an extended period of time spent in Sydney club rugby means Ward has seen it, done it and got several tee-shirts. A quickfire Q&A was called for.

Favourite ground other than Woollahra Oval?

“North Sydney Oval. The pitch is always so lush and it’s got so much history too.”

Least favourite?

“Uni Oval. The grandstand is miles away so you don’t get much atmosphere, they’ve still got that massive cricket pitch in there and when it rains, it just become slippery. Or they stick you on the back there at St John’s and I hate it.”

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Weekend Warrior: Ward enjoying the conditions at a sunny Chatswood Oval – Photo: SPA Images

Highlight of your career?

“Beating Uni in the 2009 2nd Grade semi-final has to be a standout memory. I think they were undefeated all year and heavy favourites going in and someone overheard them before the game talking about how they ‘just needed to get this one out of the way before they play in the final’. That got back to us in the changing room, fired us up and we ambushed them. We were up 21-0 after 15 minutes. That’s a very happy memory.”

Best Easts team you’ve played in?

“I think that 4th Grade team in 2010. We had a mixture of guys that had played 1st Grade rugby either here or overseas and three or four guys who came down from Brisbane and we were all in our 30’s. There was myself and my good mates Charlie Thompson and Matt McGann and that experience we had between us all, we were just untouchable.

“We won back-to-back Premierships and drew one and lost one game in those two seasons and I think we changed the way4th Grade was perceived. Before then, it was a case of us and them but I think we earned a bit more respect and the club bonded across the grades much better as a result. Also, we partied twice as hard as we played. We trained well through the week but when the job was done on the weekend, we mugged around and it was great fun.”

Rhys Ward_tributes

Tributes from Anton La Vin and Campbell Aitken

Best player you’ve played with?

“There’s been a few. Tiaan Strauss was here in my first year of grade, I played with Clyde Rathbone in 1st Grade, I’ve packed down against Patricio Noriega back in his heyday when he was in 1st Grade and I was in 2’s and we’ve had a lot of good halfbacks here too in Luke Burgess, Brendan McKibbin and Sam Payne a few years back.

“But probably the best guy of the lot was another halfback called Tim Clark who I came through colts with. He played grade at Easts for about three years before heading to France and we still maintain that we invented that little inside flick that George Gregan used to do. We were doing that in the under 19s and we reckon he came down and saw it and stole it!”

Most annoying team mate?

“Ed Brenac. Everyone knows him as ‘The Pest’.”

If you could change one law in rugby or remove it all together, what would it be?

“I’d change the scrum laws back, I don’t really like the new law to tell you the truth. Also, the interpretation at the breakdown is different every week with every referee. My biggest fan is my Mum but she doesn’t understand any of the rules!

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Making Friends: Head chef Ward releases some of his daily stress on weekends – Photo: SPA Images

“I liked it when they had the trial law variations and they gave a short arm penalty for everything to speed the game up so teams would take quick taps instead of a scrum. I’m a prop and I’ve learned to love scrums but I think a faster, more visually entertaining game is just better and more fun. That was a good year, I’d go back to that.”

Q&A aside, the biggest question of all was, after 300 games, how much longer does he intend to keep playing? Having put the same question to him after both the 2010 and 2011 grand finals at Concord Oval and being told that they would be his last year, I think we should take his answer this time around with a pinch of salt…

“Maybe one more year,” he smiles. “I was really happy with my form this year until I got the injury and the 1st Grade coach was happy for me to be around as a fill-in off the bench for them so everything was going well and this injury kind of knocked the wind out of my sails. Work is really getting into me because they’re worried about me getting injured etc so we’ll weigh it up at the end of this year but, maybe one more!”

Work is being the head chef at the infamous Sydney Cove Oyster Bar in Circular Quay, a position he has held for the last two years after serving his apprenticeship as a sous chef. In life as in rugby, Ward obviously likes the comfort of a settled environment with familiar characters and patterns and is more than happy with his current lot. He’s certainly earned it.

“It’s been difficult because I’ve always done around 60 hours a week and that includes a double shift on Friday before a game and a double on Sundays after the game,” he says. “That was hard when I was playing 1st Grade because I couldn’t do much training on Tuesdays under doctor’s orders as I was simply putting my body through too much.

“It’s just something I’ve always done and I guess I’m used to it now but I think all the pent up stress and aggression I can’t take out on the staff at work comes out on the field on Saturday instead!”

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Mateship: Ward celebrates the 2nd Grade Grand Final win in 2009 with good mates Charlie Thompson (left) and Matt McGann (centre) – Photo: SPA Images

One thing’s for sure, whether it’s on the field or off it, Ward is destined to be a fixture at Woollahra Oval for many years to come, although, he has his reservations about fitting in. “I think I’ve got a lot more out of the club than it has out of me. I may have played 300 games for Easts but I feel like it’s given me more but it’s really hard to put into words.

“I’ve made so many friends here and grown up here in a way, it’s a part of who I am,” he continues. “You make so many friends and you get to meet people from every walk of life, people you don’t expect to play with and my worry is that, when I do hang up the boots, it just won’t be the same.

“You can come down here on a social level once you’ve retired but I don’t think you can mix with the actual players anymore, there’s not that bond and I’m scared that I’ll lose that. When you’re playing, you train twice a week together with these blokes – even if it’s pissing down with rain. You go out on the pitch and spill blood together on the weekend and then share a drink and a story afterwards. I love footy but it’s the mateship that comes with it that is really special.”

You won’t find anyone disagreeing here. Congratulations Rhys, a true servant of grassroots rugby.

First published by Rugby News on July 19, 2014

 

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