Dynamic Dargaville leading new-look Student’s title charge

Photo: AJF Photography

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“He’s the best winger in club rugby and he would excel at Super Rugby. Put him on the wing for the Waratahs and you would have an even more outstanding backline.”

So says Sydney University’s Tom Carter about team mate James Dargaville, a 22-year-old who has taken the Shute Shield by storm this season. And Carter knows a winger when he sees one. Having played 84 times for New South Wales on the inside of some of the state’s – and indeed the nation’s – finest touchline huggers in Lote Tuqiri, Drew Mitchell, Rob Horne and Lachie Turner, he’s more than qualified to judge what it takes at the next level. He’s also not about to spruik the wares of a young bloke to the media if he doesn’t believe in him either.

“He’s the most dynamic athlete I’ve ever seen over 10 metres,” Carter enthuses. “He’s got incredible power, he trains really hard, he’s got a good understanding of his game, and he scores freakish tries repeatedly.”

That’s an understatement. Dargaville has 19 of them in 2014 so far, his five-pointer against Warringah in last weekend’s Qualifying Final leaving him just one behind Harry Bergelin of Manly. But it’s the array of scores he has to his name this year that impresses. He has the speed to run them in from distance; the guile, power and footwork to strike amongst traffic; and the predator’s awareness of being in the right place at the right time.

This scribe remembers one try in particular against Norths at Uni Oval No.1 in round six, which marked him out as a player with a number of strings to his bow as an attacking weapon. A play that had seemingly broken down with a miscommunication at the back of a ruck, suddenly became the springboard for Dargaville to ignite. Scooping up a loose ball under pressure, he feigned to look for support before somehow twisting, wrestling and jinking his way through a phalanx of red and black shirts to streak away to the chalk like a thief in the night.

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Dargaville races clear of the Norths defence to finish off a dazzling individual try – Photo: AJF Photography

Raised on the northern beaches, he didn’t tread the traditional path of many players in his younger years. He wasn’t always a fleet-footed winger either. I didn’t really have that much of a pathway in rugby because I didn’t go to a GPS school,” he explains.I played my first rugby for Newport Rugby Club, and at 17 I played Colts for a couple of years at Warringah and I ended up making the New South Wales schools side in Year 12 as a backrower.”

Lining up against former Junior and Colts team mates last Saturday in the shape of Boyd Killingworth and Michael Adams, Dargaville’s future as a Rat was curtailed by his pursuit of higher education. “I finished school and wanted to go to Uni, and got into Civil Engineering at Sydney Uni,” he says. “I thought it would be difficult to travel in from Avalon and play rugby at Warringah, so Sydney Uni ended up helping me go to college there for a bit and two years later here I am, playing in First Grade with them.”

That rapid transition for the 22-year-old also saw him undertake a positional shift that bore fruit in top grade last season. “I went from the backrow – mainly 6 or 8 – in my first year of Colts with Uni, to the centres in my second, and then onto the wing towards the end. Last year was my first full year of grade, and I played about 13 games in First Grade and 13 games in Second Grade.”

An impressive rise through the ranks then, and one that saw him find his feet pretty quickly, although he admits it was a steep learning curve. “I was still learning wing because I’d only been playing there for a year and playing First Grade on the wing is definitely a bit different to playing Colts on the wing. But I felt pretty comfortable there,” he admits.

“We had Tom Carter, Tom Kingston and Greg Jeloudev, who helped me out a lot and made it easier for me. I got about 10 tries, played quite a few games off the bench, probably started six or seven games, and then I was dropped for Peter Betham and Lachie Mitchell a couple of weeks before the finals started. But I learned a lot from them.”

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Dargaville’s defence – honed from his time in the backrow – is a hallmark of his game – Photo: AJF Photography

Learning is something this young Uni side is having to do on the job – and quickly. Without the annual influx of Super Rugby stars to rely on – although Pat McCutcheon and Jeremy Tilse are back on board for this weekend’s Preliminary Final against Southern Districts – head coach Chris Malone has put his faith in the next generation of Students to get the job done, and in Dargaville he has a fast and willing young learner. He’s clearly a fan.

“He’s a strong ball carrier, he gets through a mountain of work and he really understands the way we want to play the game,” Malone observes. “I just think he’s got a lot of bases covered, he’s very dynamic in terms of his ball carry, he’s very dynamic in terms of his defence and he’s got gas, and those three don’t always come together.

“He’s an intelligent guy, he understands the game, he knows what we want to do, he knows where he wants to be, and he knows that he’s got to involve himself in the game the whole time. He’s a great player and I think he’s done really well for us, and he’s also a quality human being and a great fella.”

For Dargaville and co. it is very much a case of being thrown in at the deep end and surviving. But it is a challenge he feels they are rising to, and will ultimately benefit from in the long run.

“We do have a very young side,” he agrees. “Apart from Tom Carter and Hugo Dessens, I think everyone else is 20-24, and the Shute Shield is a tough competition. There’s lots of old heads floating around that know how to win games of footy, and that’s something you learn by playing in big games.

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Chris Malone has tried to expand Uni’s style in his two years at the helm – Photo: SPA Images

“The mentality of the club is that it doesn’t matter who’s playing, that’s the thing ‘Nobby’ (Chris Malone) has brought in. Anyone can step in and play the game we’ve been playing as long as you’ve done the hard work and the fitness and the skills. For the young guys, I think those close losses to Manly and Warringah earlier in the season really gave us some big game experience, which will help us going forward even though we lost.”

What Malone has also brought in is a gradual shift away from the trademark Uni game plan that has served them so well over the last decade. Bludgeoning forward play to set the platform for more big bodies to come hard around the corner, and set-piece dominance with a controlled kicking game to choke the life out of their opponents. It hasn’t always been pretty, but eight Premierships in 10 years didn’t have anyone connected with the Varsity discussing the merits of style over substance.

However, while this Uni side is still very much grounded on the basic tenets of old, there is a definite promotion of ball movement and offloads from the piggy’s that has added several layers to their attack. And as Dargaville posits, it’s largely a case of using the cattle at your disposal.

“It’s still pretty similar to the Uni of old, we still want to grind teams down and run over them in the last 20 minutes or so,” he offers. “But he’s [Malone] just given us a bit more licence to play what’s in front of us. The way the forwards are starting to play, they’re playing far more intelligent football than a Uni side has played for a long time. They’re passing like backs now. Sam Talakai is ridiculous, he’s got the skills of a ten.

“We just don’t have the big bodies that we used to have, I mean, Tom Boidin’s one of our biggest ball carriers and he’s not a huge human. We just have to be clever with how we play, we can’t expect to bash our forwards in against a team like Manly because they’ll be up for the challenge. You’ve got to play more intelligently than that, and I think Nobby has definitely brought that game style to a team that needed it. We have outside backs coming out of our ears, even going back into Second Grade and in Colts as well. There’s plenty of young, quick backs going around, so we may as well use them I guess.”

Malone and his young charges have also had to contend with a horror run of injuries throughout the club this season, a scenario that has seen over 60 players featuring in 1st Grade alone. With effective combinations a key component in rugby, that turnover of playing numbers has been another challenge for Dargaville and the class of 2014. But he feels blessed to be undertaking such an adventure alongside some pretty special players.

“A lot of us have been playing together since Colts, and a fella like DK [Dan Kelly] has been around for years and Carter’s been around for years. I’ve played with Jock [Merriman] and Jake [Gordon] in Colts for quite a few years and Stu Dunbar as well, Henry’s [Clunies-Ross] obviously only in his second year at the club, and Jim Stewart’s only in his second year at the club as well and they’re both just super talented. So I guess it’s quite easy when everyone’s the type of players that they are.

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Parramatta struggle to contain Dargaville’s power and determination – Photo: AJF Photography

“I think everyone has just had to learn and mature quicker than we would have had to in previous years, and we’ve had to build our own energy as well because when people like Dave Dennis and ‘Cutch’ [McCutcheon] and Tolu [Latu] come back they bring so much energy. They have so much pride for the jersey as well and I guess it’s pretty infectious, and we’ve just got to take what we’ve done all season and keep improving I guess. It’s quite exciting the fact that they’re not coming back because it’s a real chance to prove ourselves.

We’ve still got to build pressure, and playing the same game in finals footy won’t always give the same results. It’s about building pressure, but if we keep our defence the way it’s been going and not leaking too many soft tries as we’ve tended to, I definitely think we can give it a good crack. We’ve been creating so many opportunities but still been leaking soft tries, so if we can steel up a bit and carry on with the intensity that we’ve been building the last couple of weeks, then I think we can go a long way towards retaining it.”

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Original version published by Rugby News on August 7th, 2014

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