Best of enemies seeking final redemption
Photos: Karen Watson
Both 21-years-old. Both Waratahs. Both soon-to-be Rams. Both Shute Shield Rookies of the Year and both preparing for their second Shute Shield Grand Final. Good mates too.
However, all friendship and shared experiences will go out the window when the whistle goes this afternoon as Eastwood’s Hugh Roach and Southern Districts’ Jed Holloway go toe-to-toe in search of their maiden Premiership at Concord Oval.
Having known each other since their junior rugby days before bonding as mates when they were a part of the Aussie U20’s, two of the younger members of the 2014 NSW Waratahs title-winning squad now find themselves on opposing sides in Sydney club rugby’s showpiece match. Having both tasted defeat in their first Grand Final experience, they are keen to walk away with the right medal around their necks this time around.
Holloway played in the 2012 Grand Final against Sydney University, Souths’ first ever visit to the big dance. Despite going in to the game as underdogs the boys from the Shire went within a whisker of an upset, leading at half-time, before being reeled in by a team who were specialists in getting the job done on the big occasions.
Only 19 at the time, Holloway has mixed emotions about the agonising 15-14 loss. “I remember the forward pass from Tom Carter for the winning try,” he says with a wry smile. “It was a huge occasion for us, walking out of our tunnel with all our supporters there to cheer us on was special. Walking in all you could hear was ‘Uni, Uni, Uni’ but as we walked out we could slowly start to hear the Rebel chant. You can’t get more of a pump-up before a game than that.”
“Once we were out there, the game went so quickly and we had it, but we lost it. It’s scarring but it just makes you hungry at the same time.”
For Roach, the experience was no less rewarding in terms of achievement but the pain of defeat, again at the hands of the Students last year, was more a case of humiliation than bitter disappointment. An Eastwood side that romped to their fourth Minor Premiership in a row was torn apart by a Uni outfit laden with Super Rugby talent, and driven to even greater heights by their desire to send out the ‘retiring’ Tim Davidson and Tom Carter. It ended 51-6.
“It was a day I’ll never forget despite the loss,” says Roach. “I was pretty new to Eastwood and the bond that I had with those guys and that playing group was pretty awesome. But it was a tough afternoon, Uni were just too good.”
Getting a second bite at the cherry just 12 months later gives Roach and his team mates a chance to put that horror show to bed at the first attempt. “I think we owe it to our fans,” he says. “We’ve won a few Minor Premierships and put the club in good stead but I think we owe it to our fans and to the club itself to go one better this year. Getting there and then going down by as much as we did last year is never good and I guess you could say there’s redemption. But for me personally, I’m not really going to focus on last year I’m just going to think about what’s ahead of me.”
Having gone so close two years ago, Holloway is determined not to miss out twice. Now captain of a side that has come good at the pointy end of the season, he leads a team that is growing in belief and confidence off the back of a thrilling last-minute revenge victory over Uni in the semi-final, and on their own turf. Triumphing over the team that has dominated the Shute Shield scene for the last decade – albeit with differing manpower – was not only a nice payback for 2012, but also a landmark result that has fuelled the Rebels with the belief that this might just be their year.
“It’s definitely a huge accomplishment for us as a group to beat Uni on their home ground in a semi-final,” admits Holloway. “We’ve only beaten them once in my whole Southern Districts career and talking to Duncan Chubb, who’s been here eight years, he’s only beaten them once as well. So it doesn’t happen very often, and for it to end in the way that it did was just an unbelievable moment that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”
While the Woodies have had, ahem, the wood, over most of the competition in the last five years, Souths have proven to be their bete noire on a few occasions in that time, including twice already in 2014. A win apiece during the regular season, both on the road, had preceded their last meeting two weeks ago in the Qualifying Final, a 38-36 thriller that went the way of the Rebels thanks to another last gasp penalty from Volavola. But neither player feels we should pay too much heed to history.
“I don’t really think it means anything,” says Roach. “In a rugby sense, you always think about the next game so we’re not going to think about the last time we played Souths. We can learn from it and our record against them is what it is but I don’t think the players are going to take that into account. Grand Final footy is a whole different ball game and both teams are going to put their best foot forward on Saturday afternoon.”
“It’s not relevant,” Holloway concurs. “Eastwood are a quality side and they’re going to step up in the big moments and the Grand Final doesn’t get any bigger. They’ve been there the last three or four years and they definitely have more experience and are a bit wiser in this situation than we are. We’re just going to stay humble, know what we do best, work hard at it and hopefully get the result we want.”
The fact that Southern are even here on the final day is somewhat of a surprise given their early season form and inconsistency across the year. Three losses from their opening three rounds was not the start fledgling head coach Matt Barr was looking for, while a home record of three wins from nine games in front of the Forshaw Park faithful only further fuelled concerns. But while there were more than a few eyebrows being raised at the level of performance, the players backed themselves and perhaps more importantly backed their coach to get things right in the end.
“We talked about it at the time and we said that you don’t win championships in the first three rounds,” Holloway reveals. “We weren’t too worried as we had a new coaching staff and we were still adjusting to the way they like to play, but once we started to get on a roll I think we won four on the trot from there. For me, you play eighteen trial games to get a crack at the business end, that’s what we focused on and it’s paid dividends for us so far. There were some doubters but I guess all you can say is ‘Look at us now’.”
Eastwood’s journey to the decider was a tad more formulaic, although they had to relinquish the role of ‘Team Consistency’ to Manly this time out. Their form through the first half of the season was patchy by their high standards but a side that knows how to get the job done more often than not has been tweaked and tuned by coach John Manenti in the second half of the season to a point where, last week against the Marlins, they started to resemble the balanced outfit of their title winning year of 2011.
Needing to bounce back from the reverse to the Rebels at TG Millner, they showed their class and Premiership credentials with a performance of power, precision, aggression and execution. Putting 32pts on the Minor Premiers –albeit a benign version of their usual selves – in front of a baying Manly Oval crowd, is the stuff titles are built upon. Roach believes it was an important psychological hurdle to overcome and one that the team will grow from.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favours by losing to Souths and having to do it the hard way, but as a playing group we really approached it from the perspective ‘You’ve got to beat the best to be the best’. We did that against Manly and now we’re going to have to try and step up again.”
Being a part of the NSW Waratahs’ ground breaking achievements this year has had a huge impact on the talented young duo. A shoulder reconstruction at the end of last season cruelled Holloway’s chances of adding to his four Super Rugby Caps and restricted his contribution to one from the training paddock alone, while Roach’s debut in the Cambridge Blue against the Lions from South Africa was the first of two appearances in 2014.
But despite only playing a supporting role in the maiden title win, both players wax lyrical about the positive effect that being in and around a championship winning side has had on their game, and on their approach to occasions such as today’s final.
“It’s a massive boost,” says Roach. “Some of the older guys at the Waratahs – and some of the younger guys too – they just bring positivity to my game and make me want to play that much better and do the hard things even more. Just being in a winning environment has made me work a lot harder and a lot smarter.”
“It was an unbelievable season,” Holloway adds. “Guys like Stephen Hoiles, Dave Dennis and Michael Hooper, you look at those guys and you’re just in awe of them. I grew up watching Cliffy Palu and being in the same squad with those guys and especially seeing them achieve something that’s never been done before by the Waratahs was special. I felt one hundred percent a part of that squad. The boys really did make the guys in suits feel a part of it and for myself and Benny Volavola, it just made us hungry to go out and do something ourselves. It just made my focus on Souths ramp up even more.”
With both players in form and absolutely crucial to their team’s chances, they will leave nothing in reserve in their quest for glory. A Premiership means everything to them both.
“Our club is such a proud club and this being our 25th anniversary, it would be huge,” says Holloway.
“It would be great for the club and something I would never forget,” Roach concurs.
Having two young players burning with a passion for their club and an intensity to succeed, and both blessed with a combative and confrontational nature on the field, is a recipe for fireworks. But no matter the result or the possibility of emotions running high in combat, both agree that what happens on the field stays on the field.
“Whenever we’re on the field against each other, whatever goes, goes,” Roach explains. “We go to war on the weekend and have a beer afterwards!”
And that’s the beauty of this wonderful sport. Best of friends off the field, best of enemies on it, but it’s all forgotten at the final whistle with a handshake, a yarn and a cold one. Rugby. Gotta love it.
Original version published by Rugby News on August 16th, 2014