Are the Shoremen about to turn the tide?
Photo: Peter Bender
One swallow doesn’t make a summer as they say, and a win in your first game of the new season, while an obvious positive, is not necessarily an indication that long term success will follow. But for Northern Suburbs last Saturday, their opening day win over West Harbour, 32-7 at Concord Oval, did feel a lot like a breath of fresh air.
A team that had peaked with a semi-final appearance in 2012, has experienced a revolving door of players ever since with inconsistency a natural by-product as a result, culminating in last year’s hugely disappointing 11th place. The off-season then saw the departure of head coach Scott Fava after five years at the helm, as well as the retirements of two of the club’s stalwarts in Nick Lah and Scott Podmore.
It was time for change.
Step up Simon Cron. Having overseen the most successful Sevens program in the Shute Shield in his first stint at the club between 2012-13, the 38-year-old spent last season as forwards coach at Eastern Suburbs learning his craft in what, by their own admission, was a difficult year for the Beasties following a disrupted pre-season and an enforced coaching reshuffle two weeks into the new competition.
“It was a tough season,” Cron concedes when asked earlier this week. “I’m used to winning to be honest, I don’t like losing, and I’m used to putting teams together through preparation and coaching. International coaches only get their players for two-week blocks across the season outside major tournaments, and you’ve basically got to coach the critical things rather than all the important things in such a short time.
“We took the same approach with the time we had at Easts and made a list of what was most important. But you can’t coach ten things in a week, you can coach maybe two. So we worked on the critical few each week and funnily enough, by the end of the season the forwards had the best lineout statistics in the competition. They beat Manly and Eastwood off the forward pack but just had nothing depth-wise to back that up.”
Valuable lessons in adversity learned, when the chance arose to return to North Sydney Oval, as the man now calling the shots, he jumped at the opportunity. “I live on this side of the harbour, I had an affinity with the club, and I felt I was ready to step up and be a head coach,” he explains.
Working alongside his assistants Matty Nilan and Neil Tunnah, he has set about changing the culture at the club across the board, with an emphasis on getting good coaches at all levels.
“We want all our guys to become better rugby players, because the reality is that our third grade players are one hamstring tear away from first grade, so they need to be coached well. Also, the colts program here has been a good program and there’s been a scattering of players come through into grade this year. My belief is that two to three of those guys will have the opportunity to play first grade and the rest of them will be second or third grade.
“Ideally, the colts teams should filter in and around third grade if you’re a strong club because that’s where they learn their trade. Physically it allows them to implement a lot of the skill changes and developments, especially in the forwards, without having a guy folding at scrum time etc.”
His experience working with the Shoremen’s Sevens program two years ago was a handy in, in terms of getting to know the dressing room. Many of that hugely successful team that won every competition they entered at the end of 2013 – bringing in $30k of valuable prize money to the club in the process – have gone on to national recognition for the Aussie Sevens (Sam Myers, Jack Grant, Peter Schuster, Michael Wells and Sam Figg). While he is still familiar with many of the squad’s young players including Josh Kay, Lochie Creagh, and Richard Woolf, all of whom started last Saturday.
But he didn’t waste any time in getting to know everyone in order to gauge the mindset he was inheriting. “It’s kind of hard to start with a clean slate because a lot of the players know me, which helps as they know my expectations of them,” says Cron. “However, there are players who were at the club last year that didn’t, and talking to them, they found it quite tough last year with the results that they had. So one of the things I’ve tried to do is reinvigorate them so that they want to stick around.”
One player key to his future plans for the club was Ben Matwijow. The 25-year-old loose forward has been on the radar of Super Rugby for some time now, with an appearance for the Western Force against the British & Irish Lions back in 2013 his only taste thus far. But off the back of another standout year with Norths in 2014, in a side that struggled to register only four wins, he rose to prominence in the NRC for the NSW Country Eagles, helping them to a creditable semi-final place in the inaugural competition.
His selection as 1st Grade captain by Cron was a natural progression. Having served his apprenticeship under a succession of experienced skippers in Wil Brame, AJ Gilbert and Nick Lah, Matwijow now finds himself as the de facto ‘old head’ amongst a host of fresh faces. He admits that his newfound position as leader of the troops will take some getting used to.
“It’s a bit interesting being the old guy at 25, but I took a lot from the captains I’ve played under over the last few years – particularly taking the points when everyone else is screaming at you to kick to the corner!” he laughs. “I reckon I must have run up to ‘Lahie’ a million times and shouted ‘Put it in the corner’ and he’d turn around and go ‘Yeah, yeah’ and point to the posts.
“I enjoy that aspect of the game, people looking to you and for you to lead the way. I don’t want to shy away from leading the way with my chat but I’ve got to lead the way with how I play as well. When the times are tough, there’s a lot more emphasis on stepping up the chat, so it’s a case of calming the guys down, getting their revs down, and getting back to our A game.
“We’ve got some good guys like Michael ‘Noodles’ O’Hea who’s played a fair bit of rugby as well and helps to keep things calm, and then there’s blokes with so much energy like Will Miller – the energiser bunny – who just keeps going and drives the team forward. So I think we’ve found a pretty good balance.”
Cron sees the season as a pivotal one for Matwijow. Not only in the effect he can have on Norths’ fortunes and those around him on a weekly basis, but also in terms of improving his chances of deserved recognition at a higher level. Flexibility is the mantra.
“He’s going to start at no.6 but he’s going to spend some time in the second row as well – he has to,” says Cron. “Our job is to get him into Super Rugby, and the reality is that teams are looking for a guy that can cover six and lock. He’s dynamic enough to be able to do both and he’s happy enough to do both, so that’s how I see it panning out for the year.”
Matwijow agrees that 2015 could be a watershed for his rugby career, and he’s happy to have somebody like Cron in his corner, backing him all the way.
“It’s definitely my defining year. I hope that being the captain of this side can push me to really step up and lead by example and if I can do that, I think the rest will come,” he says.
“Cronny’s done a great job and he’s pointed me in the right direction as well. He’s put a lot of faith in me, and in the fact that I know what I’m doing. I think it’s always good to get a fresh start and a fresh opinion, the message might not actually be that different but sometimes it’s just how someone delivers that message.
“He’s been massive for us since he came back. He’s all about defence and the breakdown but he’s brought in a real emphasis on skills as well, so we’ve got away from trying to do a lot of patterns and got back to skills, passing, passing under pressure, and our work at the ruck. It’s all about basic skills and working hard, and that showed out there on Saturday at the back end of the game when we worked hard and kept going.”
Three tries either side of half-time proved to be the defining moments of the match against Wests. One a couple of minutes before the break and two in quick succession after the resumption took them out to a healthy 27-0 lead, and despite late pressure from the Pirates, the defence held firm, only conceding a five-pointer with a man in the bin, and holding up another try over the line after the whistle.
“It was scrappy for the first 30 minutes and then in that middle 20, we hit our straps and scored a lot of points and then just dug in for the last half hour,” agrees the new captain. “I think both teams had fitness issues towards the end, but if you’ d said to me before the game we’d win 32-7 I’d have taken it every time. The thing I was most pleased about was the desire, guys genuinely wanting to work hard in defence and not shying away from that, even in those dying stages. To hold a try up over the line after the bell is fantastic.
“It’s now about consistency,” Matwijow continues. “You can defend well one week but we want to defend well every week, so that’s our motto going forward – to bring that desire to the table for every match. We took advantage of a few opportunities when we got them but we made a lot of errors too, which cost us at the same time and put us under the pump. They’re the things we’ve got to learn – play percentage rugby, play smart rugby, get out of our own end and put pressure on the other team.”
Of course, all this means very little if they come away empty handed from Rat Park this Saturday when they face Warringah in round two, a quality team themselves who looking to bounce back from a narrow loss to Southern Districts in their opener.
“It was definitely a great win against Wests but we’ve got to put it out of our minds. It’s a new week, one win is nothing,” affirms Matwijow. “We’ll be back to square one and Warringah will be back to square one. We played them a couple of weeks ago in a trial and they were pretty good and played with a lot of energy.
“It was a draw, no team really gave much away and we’ve both probably got some guys coming back in. There’s a few ex-Norths boys there as well so it will be a good battle. We’ve just got to go out with the same mentality as last week, work hard and go for the win.
“As Cronny says, we’re here to win, we’re not here to lose.”
Whatever the result this Saturday, you get the feeling the Red and Blacks are in more than capable hands both on and off the pitch for the immediate future.
First published by Rugby News on March 25th, 2015