The Wash-Up: Rd 3 (Catch-up) – Gordon v Sydney University
Photo: AJF Photography
Gordon have been slowly building up a head of steam under coach Geoff Townsend this season, with a win over Norths and narrow losses to Manly, Souths and Warringah, an indication that they may well have it in them to be in the conversation come finals time. Sydney University arrived at Chatswood with something akin to an identity crisis taking hold. Were they the side that pushed Premiers Eastwood all the way a month ago and held off a determined Warringah in round 10, or the one that lost to West Harbour and struggled over the line against Parramatta? With this game serving as a catch-up for the washed out fixture in round three, it was a chance for both teams to make some headway while the majority of their opponents enjoyed the long weekend off.
Rain had ruled this match out at the first time of asking back in April’s round three, so it was perhaps fitting that a lazy drizzle descended on Chatswood Oval prior to kick-off. And if it was Gordon’s intention to keep it tight and grind out a result even before a drop had fallen in anger, the opening of the clouds ensured that the match would be one for the purists.
However, it was a rare moment – so it proved – of attacking flair that set the ball rolling, Uni countering through the pace of debutant Christian Yassmin, before Angus Roberts crossed after only four minutes. But it proved to be a false dawn as a tight and tense opening half ensued, defences ruling the day and both sets of forwards fronting up and doing their best to lay a solid platform.
The Highlanders hit back, the pack rumbling over after a period of intense pressure and superb Uni defence. And as the half-time break drew near they were in again, captain Terry Preston leading by example to strike after an incisive run from Tom Matthews.
12-5 to the hosts then as they kicked-off for the second forty. But Uni thought they’d been gifted a lifeline when Tobias Gukibau saw yellow for some old fashioned handbags. Despite the setback, Gordon’s pack lifted in adversity, kept their line intact for the duration of the prop’s absence, and then struck the winning blow upon his return, Preston charging down a clearing kick for his second, Gordon’s third, and a 17-5 lead.
Uni rallied in the closing stages, Tom Coolican finding the line to ensure Gordon’s supporters were chewing their nails until the final whistle. But it was too little, too late, and the Highlanders hung on for a deserved victory, their first over the Students since 2010.
After the close run losses to Manly and Souths, Gordon coach Geoff Townsend was under no illusions as to where this result stood in the Highlanders’ season.
“It’s probably the best win of the year just by virtue of how we did it,” he said. “We had two men in the bin and the boys just hung in there and defended gallantly all game. We stuck to the plan and actually got them to play the game we wanted them to play – the conditions probably helped with that. But we wanted that power type game and that’s what happened, which was good for us.
“When we saw the conditions we shortened it up a bit and I think we profited because of that,” he continued. “We want to be able to play different ways, and we’ve obviously got some power players in Mark Johnson and Tom Matthews and Matt McDougall, who bend the line every time they carry. But we’ve got to marry that up with a bit of subtlety as well and tonight, the conditions meant that we probably didn’t need to use a lot of subtlety. So there was a lot more kicking and it wasn’t a great game for someone wanting to see an attacking spectacle as a result. But we did what we needed to do to get the result.
“We targeted certain channels, and the channels we targeted we got a bit of profit from occasionally, so a lot of the things we wanted to happen, happened. Overall, the defence was awesome and we knew it had to be, that was part of our plan, to force them into a few errors. We got breached a couple of times and at the end there it was hearts in mouths time, but we got the job done and I’m very pleased.”
Captain Terry Preston agreed that his side had executed pretty much what they intended, and he was more than happy to heap praise on his hard-working pack.
“The rain made it a little bit more even,” he conceded. “Our game plan was never to really go wide, it was to control the ball ourselves and play at our pace and work through some phases, rather than trying to move it wide or create space. We just wanted to really build some confidence in using our forwards to create some momentum in the game, because this year they’ve been the real difference for us. A couple of our tries were off mistakes from Uni, and I’d put that down to our forward’s work ethic at the breakdown and getting around the field for us.”
Having played at the club since making his colts debut back in 2003, Preston has experienced many long nights against the Students when things didn’t go their way. It certainly made the win that much sweeter in his eyes.
“2010 was the last time we beat them in 1st Grade, so it’s obviously great for the team for one, but also for the club,” he enthused. “We had lots of colts here tonight to support us, and watching 1st Grade come through and beat a team like Uni is a good boost for them in what they’re trying to achieve.
“The way we responded after the game and celebrated, it’s a sign of respect really, because of how happy we are because of the result. Sydney Uni are obviously one of the benchmark teams, and if we can beat them with the confidence we showed tonight, it goes a long way towards us developing into a side that wants to challenge for finals footy.”
On the opposite side of the ledger, a stony faced Chris Malone reflected on a night to forget for the Varsity. When asked where the performance stood in his time coaching the Students, there were simply no comparisons.
“It doesn’t stand anywhere, it’s right at the bottom and it’s hugely disappointing,” he said. “It was Friday night, the rain came before kick-off and that doesn’t make it any easier to not make this game an arm wrestle. But you’ve got to give Gordon the respect that they deserve, I knew they would be tough. The only pleasing thing for us was the performance of a few young colts who were our best players, and that says a lot about where everyone else was at.”
There was a case for mitigating circumstances for Uni, coming into the game as they did minus the services of Messrs Carter, Winton, Stewart and Clunies-Ross. But Malone wasn’t having any of it.
“There’s 300 games of 1st Grade between Carter and Winton so yes, of course you’re going to miss that. But I’ve never made that an excuse because we’ve got good young players coming through,” he said. “What’s disappointing for those that played tonight, is that some of the other guys around them that have played a considerable amount of first grade didn’t stand up – and that’s not good enough. Youth brings enthusiasm, and none of the young blokes that played tonight let us down.”
With this being a catch-up game, the loss also served as a huge missed opportunity for Uni to gain some ground on the pacesetters.
“I knew when it was postponed and then rescheduled that it was going to be a Friday night 8’o’clock kick-off, and in June, so it was going to be cold,” said Malone. “And they’re the sort of games you just want to get out of with a win. You’re not thinking about bonus points, you’re thinking about winning and getting your processes right. A win tonight would have had us in the top four and we would have been top of the club championship, so it’s disappointing on a number of levels.
“We scored early and it was a well-constructed try, but we just didn’t get any possession after that and we just got into a wrestle. We also gave them a couple of their tries with a charge down and then a chip-kick on halfway that goes straight to their guy, and they’re just schoolboy errors.”
A keynote of the game – as it often is – was the scrums. And it may not surprise anyone to hear that both side’s opinions on who held sway were vastly different.
“We’ve had a much maligned scrum this year and we lost a couple of penalties early on. But ‘Lulu’ (Aritema Ralulu) and ‘Tobes’ (Tobias Gukibau) did an awesome job to turn that around. We said before kick-off that they could be the two guys that win the game for us, and after a poor start I think it was a pretty even battle from then on, so it’s great credit to them.”
“It was a bit shaky there for a little bit, especially when Tobias came off. But we just stayed positive and made a few little adjustments, like how fast I was putting the ball in and taking it out, and what we were doing at the back there as well. That’s a sign of where we’re at as a team at the moment. We’re able to do those things, we’re able to implement a Plan A, B or C when things break down and turn things around.”
and Chris Malone…
“I don’t ever like to say too much about anyone with a pea in a whistle. But how you can be penalised with the dominant scrum going forward on your own ball, I don’t know. From our perspective, we had the dominant scrum all night, that didn’t change, it was the way his arm went that changed!”
All semantics aside, the result leaves Gordon only six points behind the Students now, meaning they can dare to take a faraway look at a potential finals place, something many, probably even themselves, thought was a distant possibility at the start of the season. With only 19pts separating 3rd and 10th on the ladder, there is a significant log-jam building with only seven rounds to go, and the next few weeks could prove decisive in determining who sneaks in, and who falls short.
“It’s all very close for the finals spots. You put Manly and Eastwood up there – and Uni will be in that group when they get players back – but you put the rest of the teams together down to Parramatta in 11th, and there’s not much between them,” offers Townsend.
“It shows in the results, they’ve mostly been close games between those sides and each team is capable of beating the other. We don’t really mention finals, we just try to get better every week. We finished the season very strongly last year and we’re starting to approach that sort of form again now. Whoever gets on a run are going to be the teams that grabs those 4th, 5th or 6th spots.”
“We’ve had a run where we lost to some really good sides in Manly and Southern Districts when, after leading at half-time, we lost by less than seven,” says Preston. “We feel we gained some respect from that, and teams knew that we had it in us and they couldn’t take us lightly. Beating Uni hopefully cements that idea.
“We’ve definitely got some games to come that we’ve highlighted in terms of wins. Obviously, we want to win every game, but being honest with ourselves there are achievable goals and there’s definitely some games coming up against teams that are in and around the same group as us. If we play with the same confidence we have over the last two months, despite the loss last week, then the finals should be where we’re aiming for.”
GORDON 17 (Terry Preston 2, Aritemu Ralulu tries; Terry Preston con) defeated SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 10 (Angus Roberts, Tom Coolican tries)
Gordon: 1. Aritemu Ralulu; 2. James Wilkinson; 3. Tobias Gukibau; 4. Mark Johnson; 5. Ruairidh Wilson; 6. Luke Papworth; 7. Luke Rissman; 8. Harry Rorke; 9. Terry Preston; 10. Mark Preston; 11. Michael Manners; 12. Erik Moss; 13. Tom Matthews; 14. Matt McDougall; 15. Sione Ala – Replacements: Hugh Cropley; Rohan Pixley; Tui Tuisavii; Lefu Iaopo; Andrew Chapman; Luke Heavey; James Hackney
Sydney University: 1. Alastair Ryan; 2. Tom Coolican; 3. Tom Robertson; 4. Byron Hodge; 5. Matt Philip; 6. Jake Wainwright; 7. David Hickey; 8. Mitch Whiteley; 9. Jake Gordon; 10. Connor O’Shea; 11. Greg Jeloudev; 12. Stu Dunbar; 13. Will Davies; 14. Christian Yassmin; 15. Angus Roberts – Replacements: Samuel Quinn; Jock Merriman; Chris Chapman
First published by Rugby News on June 9th, 2015