Resurgent Rats seeking a permanent place at the top table

Photo: Karen Watson

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It was a case of déjà vu for Warringah before a ball was even kicked this season.

Incumbent head coach Haig Sare’s decision to up sticks and head to Queensland – for understandable and admirable family reasons – only a few weeks out from round one, wasn’t exactly the best preparation for a new campaign. But the irony lay in the fact that the same thing had happened only two years prior, with Sare taking up the reins at short notice after Sam Harris headed to Japan to kick-start his professional coaching career.

The Rats survived that particular episode intact, with a few wobbles along the way. And the core group of raw young talent that came through under Harris’ tenure, and blossomed so impressively under Sare last year, has taken this year’s merry-go-round in their stride to kick on yet again under new man Greg Marr.

After a rocky opening to 2015, they look to be set fair to match last season’s top four finish, with last Saturday’s win over Southern Districts lifting them level with the third placed Rebels on points with only four rounds of the regular season remaining. But a year on from what was a surprise achievement in 2014 given the travails of the previous couple of seasons, this group have their sights set on bigger things.

“It was easily one of the most important wins of the season,” says fullback Dave Feltscheer of the 26-12 win over Souths. “We were yet to beat anyone above us on the ladder, and Souths are historically hard to beat at Forshaw, so it has massive implications for the remainder of our season. We needed to know, and let others know, that we can beat the best before we get to finals time.”

Fighting words indeed, but rewind 10 weeks to the completion of round four and that statement would have seemed churlish given the way the Rats had begun the season. One win from their opening four games imbued rumours of a fall from grace, and a return to the lower reaches of the ladder. But eight victories from their next 10 matches has overseen a major transition in fortunes, to the point where they will be a team no-one will relish facing in the finals series.

So how did they turn it around?

For a start, the board weren’t exactly setting a novice loose when they appointed Greg Marr. A former (whisper it softly) Manly Marlin, Marr brought with him a pedigree of success in club rugby, having helped both Manly and Sydney University to Shute Shield titles as an assistant coach. He was also already in situ at Rat Park as the head of the successful Sevens program, knew the majority of the players he would be working with pretty darn well as a result, and had also had success with the lower grades at the club.

Greg Marr_Warringah head coach_2015_KW

‘I’m loving it!” – Head coach Greg Marr is enjoying his time at the helm – Photo: Karen Watson

But Marr would be the first to point out that he hasn’t been running a solo race. A major boon for Warringah has been the addition of club legend Mark Gerrard to the coaching team, the former Wallaby coming on board as an assistant to link up with another ex-international Michael Lipman, who had previously worked alongside Sare.

Gerrard will return to Japan in the next few weeks for what looms as his on-field career swansong with Toyota Industries Shuttles in the Top League. But the input and experience of both he and Lipman has been of enormous value, not only to the players but also to a coach who basically answered an SOS call to put his hands to the wheel and help out.

“Michael and ‘Gerrardo’ had been involved with Haig since November last year in putting the basic preparations in place,” explains Marr. “Haig had to leave suddenly so Michael and Mark kept the ball rolling in his absence until I came on board. Unfortunately for us, Mark has to go back to Japan to play and he’ll leave a huge hole in the coaching staff. He’s been a fantastic asset.

“With Michael still on board from last year there’s been three of us to share the load. But I guess the buck stops with me, and I’m comfortable with that. I’d coached 1st Grade at Uni a few years ago, I’d coached 1st Grade at Manly as well, and I thought I was going to drift off into Sevens. But here I am and I absolutely love it,” he smiles.

“I like mixing with the guys, I like the feeling of being involved, whether that’s elation or frustration, and I just like seeing the guys win. People say to me ‘You don’t look very nervous,’ but I don’t make the tackles and I don’t score the tries. I just want to get them as best prepared as I can to go out and do their best, and if they win, I’m happy for them. If they lose, well, you just have a couple of beers!” he laughs.

“It did take us a while to get going, but we just needed a few wins to get our confidence up and away we went. If we can hang in where we are and get into the semi-finals, who knows what can happen?”

Mark Gerrard_coaching Warringah_2015_KW

Rats legend Mark Gerrard has been a welcome addition to the coaching ranks in 2015  – Photo: Karen Watson

“I think we’re building,” says Feltscheer. “We had a bit of a slow start to the season but since round six or seven we’ve got a little bit better with each game. Although close losses to Uni and then Manly were involved, we’ve been improving a little each week.

“We sat down and thought long and hard about those losses because they do hurt, they are two teams that you really, really want to beat. But in the grand scheme of things you learn more from your losses than a lot of your wins, so we may have needed them, and if they’re the last two we have then we’ll be happy.”

One of the things the squad has had to contend with this time around is expectation. Finish 4th one year and retain the majority of your players, and it may be reasonable to assume that you can shoot for a similar result. But the added pressure brought by their relative success in 2014, is juxtaposed by a newfound belief and confidence.

“Last year, people were saying we were going to come 9th and we came 4th, this year they’re calling top four. So there’s a bit more pressure but the boys are experienced enough now that we can handle that, and we can come through the other side with another good season,” reasons Feltscheer.

“We all sat down at the start of the season and said that top four would be good again this year, and there was nobody who was in that room that night, who said we couldn’t win this competition. I think that has given us the extra confidence to finish off games and try and play that full 80 minutes of footy. We’re not there yet, but you’re not going to win this competition without the confidence and belief that you can win it.

“I think we have a stronger squad this year,” the 26-year-old flyer continues. “The ‘older’, more experienced contingent of the squad are still relatively young but extremely experienced for their ages, with no signs of being over the hill. People like Hamish Angus, Josh Holmes, Luke Holmes, Michael Adams and Sam Ward are playing some of their best footy, in conjunction with showing the leadership qualities that are pivotal to a great side.

“On the other side of the coin, the young blokes coming through and the depth we have this year has been encouraging. Harry Jones (prior to injury), Tyson Davis and Seb Wileman are exciting prospects for not only the Rats, but Australian footy in general. Our depth has been tested more so than in the past with some mid-season exits and injuries to key players, but we continue to keep winning games which is a sign of a strong squad.”

Dave Feltscheer_Warringah v Penrith_2015_KW

Flying fullback Dave Feltscheer dreams of winning a Premiership with his local club  – Photo: Karen Watson

The Souths game saw possibly the Rats’ finest and most complete 80 minutes of the season, their Achilles heel this year being a reluctance to put a team to the sword when in the ascendancy. Indeed, the previous fortnight had seen them rebound from a gallant loss to the table-topping Marlins, to rack up 72pts against Northern Suburbs (34-22) and Gordon (38-14) respectively.

Both performances had seen them start like a house on fire and effectively seal the deal by half-time, only to switch off and allow their opponents a glimpse of redemption. After the Gordon match, flyhalf Hamish Angus told of his frustration at the team’s propensity for putting the cue in the rack.

“We just took the foot off the throat and it became a bit of an arm wrestle, and ended up a fairly even second forty,” he said. “We started going too high in our tackles and we started to try and play too much footy, which I guess is the challenge for us. We seem to have the game won, and then go away from what got us in that position.

“The key for us now is to bring that kind of intensity and that go forward, particularly when we come up against the better teams with massive packs who rely on that go forward ball. In the tight games, switching off like that can cost you, you can lose a match in a five-minute period. I do think the scoreboard plays with our heads a little bit, but in big games it comes down to one or two plays that decide the game, and that’s the biggest thing for us.”

The main igniter of a backline revered as one of the finest in club land, Angus says it is the improvements made by the ‘piggies’ that have seen the Rats’ cement themselves as a genuine force.

“It’s a completely different game when you’re playing with a bit more time and space,” says the two-time Ken Catchpole Medal winner. “When I first started here as a 10, it was a really good learning curve in the sense that I was playing off a pack that was getting absolutely mauled. But not anymore. They’re all working really hard and making my job easier. And the good thing is it’s the same boys, we haven’t just roped in anyone. It’s the same guys putting in the hard yards that have turned it around, and for myself and Josh [Holmes] as a nine and 10, our front-foot ball is an absolute dream.”

But while a Premiership remains a genuine – if perhaps fanciful – target this year, it is the longer term success of Warringah as a club that is of paramount importance to all involved. While they have successfully turned themselves back around from also-rans to title contenders, it is the capability of sustaining that year-upon-year-upon-year that drives the thought processes. They’ve had a taste of life amongst the perennial heavyweights, and now they want a permanent chair at the table.

“If you look at the powerhouse sides in the comp, we probably don’t have the depth by comparison,” says Angus. “So for us to be a top four team right now, we need to stay relatively injury-free, and for the bounce of the ball to go our way a little bit. But I think as a club we are growing.”

Hamish Angus_Warringah_2015_KW

Rats flyhalf Hamish Angus believes the club is heading firmly in the right direction – Photo: Karen Watson

“Teams used to come to Rat Park and think ‘If we turn up, we’ll get the result’. But I think they come here now thinking it’s going to be a real dogfight, which is, I guess, kind of what it was like down here 20 years ago. We did it tough for a period there but now it’s about building momentum, and if we can get a top four finish this year and another next year, we’ll have established ourselves as a genuine challenger. That attracts players to the club, which will help our depth and turn us into a more powerful club.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to truly compete with the Uni’s, the Randwick’s, the Manly’s and the Eastwood’s because of our limited catchment area. But if we put in place the stuff that we’re doing and we can build a community around the club, then I think we can create something special here. We’re taking baby steps and this year, the structure of the club – not just on the field but off the field too – has improved. With the results going the way they are and with the brand of rugby we’re playing as well, people come and they love it down here, because I don’t even know what’s going to happen when the ball comes out of that backline – they actually get upset if we kick it too much!”

The key to that sustainable success is keeping the bedrock of this squad together for a few more seasons, while embellishing every year with a production line of local talent. The desire to achieve their dream together, is one that should bond this talented bunch to each other for a while yet.

“We’re a young-ish team if you look at age, but if you look at the 1st Grade caps across everyone it’s actually quite high,” says Feltscheer. “We’ve had this core group of guys together for three or four years now, and that’s more powerful than having a team of 30-year-olds who have been thrown together. It’s something that we’ve tried to build. Many of the guys are local juniors and we’ve all been through the tough times together, so we know what it’s like to be in the bad situations, which also means we celebrate the successes a lot more.

“There is some real talent coming through the ranks, so our depth and youth has been a highlight of the squad this year. Boys who have played the majority of their footy in 2nd or 3rd grade like Josh Gillard, Robert Kelly and Chris Arnold, have really stepped up this year when needed, highlighting the talent that has been cultivated in 2’s over the last few years.

“I think the vast majority of the team is pretty committed to keeping the green and white jersey on until we’ve held that Shield above our heads, so I would argue we will have a similar team in a couple of years. The good thing is that although the team is now experienced, we’re still not old per se, and we may only lose one or two to retirement in the next few years. A big risk would be losing our top talent like Sam Ward, Harry Jones and Tyson Davis to Super XV squads. But hopefully we can take a championship back to Narrabeen before then.”

Josh Holmes_Warringah v Souths_2015_KW

Josh Holmes has been a standout performer once again as the Rats march towards the finals  – Photo: Karen Watson

In the meantime, the run home to this season’s elusive prize starts with a visit to struggling Penrith this Saturday. In what should be a gentle precursor to a triple-header of blockbuster clashes with Manly, Sydney University and Eastwood to follow.

For Feltscheer, the fixtures computer has thrown up a perfect storm.

“I think there’s a risk that if you play three bottom teams leading into the finals, that you get a bit comfortable and you’re not ready for them. The way we’re looking at it is that we’ll be semi-final ready if and when they come along, because we’ll have played those three big games leading into the finals.

“It’s been an interesting approach to planning and goal-setting this year to be honest,” he continued. “We haven’t really sat down and looked at the draw as a team to set long-term goals or macro targets, we have literally taken it one game at a time, and I think that has worked for this squad. It’s created a confident and relaxed atmosphere on a week-to-week basis, and doesn’t place added pressure on games ‘we have to win’.

“That being said, it’s hard as a player not to look ahead and have conversations with other players in the gym about who we need to beat and the ideal scenarios etc. I think the general consensus is that we need to win two of those last three to consolidate a top four finish, and maybe even third spot.”

And the Rats chances from there?

“I would like to think we would continue to improve week-to-week. But we’ve had some injuries recently, and if you were a realist you have to imagine there will be a hiccup on the march to the finals. How we bounce back from that will be the true indicator as to whether we can go all the way or not.”

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First published by Rugby News on: July 2nd, 2015

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