NRC: ‘Flash’ Gordon firing Eagles towards glory

Photo: AJF Photography

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He’s not called ‘Flash’ – yet – but anyone watching Jake Gordon’s performance for the NSW Country Eagles against Perth Spirit last Saturday, would not be surprised by my promotion of the nickname.

Three tries and two assists from the flying halfback helped the Eagles cement their place at the top of the NRC standings with only two rounds of the regular season to go, whilst cementing his own burgeoning reputation in the process. But it was his speed to – and at – the ruck, the crispness and accuracy of his pass, a smart kicking game, and his uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time to profit from an opposition error or his own team mates good work, that marked him out as a player that looks every inch a future star.

Having spent time aside from his club rugby duties with Sydney University this year, learning his craft at the Waratahs behind a couple of pretty handy scrummies in Nick Phipps and Matt Lucas, the 23-year-old is yet to get a taste of Super Rugby for his state. But not only is his current form provoking many admirers to call for his fast-tracking into the Cambridge Blue jersey in the 2017 season, it’s even promoted whispers that he may be a bolter for the Wallaby Spring tour in November.

Gordon himself played an admirably straight bat regarding those suggestions when Rugby News caught up with him this week.

“They are only whispers, at the moment I’m just focusing on playing consistent footy,” he says. “Of course I wouldn’t say no to a chance like that, it would be the experience of a lifetime. But there is no point worrying about the uncontrollable.”

Jake Gordon_NSW Eagles v Sydney Rays_2016_AJF

Gordon races away for another meat pie against the Rays – Photo: AJF Photography

Hailing from Newtown, Gordon went to Blackwattle Bay School in Glebe, before beginning his rugby career in earnest with Canterbury Juniors. From there he continued his education of the game at Sydney University, making a 1st grade debut in 2013, winning a 2nd grade Premiership in 2015 and kicking on to nail down the no.9 jersey in 1st grade this year with a string of impressive efforts, and 15 tries to his name, as the Students fell one game short of another title.

His form – and undoubted potential – ensured a role in the Sydney Stars line-up over the first two seasons of the NRC. But the amalgamation of the Stars into the NSW Country set-up has seen them –and he – attain new heights, despite some understandable misgivings about how the Sydney Uni contingent would be accepted into the fold.

“I thought it was going to be pretty tough merging in with Randwick and Easts, two of our biggest rivals, because Sydney Uni isn’t the most liked club obviously. But it’s been really smooth,” he reveals. “I’m just really looking forward to the next few games with the Eagles, we have something special growing here and the future is looking bright.”

Special indeed. Five wins from five starts is impressive enough, but having done so against the so-called ‘heavyweights’ of the competition – the Super Rugby affiliated sides in Brisbane City, UC Vikings, Melbourne Rising and Perth Spirit – as well as handing out the only defeat to a vastly improved Sydney Rays outfit, they have put themselves firmly in the box seat for a Minor Premiership, a home semi-final and hopefully, beyond.

“It’s actually been quite surprising,” says Gordon. “We set a goal at the start of the year to get two of three from the first three rounds and we won all three, so now we’re saying ‘Why can’t we win all seven rounds?’ We’ve got two more weeks, hopefully a home final, and then it’s anyone’s game from there.”

Jake Gordon_NSW Eagles v Perth Spirit_2016_AJF

Celebrating his hat-trick against Perth Spirit with team mates – Photo: AJF Photography

It is the manner in which they have gone about their work that is perhaps the most telling sign of a side that is running red-hot right now. The Eagles haven’t squeaked home in those five wins, although Rising and the Rays certainly pushed them to the wire, they’ve largely dominated, and appear to have the strength in depth needed to be a genuine chance of going all the way.

They derailed the reigning Premiers Brisbane City in the first round, and should have won by more than the 22-12 scoreline. But the 60pts they put on the Vikings in Canberra in round two, and the 48pts to overcome Spirit at the weekend, with what was a much-changed starting XV, has painted them as the team to beat.

“Perth are pretty much a Super Rugby team and coming in off four good wins against quality opposition, that was probably going to be our bogey week if any,” says Gordon. “We had a bit of a disruptive week with a few changes and Tolu (Latu) going to the Wallaby squad, so to weather the storm the way we did for the first 20-30 minutes was quite impressive.

“I thought our forwards up front were very good and allowed ‘Reecey’ (Robinson) and Alex Newsome to run a bit of havoc out wide, and I was lucky enough to pick up a few tries off the back of that. Spirit seemed to run out of gas towards the end and we came over the top of them. They’re a pretty handy side and we’ll take plenty of confidence out of that game.”

‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics’ goes the old adage, but a look at the available stats for this year’s NRC is quite revealing when it comes to comparing halfbacks in particular.

Gordon has five tries to his name in five matches, two ahead of Spirit scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens and equal with Spirit winger Luke Morahan at the top of the overall pie-baggers list. He leads the way in terms of ball carries amongst his peers (29), and is only one behind the tally of leading no. 9 tacklers, the Rays’ Matt Lucas and the Vikings’ Joe Powell, on 32. But it his run metres that tell the biggest story.

He has racked up a whopping 297 so far, more than double his nearest rival, and considering he is the only one of his main combatants (who have a combined tally of 168) yet to gain a Super Rugby cap, the clamour for his rapid ascension up the ranks is somewhat understandable.

“I try not to read too much into stats, but I’ll take that as a positive!” laughs Gordon when I run the figures by him. “But I do think the NRC is very important for people like myself who’ve played Shute Shield for a number of years. It’s that stepping stone between club rugby and Super Rugby, and it’s a chance to pitch yourself against the best of both to know where you’re standing.

“Perth had Ian Prior at 9 and Jonno Lance at 10 on Saturday, and they were up against myself and Tayler Adams, both Shute Shield players. So, to put that many points on a quality side littered with Super Rugby players, was a real positive.”

Click here to see Gordon in full flight against Perth Spirit

His head coach at the Eagles, Darren Coleman, is under no illusions as to the quality of the player he currently has at his disposal. The former Eastern Suburbs head honcho, who will lead Warringah in 2017, is just glad to have him on his side for a change.

“I saw him score a lot of tries against us when I was at Easts!” laughs Coleman ruefully. “But for mine, he was the best player in the Shute Shield last year. I know he didn’t win the Catchpole Medal, and all due respect to Will (Miller) who had a great season, but he’s the number one danger man in the competition and I was excited to get the chance to coach him.

“Saturday’s game against Perth was the first time he’s actually come off the field. We’ve not carried a specialist halfback on the bench and we shifted Tayler (Adams) in from 10 because he can play 9 comfortably, but it’s more along the lines that I just think Jake is so far ahead of every other halfback, not only in our squad, but in the comp.

“If he’s not in the top ten halfbacks in the country – therefore either starting or on the bench in Super Rugby – then, I just don’t know. The challenge for the Waratahs is going to be keeping him, he’s been outstanding.”

Jake Gordon_Sydney Uni v Norths_2016_AJF

Gordon bagged 15 tries as he played a pivotal role in leading Sydney Uni to the Shute Shield grand final – Photo: AJF Photography

The nature of the NRC certainly lends itself to Gordon’s game. His fitness levels, pace and ability to assess a situation or opportunity quicker than most and play what’s in front of him, are obvious boons in a competition where the rules have been tweaked in favour of promoting entertainment. But he doesn’t see it as a million miles away from what he’s been trying to attain at Sydney University in recent years, particularly under the auspices of a club coach who has been putting all his efforts into honing the skill sets required to be a dominant scrumhalf in the modern game.

“To be honest, I haven’t found the transition too difficult,” he admits. “Both Uni and the Eagles are based on speed of possession, and skills under fatigue has been a massive focus point in both teams too. I find with the NRC that it’s such a quick game and the backfield is working so hard, that there’s plenty of space there and teams are starting to notice that. There’s so much space around the park and it’s such an open game that the kicks that worked against Spirit really come into play.

“I feel I’ve really benefited from the year with the Waratahs, training day-in, day-out with some of the best players in the world has been a treat. But a man to mention who has really helped me this year is Sydney Uni assistant coach Garrick Cowley, who has put in endless amounts of time helping me with my game.

“He’s a kiwi-born halfback who had some playing time over in the UK, really understands the game, and has genuinely just got a smart rugby brain. He’s worked with me on my kicking, game control and recognising space in attack. He’s probably my harshest critic and reviews my games thoroughly but to be fair, he still has a better kick than me!”

Still humble, still learning, and still with a long way to go. But if his performance curve of the last two seasons continues it’s upward trend, I’ve a feeling the name of Jake ‘Flash’ Gordon is one that will become very familiar to Australian rugby fans over the next few years.

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First published by Rugby News on: Sep 27th, 2016

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