United Eagles flying the Country flag in style
Photo: AJF Photography
When the ARU put out an official request for interested parties ahead of the inaugural NRC back in 2014, a bid from New South Wales Country to be a part of the new third-tier competition was, I think most right-minded Australian rugby fans would agree, a welcome prospect.
The idea of taking a team of players who – for the most part – hail from outside the big city, around the state in a roving rugby charabanc, was an enticing proposition on many levels. For those players passionate about representing their roots; for the country rugby supporters too often ostracised from the game through their perceived geographical handicap; and as a way of recognising just how important the contribution of country players has been – and will continue to be – for the Australian game.
But ask any of those involved in putting together that initial bid if they believed that not only would they be accepted into the new competition, but that their fledgling Eagles would be playing host to a home grand final in Tamworth just three years later, and I’m sure even they would agree that that may have been a pipe dream unlikely to be fulfilled within 25 matches of their future existence.
And yet it’s been a minor success story. As it currently stands, only Brisbane City, who lifted the Buildcorp NRC trophy aloft in years one and two, have a better winning percentage in the competition’s short history than the Eagles, with 20 wins from their 27 matches giving them a 74% success rate.
Ahead of tonight’s showdown – or should that be hoedown – in the country music capital of Australia, the Eagles have triumphed in 17 of their 25 matches over the same time period. That’s a 68% winning ratio that rubber stamps the consistency head coach Darren Coleman and his rolling staff have been able to produce from an admittedly considerable batch of talent.
“I was actually interested in that stat because I knew with City’s poor season and our own good one this year, I thought we might have edged up on them,” admits Coleman when I ran the numbers by him earlier this week.
“Something I know we’re proud of is that we’re eight and zero against the other New South Wales teams in that time too. But that stat is a pretty good rap of what we’ve been able to achieve over the last three years. That’s one of the reasons we went into the game against Melbourne Rising last weekend with a fair degree of confidence, because consistency is key, it’s what gets you out of a 16-nil deficit. You can’t manufacture it at a training run, your record is your record, and that’s a stat I’m pretty proud of for sure.”
They actually went pretty close in year one, a terrific debut season that saw the Eagles finish second on the regular season ladder, before bowing out to the eventual champions Brisbane City in a see-sawing semi-final in Gosford. Year two was a step backwards, with a side transitioning from the loss of some of the older heads that had steadied the ship the previous season, guys like Stephen Hoiles and Mitch Chapman, to a squad bristling with new but relatively naïve young talent, finishing one point outside the finals.
So what has been the key to their successful run to the big dance this time out?
“We had a pretty strong roster in the first year but this would be the strongest, no doubt,” offers Coleman. “And then having that roster and keeping them injury-free is a massive rap to our strength and conditioning and medical people, who have been awesome to work with and very professional with their job. I think that bar the Wallabies, Tolu [Latu] and Tom [Robertson], only Ned Hanigan would be in the 23 that isn’t this week, and that was a freak accident with an ankle twist under a tackle.
“So, a strong roster combined with keeping them on the field has been the biggest thing, that and everybody buying in when we had our first team meeting. There were some key words used, and the ‘no big dogs’ ideal with the Wallabies or Super Rugby players making sure they mixed well with the 19-year-old club guys. Everyone has bought into that and away from the field, it’s been a really enjoyable group to hang out with.”
Culture is a key ingredient in most team sports. But in a competition that has a post-Shute Shield grand final, pre-opening round pre-season of just three weeks, it takes on a paramount importance. When you also factor in the challenge of immersing players from the now defunct Sydney Stars – all of whom also represent Sydney University – into a group containing a healthy mix of Eastern Suburbs and Randwick footballers, who may traditionally set aside their own differences in the face of a common historical enemy in the Students, the task of bringing all and sundry together under one big happy umbrella was even greater.
“I think one of the strengths of the Eagles over the last three years has been the culture or spirit that we’ve fostered. But you’d have to be an idiot not to say that some of those Stars boys we picked up are Super Rugby quality players, which definitely helps,” says Coleman.
“People dislike Uni because they’re successful, no other reason. But what was interesting was session one, where the boys were standing around before it started and the Easts and Randwick guys, who have been together for two or three years, were socialising and passing to each other, and the Uni/Stars guys were by themselves. I have a photo of it on my phone somewhere and I’ll bring it out again at some point to show these guys how far they’ve come together. They’re one team now.
“They would have meshed anyway at some point but you’ve got to speed the process up,” he continues. “You create opportunity and facilitate events, whether that’s social or teamwork, or people talking about themselves in the group, and I’d like to think that one of my strengths is making guys believe in a team unit and feel a part of a team unit. Once you do that, and put guys in situations where they’re forced to get to know each other, that’s when they tend to say ‘He’s not such a bad bloke and I enjoy being around him’.”
Surrounding himself with a coaching team of impressive credentials in current Randwick head coach Shannon Fraser, former Randwick and NSW Country coach Mark Giacheri, and former Scotland flyhalf Dan Parks, is a strategy that has paid handsome dividends for Coleman.
“You always learn and you’d like to think you get better but – and maybe it’s a reason why we’re going so well – I probably coach a lot less with this group,” he explains with a smile.
“I’ve got three really high quality assistant coaches and I’ve got a lot of Super Rugby caps and experience within the playing group, so I think my role is more as a facilitator, getting all those people on the same page, than it is coming up with any unique strategies or whatever. If there’s anything I’ve done better than with other teams, I’ve probably man-managed a little better, and managed the staff and the leaders in the team better than before.”
But despite having put together a squad and staff seemingly capable of achieving great things, Coleman was pleasantly surprised with how well they clicked from day one. Handed a daunting opening trio of games against the reigning champions City, and two of the pre-competition favourites in the UC Vikings and Melbourne Rising, the way in which they overcame all three opponents – in particular the 60-28 demolition job on the Vikings – was proof to themselves and the rest of the competition that they had what it takes to go all the way.
“To be honest, I thought that if we could be one out of three from those opening games, I thought we could then launch a shot for the play-offs,” the coach admits. “But we recalibrated our goals pretty quickly after those first three wins.
“I said to the group after the Vikings game that if that match did one thing for us despite the five competition points, it gave us belief. We know that when we’re on and we’re getting front-foot ball, that we’ve got enough skilful footballers that the points are going to come.”
Which was an ability they needed to call upon when they faced Rising again in last week’s semi-final in Newcastle. Down 16-0 after only seven minutes, an intercept from the effervescent Sam Figg got them in the game, and from there, there only looked like being one winner.
“Being down 16-0 so early was a bit worrying, and not exactly what I asked them to do,” laughs Coleman. “I kind of figured that their [Rising] confidence could be a little shoddy on the back of their regular season form, so we wanted to start well. But what we did was perfectly against the plan!
“However, the composure they showed in that period after the two tries was very pleasing, and the feedback I got from our runners and coaches on the field was that everyone was composed and focused on what they had to do next. Obviously, the Sam Figg intercept was a big momentum shift, and we went on and scored six unanswered tries, which was very impressive.”
And brings us to Tamworth.
After three years of taking the Eagles brand to as many points on the country compass as possible, playing games in Lismore, Orange, Dubbo, Gosford and Newcastle, they pitch up in the ‘First City of Lights’ once again for their biggest game yet at Scully Park.
It’s also a fitting venue considering it is the birthplace of NSW Waratahs prop, and proud Eagles captain, Paddy Ryan. Such is the affection from the Ryan family for the NSW Country cause, and the joy at seeing their prodigal son return to play on home turf, that Paddy’s Mum cooked for the entire squad when they turned up in town to play Melbourne Rising in round four!
One of the influx of Sydney Stars that have brought so much to the table this year, Ryan’s presence is a case of third time lucky for his coach.
“We’d never really met before this campaign,” reveals Coleman. “He knocked back my original two offers to join the Eagles as a country boy, and he originally knocked back the captaincy this year. But now we chat daily on how we can facilitate good times and deliver consistent messages that don’t contradict. I’ve learnt a lot from him.”
When I innocently enquire if the coach himself has a country background, the pride and manner of his response is enough to confirm that his role with the Eagles involves a more personal commitment than simply coaching a rugby team.
“Bloody oath I do! I was born and raised in a little coastal town called South West Rocks, I played for Country as an 18, 19 and 20-year-old before I came to Sydney to try my luck, and all my brothers played Country rugby. At different times, I’ve had coaching roles with Country at U19’s and U21’s, and I was a young development officer learning the ropes, so I have a strong association with it.
“Tamworth is a big rural centre. It’s got two big rugby clubs there and a bunch surrounding it, and there’s no other footy on this weekend. You can go and watch the Bledisloe match before the final on the big screens at Scully Park, which is one of the top rural football facilities with a great grandstand and a ground that holds about 6-7,000. I don’t want to be overly optimistic but geez, I’d love it if they could fill it.”
He also has a less than happy memory from a previous visit to the same venue in a former life.
“It’s a great little stadium Scully Park, although, I actually dislocated my shoulder there in 1993 playing for Country against Scotland. The Country coach at the time was a certain Chris Hickey (yes, he of Eastwood and Waratahs fame), and he had to drive me home. Luckily, I was living in Byron Bay and going to Uni at Lismore and Chris was living in Ballina, so it wasn’t too far out of his way!”
A coaching career that has taken in stints with three different Shute Shield clubs in Penrith, Northern Suburbs and Easts (he starts planning for 2017 with his fourth, Warringah, after the NRC), as well as gigs overseas in Japan, Italy and Canada, has given Coleman a pretty broad palate of ideas and experience to call upon as he looks to guide his current side to glory.
He has already tasted success at this level in Australia before, assisting John McKee – now doing great things with Fiji – as the Central Coast Rays lifted the one and only ARC trophy back in 2007. But as much as matching that achievement with the Eagles this evening would be a personal milestone, it is the positive impact it could have on country rugby, and the justified reward it would represent for those who have played such an important role in the journey of the Eagles franchise, that would give the coach the greatest pleasure.
“If we won, it would not only be good to reward this bunch of guys in the playing group, it would also reward guys like Jimmy Grant and our investors, Peter Tonkin and Rick Hutchinson,” says Coleman. “They sat down three years ago to have a vision of a team that played in a national comp and travelled around the bush to play their games. So I would imagine those guys would get a whole lot of satisfaction if this were to happen in year three – especially for it to take place in a country location.
“You’d like to think a win would give country rugby a boost. We love taking our games to the bush but one of the negatives is that because we’re moving around so regularly, we don’t get that core group of followers that come to every match, so that’s a little tricky. We’ve definitely built up a bit of an association with Tamworth. This will be our third game there and that’s the most we’ve played anywhere in our three years, and there’s genuinely a good buzz when we go up there. We really want to make sure that the people get out and support it.”
Standing in their path are a team that weren’t exactly looking likely title contenders when they went down 48-24 to the Eagles at Concord Oval in round five, although, that scoreline did flatter their hosts somewhat. Defeat left Perth Spirit with only two wins to their name, but their form since that day in dispatching Brisbane City, the UC Vikings, and the Sydney Rays – racking up 144pts in the process – has been pretty darn impressive. But then, there is a precedent here.
“They’re good, they’ve been the quiet achievers in this comp,” warns Coleman. “They’re probably equal, or close to, Melbourne in terms of the number of Super Rugby talent they have, and they’ve been getting closer to fielding that team in the run to the final. Before, they were probably rolling out 10 or 11 contracted guys, now they’re able to roll out 19 or 20 in their 23 so they’ve got talent.
“If I’ve made an observation, I think it is that they seem to build culturally as their season goes on. Every year they’ve warmed to their task and I know they’ve got this little nickname, the ‘Perth Pigs’ going on, and knowing a few of their coaches I think they’ve got a really strong team spirit. We’ve prided ourselves on having a strong team spirit but this weekend, we’ll be coming up against a team that’s comparable in that aspect.
“That scoreline at Concord was misleading,” he affirms. “We got a couple there at the end, we scored quite a few long-range ones, and that was the infamous ‘Jake Gordon Day’ where no-one could touch him. I’d say if Rugby League Week were still doing their ratings that’d be the closest you’d get to a 10, he was unbelievable.
“Perth thrive on physicality, and that starts from their scrum and their maul, and through to their breakdown with guys like [Ross] Haylett-Petty and [Brynard] Stander, big physical guys. [Onehunga] Havili, [Richard] Hardwick and [Heath] Tessman are really strong on the ball, and if you look at their 10, 12, 13 – Jonno [Lance], [Ben] Tapuai and [Billy] Meakes, they’re all big, physical players. Perth keep standing up and keep getting better and they’re peaking at the right time.”
So, we’ve got our grand finalists sorted, a trip to the beating heartland of country rugby for the venue, and whatever happens, a new name to be engraved on the Buildcorp NRC trophy. The only question is – has Mrs. Ryan got enough food???
Bring your akubras…
Original version published by Rugby News on October 21st, 2016