Resilient Woodies firmly in the mix, says Tom Hill
Tom Hill fires it wide against Penrith – Photo: Serge Gonzalez
Having won back-to-back Premierships in 2014 and 2015 to cement their recent dominance of the Shute Shield, there were some expectant eyes gazing upon Eastwood to complete the hat-trick before a ball was kicked last season. But at the same time, there was also a groundswell of opinion that suggested they may well struggle to hit the same heights without the services of retiring club stalwarts Hugh Perrett and Ben Batger, and while they oversaw the passing of the baton from John Manenti to able assistant Stu Woodhouse in the head coaches hot seat.
In the end, the fact that they only squeezed into the all-important top six on the last day of the season before going out in week one of the finals to Sydney University, suggests that the latter school of thought held sway. Indeed, their six losses in the regular season matched the number of defeats in both previous seasons combined, and were the most they had suffered in a single year since 2009. But speak to anyone in and around the club, and they’ll tell you that they really weren’t that far off another genuine title assault at all.
So when I asked bustling centre Tom Hill if the team felt they had to go out and answer a few critics this year, the response was probably an expected one.
“We dropped a couple of games that we wouldn’t have dropped in the past and had we won those, we would have been right up the top of the table,” he explained. “I think we played some really good footy last year in patches. I know I wasn’t there the whole time (Hill returned in round 11 from a professional stint in Italy), but I thought we were hitting our straps in the run-in, and in that game we lost to Sydney Uni, we had plenty of chances to win that as well.
“So I don’t think we were that far away and as a result, I don’t think there was a massive motivation to prove people wrong. It was more a case of getting back to the levels we know we can play at on a more consistent basis. Those years where we won the comp were some of the most enjoyable experiences any of us have had, and we want to experience that again. That’s our main motivation.”
After four rounds of the 2017 season, things were looking promising. Kicking-off with a potentially hazardous trip to Death Valley to face a Parramatta side that upset them both home and away last year, they got the job done with relative ease, before going on to dispatch Penrith, Eastern Suburbs and Warringah respectively, averaging 47pts per game, and all away from fortress TG Millner Field.
“We targeted that Parra game and spoke about it all through the pre-season, and there was a big focus on it from the coaches,” reveals Hill. “We won 37-10 and left some points out there, but I thought it was a really good performance. And the Warringah game was massive for us, especially to win up there because the Rats are pretty hard to beat on their own turf. We played well and things were going really well at that stage.”
Which is when the footy gods jumped in and decided it was all going a bit too swimmingly for their liking.
Eastwood’s first run-out in front of the home faithful was against Manly just over two weeks ago, another unbeaten side in the opening month, and one also looking to return to the top table under the guiding hand of former Woodies’ coach Brian Melrose. In a game that ebbed and flowed and momentum swung between the two heavyweight contenders, it was the visiting Marlins who came away with the chocolates, a late flurry turning a 20-16 deficit into an impressive 38-28 victory.
If that was certainly no disgrace, particularly at this early stage of the season with plenty of the stagger left to unwind, it was the following week’s humbling at the hands of West Harbour that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Facing a Pirates’ side with only one win in five to their name – and that coming against the side propping up the table in Penrith – hopes were high for a return to the winner’s circle. But the visitors had other ideas, and profiting from the platform laid by a virtuoso 26pt performance from flyhalf Tayler Adams, they ran away with matters in the second half to triumph 41-26.
“We put ourselves in a position to win both games,” rues Hill. “Manly was a see-sawing match. They’re a good team and we had opportunities to close it out, but we maybe lacked a bit of experience in those key moments. Against West Harbour, we were all over them early and let them back in the game. But credit to them, they played really well. They took their opportunities and took the points when they could and we didn’t, and Tayler Adams was awesome on the day.”
From the outside looking in, the seemingly obvious factor to explain these successive reversals was the absence of key playmaker Jai Ayoub. The experienced flyhalf, who was at the helm for both those Premierships in 2014/15, was a world away from leafy Marsfield on international duty with Croatia. And Hill, the man who stands one place outside him in the backline every week, couldn’t deny that his bountiful talents and calm game control wouldn’t have made a difference.
The unexpected twist in the tail here though, is that Ayoub suffered an unfortunate broken leg whilst representing the country of his mother’s heritage, and is out for the season. To make matters worse, hardworking flanker Rhys Allen – whose form over the last 12 months in both the Shute Shield and the NRC (for the Western Sydney Rams), had seen him create a blip on professional rugby’s radar, did an ACL against Wests, and is also a long-term absentee.
“I hate to say we were missing Jai but we were, and now we’re missing him for the rest of the season,” confirms Hill. “It’s devastating, not so much for the team but for him, and the same goes for Rhys Allen. He’s been playing so well and he might have had an opportunity to go to Super Rugby or head overseas, so to see that happen to him is pretty crap to be honest.”
To say they leave behind a giant-sized hole in Eastwood’s title challenge is an understatement. But as one door closes, another one opens, and standing behind door number 10 is a 22-year-old who may just be ready to pick up the ball marked ‘opportunity’ and run with it.
“It sucks but that’s footy and we have to move on, and Jai’s absence gives an opportunity for someone else like Jackson Bird, who is an Eastwood junior, has come through the grades, and bided his time for a chance,” says Hill.
“We’re obviously going to miss the direction and decision making that Jai brings to the table but ‘Birdy’ has all the skills to make that position his own now, and I thought he played really well against West Harbour. He’s still young but he’s only going to get better the more he plays in that position, and this is a real chance for him to step up.
“The best thing about ‘Birdy’ is he’s eager and hungry to learn so he’ll study the video with the help of the coaches and I have no doubt he’s going to keep improving. He can pass, he can kick – it’s just a matter of time and everybody else getting used to the way he plays. It must be a tough gig with people talking about Jai being out for the season, but all the boys are behind him.”
The young apprentice got his second bite at the cherry last Saturday, as a patched-up Woodies travelled to Coogee Oval to take on a Randwick side keen to cement their own Premiership credentials with victory over another potential challenger.
An early 10-3 lead for the visitors was reeled in by the Galloping Greens, who subsequently established a 14pt buffer with a dominant middle-third of the contest. But the way in which Eastwood fought their way back to force a 24-all draw, spoke volumes of the determination in the squad not to let the recent setbacks derail their season. It wasn’t quite the win they were after, but it could yet prove to be a pretty significant marker in the sand for the rest of 2017.
“It was a funny one,” says Hill. “I thought we started well, then obviously Randwick played well in the middle, but we came home strong. We defended well for most of the game and just had a couple of lapses at key times, which hurt us. But they’re a good side and we knew they had some points in them.
“It could’ve got ugly at 24-10 with 20 to go, especially with the Waratahs backs they had out wide. But we held the ball and stuck to our game, even if it was boring. It didn’t matter, we just had to control the ball.
“In the end it wasn’t a bad result and I was really pleased with how we came back in the last 20 minutes. We did some good things in the game and we were poor in other areas, which is frustrating and we just have to keep working at it. But the character we showed in that last 20 was awesome, and gives us something to build on. We showed we’ve got a lot of character and fight in this group.”
In a competition that is building towards being one of the closest run in recent history given the bevy of accomplished sides circling the final top six spots, any run of poor form is likely to leave you somewhat behind the eight-ball. But put aside the negatives – no wins in three and two major injuries – and the Woodies still find themselves in a pretty good space. Given their recent woes, third on the ladder after seven rounds will do nicely thankyou very much.
“Yeah it’s not a bad position to be in,” Hill agrees. “But it doesn’t get any easier with Souths this week and Norths the week after. We do have a great sense of belief in the group though. When we’re on I feel we can beat anyone, but the way it is these days there are no easy games and on their day, anyone can beat anyone.
“That makes it exciting, it’s great for the competition. But it just means we have to be on it every week – consistency is the key. It’s very much early days and we’ve got a lot of improvement in us, but third after seven weeks, it’s not a bad place to be.”
Having hit a speed bump in front of their own supporters against Manly and West Harbour, the desire to start winning at home is tangible – beginning with Souths this Saturday. Hill didn’t hesitate to issue a rallying call to his fellow troops, and to any disheartened followers.
“It’s a massive week next week. We were very disappointed after losing two games at home so we owe it to ourselves, and to the people who pay their 15 bucks to watch us each week, to put in a good performance. In the past, TG Millner has been a bit of a fortress and we’ve lost very few games there. It’s an epic place to play rugby and we’ve had some classic games against Souths over the last few years, so we’re hoping all the Woodies supporters can get out in force.
“We’ve still got the main core of the team, we’ve got guys in there who have been there and done it before and we’ve got really good coaches. There’s no shortage of talent, we’ve just got to put it out on the field and we don’t exactly have to go out there and reinvent the wheel, we’ve just got to back ourselves. The show goes on.”