The Penrith Project Part One: “You know what, let’s go for it!”
Photo: Ula Martin
There is an inevitable sense of déjà vu as I sit down to write this piece. Trying to put together as positive a story as possible on Penrith – in spite of their parlous position at the foot of the Shute Shield ladder, their lack of wins on the board, lack of players through the grades, lack of sponsors, and lack of money as a result – is a challenge I have taken up pretty much every year I have been covering Sydney club rugby.
It started in 2008 and 2009, and chats with then coach Jarred Hodges and captain Luke Williams. The Emus actually won a couple of games in both seasons, finishing in 11th and above Southern Districts in ’09, but just behind local rivals Parramatta a year later. However, both seasons also saw the concession of over 1000 points.
2010 can now be considered a landmark year for the club given their recent generic struggles. Such was incoming head coach Matt Briggs’ impact, particularly in garnering a gnarly and combative forward pack with a pretty handy scrum, that the Emus won five games, and Briggs was named Shute Shield Coach of the Year. But it still wasn’t enough to lift them any higher than 11th.
Briggs went round again in 2011 and 2012, and led the side to three more wins in both seasons, but they just couldn’t get away from that dreaded wooden spoon. In came former player and Tongan legend, Teki Tuipulotu, and if results were measured by his heart and passion for the club alone, Penrith would have made the finals every year of Teki’s three seasons in charge. But despite improvements in 2014, when a host of league ‘mercenaries’, to use Teki’s words, came on board for a year, he still walked away at the end of 2015 with his pride intact at his efforts in the face of adversity, but with the stark realisation of only two wins and a draw from 54 matches, and an avalanche of 2,878 points against.
The nadir came when all four grades went down by a combined 454-0 to Eastwood, a scoreline that brought renewed calls for the club to be cut loose, and drew the attentions of former Wallaby hooker Jeremy Paul, who put his hand up for the poisoned chalice for 2016. Cue another ‘Is this the man to turn things around?’ style article from myself, and positive words from Paul about his intentions to stay for at least two years, and the club’s realistic finals ambitions down the track.
The result? Played 18 Won 0 Drew 0 Lost 18 For 181 Against 1137 – and Paul deciding that maybe Nepean Rugby Park wasn’t the best place to further his coaching career.
And so here we are again, with another season ticking away, a new coaching regime in place, and the Emus bottom of the ladder with no wins. Indeed, July 19th will mark three years to the day since 1st grade were last able to belt out the team song. So why, in the face of such damning historical evidence, do I have a sneaky suspicion there is something a little bit different going on this time around at the foot of the mountains?
It’s half-time on a bitterly cold Thursday night in the western suburbs, and Penrith are leading Norths 14-12 in a catch-up midweek game. Yes, bottom of the table Penrith, with no wins in almost three years, are two points up on the reigning Shute Shield Premiers! But while I am still adjusting to the shock of the scoreline, to the seemingly zero degree temperatures and the paucity of floodlights at Grantham Reserve in which the game is being played, the Shoremen run in three quick-fire tries in the first five minutes of the second half, and the dream of a landmark victory for the hosts, and a major scoop for myself, disappears into the Blacktown gloom.
But while the final score of 57-14 looks pretty one-sided on paper, ask any of the Norths boys who were involved that night if they did it easily. Penrith’s set-piece stood up – their scrum in particular was a nuisance; they certainly didn’t shirk the physical challenge thrown down by the Premiers; in flyhalf James Faiva they had a pivot who could actually orchestrate a gameplan, execute a kicking game when required, and provide a decent exit strategy under pressure; and they had the look of a side that knows how to score points.
Take a look at the Shute Shield ladder alone, and you may well paint a recurring picture in your head about the travails of yet another struggling Penrith. But delve a little deeper beyond the win, lose and draw, and you’ll see a steady progression taking place. Results of 76-5 (twice) and 78-0 in the early weeks of the season, have gradually been replaced by 52-21 (vs Sydney Uni), 26-20 (vs Parramatta), 59-14 (vs Easts), 52-26 (vs Manly) and 71-26 (vs Randwick).
Yes, they are all losses, and yes, there is still an average concession of 52pts per match in those five games. But there is also an average of just over 21pts in the right direction. Compare that with last season, where their average scoreline was a 63-10 defeat, and the Emus have improved by just over 10pts at both ends of the field, meaning they are able to compete for longer with some of the better teams in the comp, pose a genuine threat to the middle third if they are not on their game, and are nurturing an unwanted headache for those sides just above them on the ladder as each week of the season passes.
So when I catch up at full-time with the 2017 coaching think tank of ex-Wallaby utility back Julian Huxley – in his first head coaching role – and ex-Sydney Uni and Waratah loose forward Liam Winton – returning to his local club after a seven year hiatus – their satisfaction with the effort their boys had put out there against last year’s champions, if not the end result, was understandable.
“I think we’ve now gotten to the point where we believe we can win, and I think tonight we got in that position during the game and then we thought about winning, rather than the things that had put us in that position,” observes Huxley. “In terms of ‘How do you get to those wins?’, sometimes, there’s no other way of doing that than to stuff it up and to learn from it. So that next time they’re in that position they can say ‘This is the road we take now, there’s no need for excitement, it’s time to get ruthless and up the intensity on the basics that have gotten us here’.
“It’s great that we’re having those learning lessons in games, because to be 14-12 up against the Premiers – and that’s the best team Norths have fielded all year – that’s a fantastic 40 minute performance. It’d be pretty close to the best half of footy they’ve put out there this year, definitely in terms of attitude and the enthusiasm and the chat, and the beauty of it was that they weren’t playing above themselves, they were just doing what they can do, very well. We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back for it because we want to win, but that was a very good Norths side, and if we can put ourselves in that position against a side like that, we’re not far off.”
“It’s plain to see that we’re gradually getting there,” adds Winton. “Against a Manly team that hadn’t lost a game at that point, we were only 19-14 down at half-time as well, but a big thing for the group that we’ve got is that they just don’t have the belief. That’s something that ‘Hux’ and myself are trying to drive. What’s the point in going out there if you don’t think you can win the game? But sometimes we play like that, and it’s a big mental thing for us to get across.
“The difference is that first five minutes after half-time, where we conceded three quick tries. That happens and then guys start questioning themselves again, they lose that belief and they start going away from what was working for us. We were turning them around, pumping them and forcing mistakes, but then we started putting silly little kicks in and going away from our structure.
“I played my first grade game back in 2006, and there has been no game since for either Penrith or Uni, that I have ever stepped out onto the field and thought ‘We can’t win’, because otherwise, what’s the point? If you go out there and you think the guy opposite you is better than you, he’s already beaten you. These boys have got all the talent in the world, and if they can get that belief in their head that the opposition isn’t better than them, they’re unstoppable. It’s a cultural thing and it’s a mental shift that needs to happen within the group. There’s patches of it, like that first half tonight where one through fifteen, they thought ‘We’re better than these guys’ and the scoreline at half-time showed that we were.”
The two coaches offer up an intriguing balance. As a player, Huxley was the fulcrum of the Brumbies, Reds and Rebels backlines for several years, and would have donned the green and gold jersey on more than nine occasions had he not been struck down by a brain tumour in his prime at the age of just 28-years-old. Thankfully, he fought through to make a full recovery, incredibly returning to Super Rugby just two years later before hanging up the boots in 2013. Still only 37, he was bitten by the coaching bug a couple of years ago, and had been learning his craft as an assistant with both Warringah in the Shute Shield, and the North Harbour Rays in the NRC, before taking the plunge with the Emus.
Winton meanwhile, was a hard-nosed, old-school enforcer with adept lineout skills, who shone brightly in 80-plus games for a struggling Penrith team in the late 2000’s, and spent a couple of years as a member of the Brumbies squad in 2010-11 as a result. Returning to Sydney, he won two Premierships with the Students in 2012-13, and earned his one and only Super Rugby cap for the Waratahs in 2013, before successive long-term injuries seemingly curtailed his playing career and forced a shift into the coaching ranks and a season as assistant with Sydney Uni’s 2nd grade in 2016.
Both come at their current roles from different angles and perspectives, but both have the same drive to succeed where others have failed.
“I’d been an assistant at a couple of places, I’m not short of an opinion on things and I really wanted to run a program and do it the way I believe rugby should be played,” says Huxley. “And not just the rugby, but around the club and the atmosphere at the club based on what I’ve experienced in the game, and what rugby has given to me and my life outside of it. I’d thrown my hat in the ring at a couple of other places and then the Penrith opportunity came up and I thought ‘You know what, let’s go for it!’
“I wouldn’t say the job has been harder than I imagined it would be, I knew it was going to be tough. But at certain times it’s very, very rewarding. Those times can be a bit few and far between but they keep you going and keep the spirits up when they do come along. I’m good at hanging in there – it’s kind of the way I’ve learned to do things in life – and rugby taught me that. I made my Wallaby debut at 28 and then got brain cancer and came back from it, and it was the rugby career that gave me the life lessons to get through the brain cancer. That’s why I feel so strongly about rugby. I love it and how much it can give you, and you don’t realise that until something hits you that you have to deal with in life and you think ‘I learnt all these lessons from playing footy’.”
“Initially, I came here saying ‘We’re here to win, and we’re aiming for a half a dozen victories this year’ and all that sort of stuff,” he continues. “But it’s a rollercoaster Penrith. Just when you think ‘Wow, we’re not getting anywhere, they go and produce a first half of football like they did tonight. When you’ve got to teach guys the game and teach them about performance levels and setting themselves goals and trying to work towards something, then it is a journey, and you’ve just got to keep pushing, whether you’re at the top of the rollercoaster or the bottom.
“People have noticed some good things about us this year, but whilst we appreciate that we want to win, and we’ve got to keep pushing for that. But I just couldn’t be prouder of all of our boys, because some of the life situations and support and resources that they’ve had around their rugby ,are so much less than probably every other club, other than Parramatta and West Harbour. They’ve come a bloody long way in a short time and that’s been very rewarding. So when people say it is a thankless task to come out here, it depends what you’re in it for. If you’re in it for the pats on the back then it’s not the right job for you. If you’re in it for the right reasons, which is about the boys and trying to establish a community and give people that connection and belonging that rugby can give, when that happens, that’s better than any wins.”
For 31-year-old Winton, his return to his roots came with a desire to give something back to the club where it all began, while attending to the demands of a family life that he admits had been somewhat put on the back-burner by his desire to play footy to the highest standards he could reach. What he most certainly hadn’t envisaged, was dusting off the boots and pulling on the black and gold jersey once again.
“I had a pretty shocking run with injuries at Uni,” he explains. “In 2014 I did my knee in the first game and was out for the season, then came back for only six games and got some nerve damage in my shoulder and the doctors advised that it was probably time to hang them up, so I coached at Uni for a year. But I’ve got a young family now, and I want to support my wife a bit more. I’ve always lived in Kingswood, which is only five minutes from Nepean Rugby Park, so I was commuting to Uni four nights a week for training and that takes a toll on the family. I wanted to give back to them and still be involved in rugby, and I’ve always had it in my mind that I wanted to come back to Penrith.
“Originally, I was just going to come back in a coaching capacity but we were a bit short of numbers by the time we got to round one against Gordon, so I ended up with the boots on. Unfortunately, I did my hammy in the warm-up, and then played 80 minutes in third gear! It’s fair to say that that was probably down to the fact that I hadn’t done enough preparation in pre-season, because I didn’t think I was playing. But now I’ve put a bit more work in I think I’m back to about 80% of what I used to be able to offer. And of course, I’m very grateful that my wife is allowing me to go around again, because without her support, I couldn’t do it.
“A win would be nice, I’m not going to lie! But the boys are making improvements week to week. Our challenge to get better is to get a bit more professional about how we train, starting with getting the boys to training, because it’s hard to make them better if they don’t turn up. That’s a culture that’s been at the club for years, it wasn’t so bad when I first played here but I’ve heard from other players that it has gone downhill since around 2010. It got better for a couple of years under Briggsy (Matt Briggs) but when he left, and we lost a lot of sponsorship and couldn’t pay the players, a mass exodus happened.
“But the boys we have this year don’t get paid a cent. They’re here because they love the club and they love the rugby, and we’re just trying to get around them and encourage them as much as we can. Hopefully, they have some fun and they want to come back next year. I’ve actually been in Cliffy Palu’s ear for the past couple of months to see if he’ll come and have a run around. He only lives 10 minutes away and he actually came to training a couple of months ago, and guys like that, even if he didn’t play, the influence he can have on the Polynesian boys we have would be huge. I also want to try and talk to Kurtley Beale when he comes back because he’s from Mount Druitt and has no ties with Randwick really! If we can get guys like that around the club, it would create a bit more of a profile, which might help us draw a few more players in.”
In Part 2, Huxley and Winton talk more about how they are trying to create a winning mentality; the issues with lower grade numbers and the SRU’s decision to cut a 4th grade side and make 3rd grade non-competitive; some of the players helping to lead Penrith out of the wilderness; the work going on behind the scenes to ensure the future of the club; and whether they can snag that elusive win this season!