The Penrith Project Part Two: “You don’t get wins by chasing wins…”

Photo: Ula Martin

It’s one thing to put your hand up for a coaching gig when you hang up the boots, it’s quite another to make a decent fist of it. Time and again you see ex-players strolling straight into a mentoring role, at all levels of the game, as if it was merely a rudimentary extension of their on-field career. But more often than not it is a position for which they are wholly unsuited, totally unprepared for, and leads to a quick-fire disappearance from the game before they’ve even started.

When Julian Huxley decided to come back to rugby and dip his toes into the coaching pool to see how it felt, he wisely chose to slip gently into the shallow end of club footy, where he could afford to make some mistakes and still find his feet, rather than leaping straight into the deep end of Super Rugby and beyond, where it doesn’t take much for the inexperienced learner to drown. But a footy life where his talents meant he got to rub shoulders with some of the best players and coaches in the world, doesn’t necessarily translate into guiding a team with little confidence and belief, off rock bottom.

Following our first conversation after the gallant loss to Northern Suburbs a fortnight ago, I caught up with ‘Hux’ and his assistant coach/captain Liam Winton again earlier this week to check on the side’s continuing progress, the win that almost was against Gordon last weekend, and this afternoon’s potentially drought-breaking clash with Parramatta at Nepean Rugby Park. But we started with the difficulties of instilling professional attitudes into amateur players.

“There’s rugby knowledge and there’s rugby nous,” opens Huxley. “I went to King’s College, and in the 16 A’s there I had Rob Edgerton coaching me, a World Cup winning Wallaby, so you don’t realise what an apprenticeship you are getting at such a young age. We’re trying to make up a lot of that ground with a lot of kids that probably haven’t played rugby the way that I’ve learnt it, particularly around discipline and working as a team. Some of that is the technical stuff around field positioning, and you saw against Norths that we conceded three quick tries just like that off a tiny lapse, and there’s 19 points. So part of it is concentration, and part of it is learning that that is how you’ve got to play footy across time. The same approach has to go into your preparation from Monday to Saturday, you’ve got to get the body moving again. But a lot of these clubs are training three or four nights a week and we’re doing two.

“To a certain extent, this role has been a bit outside the comfort zone for me because I learnt my footy at the Brumbies, where we used to play three or four phases ahead and were organised because we knew what we were doing. If you try to do that here, you’d be gone, so you have to adjust and give these guys some structure, but keep it simple and play it on the run. Yes, the attack has been pleasing, but I’m sure the developments next year might be even more pleasing, but we’re scoring points, which is good. The next challenge is defence, where it is not just a systems thing, it’s about that prolonged concerted attitude across the game. That’s been a bit of a slower progression than we would have liked, and I think I’ve got to devote a bit more training time into getting that up to speed.”

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Julian Huxley is enjoying a challenging first year as a head coach – Photo: SPA Images

Returning to the issues around training, an area Winton was concerned about in Part One, getting these boys to turn up in the first place in order to instil the basic tenets of the game, before you can even begin to embellish them, is a persistent problem. And to this end, it seems that the SRU’s (Sydney Rugby Union) decision to cull Penrith’s 4th grade side for 2017, and to make their 3rd grade matches non-competitive – as in, they are not played for competition points – has actually had an adverse effect. Good intentions towards player welfare and a desire to do the right thing by the club by not stretching their diminished resources, have actually brought about an unintentional apathy that has proved to be damaging.

“It’s a really good core bunch of guys that are committed,” explains Winton. “The training numbers for 1st grade are really good, but when we get to our lower grades, especially in 3rd grade, with the SRU’s decision for us not to play for points this season, you get guys asking ‘What’s the point?’

“I think we could have easily accommodated three grades, but if you’re playing Randwick at Coogee Oval in 3rd grade, a guy isn’t going to travel and hour and 20 minutes both ways to play a class side with nothing to play for. They’re competitive guys and they want to play for points, so that doesn’t really help us. They then don’t come to training, which filters up into 2nd grade, and those guys have struggled as a result, so it’s been really tough. I can see where the SRU were coming from but it’s hurt us a bit. But I guess, at the end of the day, if we start winning games and become a more attractive place to be, that’s when guys are going to be more committed, so it’s up to us.”

Of those players that are buying into the new regime and kicking on, Winton names a few that have had a major impact on the club’s steady progress across the season.

“Flyhalf James Faiva has changed our game remarkably. He’s come across from New Zealand where he was playing club rugby in Auckland, and he’s got a good boot on him and that makes a massive difference for us. In the first six or seven weeks before he arrived, we didn’t have anyone to kick the footy down the field, so we were always under pressure. But if I’m looking at guys that have been here since November last year, we’ve got a prop in Richie Vaihu who is currently doing a weights program with the Waratahs and getting some exposure to that level. He’s 21-years-old, in his first year out of colts, but he scrummages really well, carries really well and has got immense potential.

“Manny Fuamatu, I reckon, is the best tighthead in the comp scrummaging-wise. I’m a tighthead lock, and I’ve scrummaged behind a lot of props, and a lot of good props, and he’s by far the best one I’ve ever packed down behind. Technically he’s very good, but he’s just incredibly strong, he’s around 135-140 kilos and you can’t shift him. Looseheads always take the angle on him and try and cheat against him but to his credit, they can’t move him. He reminds me of Ben Tameifuna who used to play for the Chiefs.”

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The arrival of James Faiva from Auckland has taken the Emus game to another level Photo: Ula Martin

So we’re now talking about a side with a flyhalf who can get his side around the park, clear danger and create opportunities; who is working behind a set-piece and scrum that is giving him an increasingly stronger platform with which to conduct the orchestra; a defence that is improving slowly, and an attack that is starting to rack up some points. All ticks in the box marked ‘The right direction’ then.

But two weeks on from Norths, and two further losses to Warringah (56-12) and Gordon (36-30) – the latter a game they led 25-5 at one point before being agonisingly run down in the second half – and that elusive first win is still seemingly just out of reach. However, sometimes in sport, the result becomes largely irrelevant.

“The game against the Rats in round 12 was tough, not just because they are full of match winners, but because we felt that playing Warringah in their first game back after the tragic loss of Lachie Ward was a huge responsibility,” says Huxley. “We wanted to be particularly respectful knowing that it was an emotional time for them.

“We actually dominated the first 15 minutes of the game but couldn’t capitalise. The Rats boys then found their feet and were very good, and led 33-0 at half time. But we came out firing in the second half and I felt the scoreline of 23-12 after the break was a fairer reflection of how competitive we were on the day. The Gordon game was a reasonable performance from the team, although we were gutted not to get the win. Gordon stuck at it, came back into the game in the second half, and deserved it.”

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Manny Fuamatu is ‘The best tighthead in the Shute Shield’ according to Liam Winton. Photo: Ula Martin

“We played Warringah in round three and lost 76-5, so we’ve definitely improved,” states Winton. “We were down 33-0 at half time yet showed great determination in the second half against a team bringing on fresh reserves against our starting XV. So to lose that second half three tries to two was positive. Unfortunately, it was another game where we only really played to our ability for 40 minutes.

“Last week against Gordon hurt. We played some great footy and really controlled the game in the first half to be up 22-5 at the break. We extended our lead to 25-5 early in the second half and then just made some fundamental mistakes and let the floodgates open for 10-15 minutes. We fought hard and dug ourselves out of a hole but ran out of time. You could say we should have won, but at the end of the day we weren’t good enough for long enough.

“However, ‘Hux’ and I have taken this team from losing 66-24 at home to Gordon in round two, to coming within a whisker of beating them at Chatswood Oval – a team which is in finals contention. Sometimes we have to take a step back and look through the disappointment to see how far we’ve come.”

With only five games remaining in their 2017 Shute Shield season, the chances of Penrith claiming that landmark win, something truly tangible to highlight their progress this year, are fast diminishing. A look at the fixture list shows an unenviable three away trips to finish the season at Souths, Manly and Eastwood respectively, all sides chasing the title itself, let alone a place in the finals. But the next fortnight, beginning this afternoon with the visit of Parramatta, and followed by West Harbour a week later, looms as their best chance of ending the hoodoo.

While it is something that must be at the back of the player’s minds at least, Huxley is keen to play down the ‘history’ card and keep his young charges focused on everything they have been working on throughout the season, everything that has put them in the position where victory is now a viable outcome.

“You can be aware of it, but there’s not much you can do,” he reasons. “We’re in that situation and we’ve just got to keep pushing at the things that win games, and that is the basics, done very well, and for 80 minutes. That is our biggest challenge – putting together an 80 minute performance. Our best is competitive against the top teams in the competition but we pay dearly for our lapses. All of our boys have been in winning teams before and know how to win. We just have to focus on our roles with intensity for the whole game and the score will look after itself.

“You don’t get wins by chasing wins unfortunately, so I’ve got to keep hoping that the boys are picking up belief from putting some good football out on the field, and getting enthusiastic and enjoying that, and hopefully, that makes them double-down on the preparation they’re doing. Naturally, with a new coach and a new program it takes time for players to adapt, but also to form combinations. I would say we have improved our understanding of how we want to play, of what is required to win games, and we are preparing better for games now.

“Will we get a win? I can’t say that, but are we good enough to get a win? Bloody oath. It’s a matter of whether we’re able to get our approach right and stick to the game. No other club in history, has had our recent history, so it’s much more than just going out there to get a win or a loss. We haven’t won for three years, so there’s a bit more at stake. You could put half a dozen of the best players in the Shute Shield into our side and they’d still feel that pressure.”

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Richie Vaihu goes in against Gordon last Saturday. But it wasn’t enough to help the Emus to that elusive first win in almost three years – Photo: Ula Martin

“Winning is a habit – the more you do it the easier it becomes,” says Winton, a former Sydney Uni man who can speak from plenty of experience. “You learn how to execute skills under pressure and close games out. Whilst we’ve made significant improvements in a number of areas we still need to get better at a wide range of fundamental skills, which will give us opportunities to win games and win them often. We’ll learn from the positions we put ourselves in against Parramatta, Norths and Gordon this year, and get better so that when we are in those positions again there will be no ‘should have” or ‘could have’s’.

“It’s a big game anytime Penrith plays Parramatta, and the boys do seem to get up for it a bit more than other opponents. It’s also ‘Back to Penrith’ day so that adds to the occasion, and we’ll be looking to put in a good performance for our loyal supporters. I think we’re a remarkably better team than the one that took on Parra back in round seven, so hopefully we can do ourselves justice and put in a performance that we can be proud of.”

Whatever the outcome of the next five weeks, it is clear that the Emus are in the hands of two guys who are in it for the right reasons, and who intend on sticking around to see the fruits of their labours. The caveat to that is that it is something I have heard before from others, but local product Winton is certainly going nowhere, and while Huxley would freely admit that his long-term aspirations lie beyond the rescue mission of a struggling Shute Shield club, the blood, sweat and tears he has poured into Penrith this year, both on and off the field to fulfil a number of duties, have fostered the kind of emotional ties that are going to be extremely difficult to break.

“There’s no point doing this for one year, if you’re not going to do it for two,” Huxley offers. “If an offer came through that was way to good to refuse, it’s going to be a really difficult position to be put in. But at this stage, I can’t envisage any offer like that coming through and my absolute intent is to keep going with Penrith. I’m not the finished product, I’ve got lots to learn and I need to get better. But it’s great to learn that here, where you probably don’t have that spotlight that is on at Super Rugby level. You can learn and develop and when you do hit that level, you’ve got a lot of knowledge and you’ve made your mistakes.

“We’re doing a lot behind the scenes for next year. You live and learn as much as you can taking on a role like this, but behind the scenes, in terms of the strategy around how to move the club forward, we’ve done a lot of work on that. But that has taken a bit of attention off the rugby and I’d like to put more effort into the rugby program, and to be more hands-on coaching next year.”

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Needs must. Both coaches run out at Coogee Oval to take on Randwick – Photo: Ula Martin

“’Hux’ has been really good for Penrith because this is a serious challenge,” says Winton. “Mate, I’m telling you, if you brought the best coaches in Sydney club rugby out here, you bring John Manenti, Todd Louden, Simon Cron or whoever, with what ‘Hux’ is presented with, it’s a bloody difficult job! If you can’t get guys to training, how do you make them better? At Penrith, the 1st grade doesn’t just focus on 1st grade. He’s done that much admin, that much sponsorship driving, and that much off-field stuff, that he’s done a remarkable job.

“I’ve got aspirations as a coach as well, but coaching 2nd grade at Uni last year was a lot easier than doing this! ‘Hux’ isn’t going to be here forever but I’ll always live in Penrith, and I’d love to coach them myself one day because I’m passionate about this club, and I’m committed to making it work. That’s why I came back.”

The respect for each other is mutual.

“Liam has been incredible this year,” returns Huxley. “He didn’t intend on playing at the beginning of the year but when we needed a second rower for our first trial, he jumped in. I think he really enjoys playing at the moment, I get the feeling he’s not quite ready to give it up and just coach yet! I think his biggest contribution has been that he wears his heart on his sleeve and is deeply passionate. This has really helped bring those qualities out in those around him, and has been a big factor in how united the boys have become.

“Part of our learning curve this year has been lifting our communication on the field. It’s so important and is crucial to team performance. Liam has led that extremely well and we’ve seen other players, such as James Faiva, Paueli Halafihi, and Joseph Faoagali stepping up and starting to communicate more and lead the team around as well. It’s about pushing hard until you get to that tipping point where the guys believe that they can actually do something here. I think we’re reaching that point, and I think the guys are getting much more committed and preparing better, and it’s showing.

“I took a couple of years out of footy when I retired, so the best thing about doing this is that I’m back around something that I love,” Huxley concludes. “I didn’t realise everything I loved about rugby until I was away from the game – the camaraderie, the mateship and the community – you’ve got a connection to people. That’s the best thing about doing it and regardless of what happens, whether we save the club and move forward, or if it doesn’t work out or whatever, I wouldn’t regret a minute because I’ve made some friendships with some of the best people I’ve ever met in rugby.”

And in light of all the negativity currently surrounding our game; the brickbats thrown at the national side for losing to Scotland and failing to annihilate Fiji and Italy (despite the continuation of a blooding process of young talent that will bear fruit in the years to come); the seemingly endless Force and Rebels culling debacle; and the struggles of our Super Rugby sides to make any inroads into the domination by our ‘friends’ across the Tasman – in light of all that, doesn’t that closing statement from Huxley leave you with a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling about rugby for a change?

UP THE EMUS!!!

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