Shute Shield: Hot Shots & Pie-Baggers – Season Wrap
We’re slap-bang in the middle of an intriguing finals series across all grades in Sydney club rugby, but the competition for leading try and points-scorers was settled after the regular season. Something of an anomaly in the Shute Shield was that the two guys that topped their respective charts – Tayler Adams of West Harbour (points) and Paula Balekana of Gordon (tries) – came from two sides that finished 8th and 10th respectively, which is some individual achievement.
For Adams, it was another season of progression as the kiwi flyhalf cemented himself as one of the standout kickers in the competition, and one of its leading lights in the no.10 jersey. Playing a giant role in getting his team around the paddock and creating plenty of scoring opportunities and assists, he also chipped in with seven tries of his own. But the 210pt haul from his right boot was a big reason why the Pirates went within a point of the finals.
“For me it’s just about knuckling it down, no matter whether I’ve missed one beforehand or I’ve kicked the last three, it’s just about following the same process,” he explained to Behind the Ruck. “You’re just worrying about kicking the ball and letting the rest take care of itself, but I think that comes with the confidence of my overall play. This year I’ve been allowed to play a lot more at the line and attack, and that extra involvement has given me confidence so that when the kicking comes in, that’s just the fun bit. That’s your individual role, something that you and only you can control, and that’s an enjoyable thing for me when it comes down to those moments.”
He has also had to contend with a revolving door of halves partners, a situation that doesn’t lend itself too much by way of continuity in the creative engine room. Since fellow countryman Wayne Ngaluafe picked up a nasty arm injury that ruled him out for the year back in round six, Adams has had to adjust to three more halfbacks in the remaining 12 games of the season. Far from ideal, but a situation that all concerned have dealt with fairly comfortably.
“Wayne was a big loss for us early in the season,” Adams confirms. “But we managed to get Nathan Lennan in and then Dion [Spice] came over as well, and it’s been the forwards helping those guys out as well as me. They’re great players in their own right so they know how to fit into a team and what they need to do. That’s been the biggest change for us, no-one is trying to overplay their hand, we just stick to our roles and it all gels together a bit easier.”
While the frustration remains at going so close to finals footy, there is understandable deep satisfaction at Wests about what they have managed to achieve this year. Seven wins in a row to finish off a season that included doubles over both Eastwood and Sydney University, and defeats of both Manly and Randwick in the closing fortnight, has left everyone at Concord Oval already looking ahead to 2018 with eager anticipation. But for some, including Adams, the year isn’t over yet.
“I think if we’d have made the finals we’d have had a red hot crack at it and been a real chance,” he muses. “There were a few doubters at the beginning, especially when we lost a couple that we shouldn’t have. But I think we’ve really proved – not only to people outside of the club, but to ourselves – that we are capable of great things.
“I’ll be back at the Eagles for the NRC again this year, so hopefully I can have a couple of weeks break and then rip into training with them, get back on the horse and have a good season and see where it goes from there.”
For an idea of Adams’ involvements at the Pirates this year, check out the video below of a try scored against Sydney University in round 12. He restarts with a cheeky grubber, gets back in place to feed a linebreak for his inside centre Ben Cotton, before pulling off an extravagant reverse pass off the floor after a slip, that gives fullback Kodie Drury-Hawkins the chance to open up numbers on the left flank that ends with a try for Kelly Meafua.
Behind Adams in the race for the Roscoe Fay Trophy were Sydney University sharpshooter Christian Kagiassis, who completed his first full season of Shute Shield footy with an impressive 215pts and seven tries to his name. Northern Suburbs’ steady hand on the tiller, Angus Sinclair, finished 3rd with 191pts as he guided his side into a shot at defending the Premiership title they won so memorably last season, while Randwick playmaker Andrew Deegan can depart these shores for a professional opportunity at Connacht (read here) with his head held high off the back of another fine year with the Wicks and a further 180pts.
It was almost a one-horse race in the try-scoring category. Gordon’s Paula Balekana started the season with a hat-trick of meat pies at Penrith, and barely missed a beat for the rest of the competition. He went on to cross the chalk 22 times – including three hat-tricks – and scored in 15 of his 18 games. He also made the most line breaks (27), the most tackle breaks (38), and the second most running metres (309) in the competition, and racked up a try against every other Shute Shield side in the process. So, a pretty phenomenal effort all round!
Given it was only the Fijian flyer’s second season in 1st grade, the statistics take on even greater resonance, but for the humble 24-year-old, it was all a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“Having the opportunity to score that many tries is a wonderful feeling, but my team mates all played a role in each and everyone of them,” he told Behind the Ruck. “It’s easy to put down the ball when the hard work has been done for you. Credit to our backs coach Michael Hayes and the players inside to provide good, quick ball.”
Taken on face value, Gordon’s 10th place finish only indicates a semblance of improvement from their 11th spot on the ladder in 2016. But a closer look at their numbers this year offers plenty of reason for optimism for a team still knitting together under the tutelage of first-year head coach Mark Philp.
They won six games compared to just two the previous year, scored a whopping 221 more points, and earned 15 bonus points – the 5th highest number across all 12 sides. While the defence will be an obvious priority for 2018, that ability to score almost 30 points a game is a handy weapon to have, and is a by-product of the Highlanders attacking ethos this season, built upon the handling skills, running lines and finishing prowess of Balekana and an influx of fellow Pacific Island talent.
“I think the Polynesian boys have brought their own style of footy, especially big Tala [Moli] with his runs,” observes Balekana. “Pat Toeta is a very creative player with plenty of confidence; Vilimone Turagarua is a former Fiji Warriors player, he is class; and Sy Tevita is a makeshift inside centre – he is a halfback but turns out every week to stamp his name in the midfield.
“We’ve made huge progress from last year and have been competitive throughout the club. This year we have two grade teams in the finals, and Mark Philp has done a great job with all four grades. It’s down to a combination of his leadership and quality players coming through.”
Like Tayler Adams, Balekana’s season will continue with a stint in the NRC that kicks off on September 2nd, after he put his hand up for an opportunity with the Sydney Rays. Watching how he transitions to the next level, and whether he can cause just as many headaches for defences, will be fascinating. He’s just looking forward to mixing it with some of Australia’s finest.
“I understand it will be a step up from club rugby, so I will need to put time in to improve in the coming weeks,” he says. “But it is a great opportunity for me, I’m very excited.”
See the video below for two fine examples from the game against Randwick in round 16, of the way Gordon have set their attack alight this season, and the finishing prowess of the speedy and elusive Balekana.
Runner-up behind Balekana was last year’s winner, Warringah try-machine Harry Jones, closely followed by his Rats team-mate, Josh Holmes, who finished top of the pie-baggers pile in 2015. Shout-outs too for Southern Districts flanker turned centre/wing Luke Smart, Manly’s evergreen winger Tom Chesters, and Northern Suburbs consistently high performer, Lochie Creagh.
In other grades, James Kane bagged 16 tries for Sydney University in 2’s; Kieran Knight 13 for Randwick in 3’s; and Ben Martin 12 for Norths in 4’s. While in colts, Eddy King (Sydney Uni, 22 tries), Jaya Yoannidis (Randwick, 16 tries) and Max Rivers (Randwick, 12 tries) topped the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade listings respectively.
Congratulations to all on their efforts in 2017.