Grand Final Key Match-Up – Sam Ward vs Michael Wells
It seems somewhat churlish to be ramping up the importance of a game of rugby for a player, when you consider the journey that Warringah’s talismanic no.8 Sam Ward has been on just to get here. The tragic and untimely loss of his younger brother Lachie, who passed away playing for the Rats 5th grade side just eleven weeks ago, left Ward, his family, and the entire Warringah club and community in a state of absolute shock and understandable distress. So to see him not only return to playing duties, but go on to lead his side to their first grand final for 12 years in the injury-enforced absence of regular skipper Hamish Angus, has been a triumph of the human spirit.
But when the whistle blows this afternoon, Ward’s focus is on winning a game of footy, and standing in his way at the back of the opposition scrum is a more than worthy adversary, Waratahs no.8 Michael Wells. Having made the move back up the F3 from Canberra to Sydney in the off-season, the dynamic Wells has taken his chance with both hands and seen plenty of game time in the Cambridge Blue jersey as a result. And after playing an impact role off the bench for Norths in last year’s title victory, he is champing at the bit for his run-on appearance this time out.
Both big hitters, and both big ball carriers with a sizeable workrate and engine, the contest between the two enforcers looms as potentially the clash of the day. Behind the Ruck caught up with them earlier this week to gauge their views on the battle ahead.
ON THE SEASON SO FAR:
“I think that all our past seasons have brought us to where we are today. The movement started with Sam Harris and continued with Haig Sare and Greg Marr. Through those years we continued to progress as players and as a club. This year DC [Darren Coleman] has been allowed to bring more professionalism to the group. We have had a great injection of energy from some younger players, and some more experienced players. The combination of all these things has created an amazing environment where you just want to play rugby for each other, and have a beer together after the games.
“Obviously, it has been a very emotional time, not only for me and my family but for the Rats and the wider community, and now given the occasion it carries even more significance. Emotions can be very distracting, but now coming into my seventh game since Lachie’s passing, I have experienced these emotional moments regularly so it won’t be something that is new for me. I will embrace them, draw strength from them and then get on with the job. Once that whistle goes for me it’s all about rugby. I want to win this not only for my brother and family, but for everyone involved in this club, who has been in the past, or who supports us.”
“This year’s been different in terms of not making the final on the back of a long string of wins. But in order to get to the final, you must have performed well consistently in the season and played high quality football, as the competition is very strong. I personally think having experienced a mid-season lull, for whatever reason it was, actually was a positive for us. A loss really highlights your deficiencies and having those losses, albeit many close losses, in mid-season, it allowed players to identify where they need to improve in order to be next level.
“It’s a bit different this year for me personally, as I had just come back from my time in Canberra and wasn’t involved with the team last year until the semi-final against Souths. This year, having played a couple of rounds and been a part of the team, I feel a lot more involved in this years finals experience. As a team, there’s probably a bit more calmness going into the game. A lot of the guys experienced last year so they know exactly what the occasion has in store, and instead we can focus on our processes and not be concerned with being in the grand final for the first time, which can be a distraction.”
ON EACH OTHER:
“Wardy has been an excellent player for the Rats for a sustained period of time. He’s been a focal point of their team for some years now, and that’s a real credit to him. He’s a strong ball runner who always tends to attract multiple defenders, and his defence is also something that can really motivate his team-mates.
“Obviously, you want to challenge yourself against the best players, and Wardy has been one of the best Shute Shield number eights for a while now. But in saying that, it’s not a matter of me versus him. If I can do my role for our team to the best of my ability, then I have done my job, because a team’s success is the result of the sum of its parts, and that’s the focus Crono has always had with us. We aren’t reliant upon individuals doing something special to change the game, we are 23 guys who are all focused on doing their role and their processes, as that ultimately leads to the result we want.”
“We have played a bit of footy together and against each over the years. Wellsy is having a fantastic season, he is a very well balanced player, runs hard, is an aggressive defender, a good lineout jumper and a threat at the breakdown. He has been a vital cog in the Norths forward pack during their run home into the finals.
“You always like to play against Super Rugby players and he is the incumbent Tahs no.8 so it will be a good challenge. It’s not so much about trying to better him, the challenge is being the best version of me out there on Saturday. Bettering my performance week by week is what my team needs from me.”
ON THE GAME:
“It’s a very exciting time for the club. Nothing much has changed for us this week, we have gone about things just like we have since our pre-season trials, so we are just keeping our schedule pretty similar. Obviously, due to the significance of the occasion we are having a grand final breakfast with players, their families and sponsors. It’s going to be an emotional day and I know the boys are so keen to get out on the field. It can’t come soon enough!
“We are actually two very similar back rows. TC [Tom Connor] and [Will] Miller at 7 are constant breakdown threats; [Gary] Bautz and Mack [Maclean Jones] at 6 are both workhorses, and then there is Wellsy and myself, who bring that physical edge. It’s a mouth-watering matchup. But the key lies in the forward pack and defence. The pack/team that gets on top will have a large role in dictating the result on Saturday.
“Big game experience is very important but it isn’t everything. Norths have done very well to make their second consecutive final, and I know we haven’t played in a grand final for a number of years now, but each year we experience large crowds and pressure in our local derbies with Manly, so the boys are used to those big occasions. We are used to playing in those emotional games, so we have the experience now to help control and channel them into our game.
“I think both teams will take a lot from our previous games this year in terms of how we prepare for Saturday. What worked, didn’t work and what we need to do better. We will take confidence knowing that if we play how we want to and stick to our plan it will put us in a great position to win.”
“Obviously it’s nice having the experience of being in a final, but the game itself is very different to that of last year. The Rats are a different team with their own unique threats that they pose. Essentially this is another game for us, we have an attitude of every game is a must win, we focus on our own processes, what we need to do well and what we need to negate from the opposition. That has never changed throughout the season, so you could say that the experience we have in the team of always preparing that way is an advantage.
“I believe finals and regular season games are completely different. There is a much bigger psychological effect for some guys in finals, which can result in them either really coming to the fore and excelling, or withdrawing and playing within themselves. For us we aren’t worried about the past games for the results they gave, we are more concerned with the processes that led to those results and what we can learn from that. Being focused on whether you won or lost is the wrong way to review past performances, you must look at how you won or lost, and I believe that’s what we’ve done.
“It will be a great match up between their back row and ours. They probably have a heavier backrow, but I feel that both Will and Hugh have huge work rates and are very dynamic, so are always massive contributors to any win by Norths As clichéd as it sounds, the game will be won up front. If we can negate their forwards front-foot ball and threaten their attacking breakdown, that will go a long way towards helping us achieve the result. We just need to focus on our processes and not worry about anything outside of the next 10 seconds in the game. For us it’s another game of rugby, on a field. We have done it for years and as long as we stay in that mindset we will perform well.”
THE COACHES VIEW:
“Wardy is obviously a strong ball-carrier and tough. Wellsy is very dynamic, explosive and powerful too, so that will be a good battle.”
“It’s a really good challenge for Sam. Michael is a very complete no.8, and it’s shown this year with him ousting Jed Holloway from that starting spot in the Waratahs that he’s got a lot of positives. Sam is really developing his game this year. He was known as a hitman, straight up-and-down ball carrier, but he’s really adding some other aspects now. He’s our lineout caller, his ball-play has really improved and he’s not just a tuck-and-run player now. They’re two very key players for their team.”