Unsung hero Harry, much more than ‘Mr Versatile’

Photo: Stuart Walmsley/RUGBY.com.au

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“You ask him to do something and he does it. He’s an unsung hero,
another one of those guys who has come in and is cutting it at the next level.”

Sydney Rays head coach Julian Huxley on Harry Burey

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Every team needs one. The player that performs all his/her requirements well, rarely has a bad game, rarely makes a mistake, but rarely gets their time in the spotlight either.

When Northern Suburbs were looking for someone to come in and shore up their back three for the run to the finals in 2016, they went for a relative unknown. Aged just 20-years-old and standing at 175cms, Harry Burey didn’t exactly fit the bill of an experienced hand at the tiller, or a particularly imposing menace under the high ball or on the counter attack. He wasn’t blessed with lightning pace, or a booming boot, and he had barely donned the no.15 jersey in his time with the Canberra Royals in the nation’s capital.

But on the recommendation of scrumhalf Michael Dowsett, at the time a part of the ACT Brumbies squad, it was to Burey that then head coach Simon Cron turned, and to say he wasn’t let down would be an understatement.

Making his debut off the bench in round 13 against Warringah, he went on to start every game for the rest of the season, showing experience beyond his years in pressure situations, standing up and then some in terms of his defensive duties, and time and again, making the right decisions. And while fullback was his main role, he also showed his versatility, filling in at inside centre against Penrith, and even at flyhalf against West Harbour.

His steadying hand at the back, in tandem with the game management of Angus Sinclair, the game-breaking skills of Irae Simone and Richard Woolf, and the feisty, combative but mobile pack led by Will Miller, Hugh Sinclair and Nick Palmer, helped the Shoremen continue a dream unbeaten run of 13 matches on the way to lifting the club’s first Shute Shield Premiership in 41 years at a packed North Sydney Oval.

Nine games in three different positions; in your first full year out of colts; with a new team in a new city; and a grand final win in front of some 14,000 people, was a pretty steep learning curve. And as Burey told Behind the Ruck this week, it was one hell of a ride.

“I was trying to think back to this time last year, but it’s a bit of a blur. It was a bit of a ‘What the hell just happened’ really,” he laughs as he recalls the craziness of it all. “I’m a pretty relaxed character and I was sort of just going with the flow. I told ‘Cronny’ [Simon Cron] when I first spoke to him on the phone that I could play fullback, when I think I had played it once before. But I ended up coming into Norths and filling that hole through the finals.

“That was probably a bit of a risk, that and moving half-way through a season to a different city and to a team coming 8th at the time. When I arrived, I guess it would have been hard to imagine that just over 12 months later I’d have played in two grand finals and won a Shute Shield!

“I didn’t really know what to expect but it was awesome to come in to such a good team, and that made it easier to fit in because you just had to do your job. It’s probably been the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Harry Burey_Norths v Uni_2017_CC

Putting his body on the line for Norths against the marginally bigger frame of Will Skelton  Photo: Clay Cross/SPORTSPICS

Burey grew up in the NSW regional city of Wagga Wagga. Situated exactly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, it is an area known for its agricultural, military and transport significance. But like most young bucks running around town, playing footy was the go-to pastime, and it was here that his ability to look after himself against bigger opponents was honed.

“Maybe where I put my head sometimes with these big guys running at me is a bit silly but sometimes, that’s just what the team needs,” he offers. “I’ve never been a big guy so I’ve always had to punch above my weight. I grew up with three brothers and growing up in Wagga we used to play quite a bit of rugby league touch footy, and playing 1st grade at 16 there’s quite a few older blokes looking to take your head off, so you’ve got to learn the hard way. That breeds it into you pretty quickly.”

After playing rep footy for ACT Schools, he made the move up the Hume Highway to Canberra to play colts and grade footy for Royals, one of the ACT’s most decorated clubs. And it was an affiliation with family friend Michael Dowsett that paved the way for his rapid rise to Premiership winner.

But what has been even more impressive, is the way he handled a permanent shift to inside centre for Norths throughout this year’s Shute Shield. With Irae Simone’s performances in 2016 earning him a NSW Waratahs contract, it was to the reliable Burey that coach Cron looked to once again as the Shoremen set about defending their hard-earned title. And in his trademark understated manner, he barely put a foot wrong all year as they went within a whisker of becoming back-to-back champions, losing 30-25 to Warringah in an emotion-filled decider.

Only Angus Sinclair played more minutes for the Red and Blacks in 2017, Burey featuring in 17 of their 21 matches. He made the most run metres in the side, made the second most number of tackles, and showed his ball-playing preference at 12 with the most passes of anyone outside of Sinclair at flyhalf, and the three no.9’s that shared scrumhalf duties inside him.

While the spotlight shone on the performances of the Sinclair brothers, the try-scoring exploits of Richie Woolf and Lochie Creagh, and the explosive introduction of Cameron Clark late in the piece, Burey’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed by those that played alongside him every week, and in particular, by the guy that put his faith in him to continue producing in a different position.

“He’s so safe defensively, if somebody breached our line he shut them down,” purrs Simon Cron. “He’s an extremely good positional player at 15, he’ll get across and cover a lot of ground. He’s got a huge workrate and a good kick on him, so he can cover in terms of back-three stuff. He’s a good tackler but he also covers a lot of space with his tackle technique, which is good for a 15.

“He’s safe under the high ball, safe in setting people up, and safe in counter attack. He made the right decisions along the lines of our structures and what we did and that’s for example, the difference between Ben Smith and Damien McKenzie for the All Blacks. Smith is safe, does everything right and doesn’t make mistakes. ‘Bizzer’ gives you confidence when he’s sitting at the back, and he also does a great job at 12 and is a strong ball carrier too. He can do both and he can also cover 10, he was our first change-out if we lost Angus Sinclair. He’s a bloody good player!”

His form also drew the attentions of incoming Sydney Rays head coach Julian Huxley. Having played 20 minutes as injury cover against Melbourne Rising in 2016, Burey had already had some taste of life at the next level. But Huxley saw him as a permanent feature in his matchday squad at the very least, a situation that quickly changed when the Rays’ injury-crisis took hold.

Having sat on the bench for their first hit-out of the year, a frustrating 41-26 loss to the Greater Sydney Rams, he has started at fullback in three of their subsequent games, and at inside centre in two more, including a man-of-the-match performance against Brisbane City in round six. Averaging almost eight carries, eight tackles and 34 metres per match, in a side that currently sits second from bottom with just one win to their name, he has been one of the rare highlights in what has proven to be a tough baptism of fire for Huxley and the swathe of club players he has been forced to fast-track into Rays colours.

Vikings v Rays

It’s a been tough first year at the helm for Rays coach Julian Huxley and his coaching team  Photo: Stuart Walmsley/RUGBY.com.au

With two tough away trips to end the season, beginning with this evening’s game across the Nullarbor against a Perth Spirit side desperate to keep their finals chances alive, the motivation for a squad battered and bruised and with little left to play for after the 71-14 humbling by the Canberra Vikings last weekend, rests largely with each individual player’s pride, and their desire to finish off the year on some kind of a high note.

“We’re obviously not in the position we wanted to be at this time of the year, and whilst people may say there’s nothing to play for, which is true in terms of a finals spot, I think the poor performances over the last few weeks in particular really bring out your competitive fire, and if it doesn’t you probably shouldn’t be here,” says Burey.

“We spoke about taking pride in our performances and showing our character, not so much as footballers but the people we are. They’re going to be two tough away games, and if we just try to get through them, they will be similar results to what happened at Viking Park, and it’s a long time before round one to have that sitting with you over the summer.”

A litany of injuries have cruelled the Rays efforts and left them weakened and disjointed combination-wise as a result. But can that be excuse enough for conceding an average of 44pts per match and missing 205 tackles in just six games? Burey doesn’t feel there should be any hiding place from those numbers.

“Yes, injuries haven’t been kind but you can only blame combinations to a certain extent,” he says. “When you miss some of the one-on-one tackles that we have, it wouldn’t have changed if you’d had a different person standing next to you. I hadn’t seen those stats before but it’s probably not that much of a surprise to be honest when you look back at our games, and they are really a reflection of that. The most disappointing thing is that we are all capable of being good defenders and we have shown that at times, but then just a lack in concentration or a guy just slightly off in their role and they miss an easy one, and that’s probably what this next level is about. If you’re slightly off you get burnt.”

The frustrating thing for the Rays is that in the two games I’ve reported on live – against the Rams and the NSW Country Eagles – they really weren’t that far off at all. And even in the losses to Queensland Country and Brisbane City, they’d put themselves in a position to get a much better result than the blow-outs that eventually played out. The fact that they have made the third most line breaks in the competition but are ranked only 8th out of the nine competing teams for tries scored, kind of tells it’s own story.

“It’s disappointing when you come so close to putting yourself in a position to win and you fall short,” Burey sighs. “Our first game against the Rams was really promising. Whilst we didn’t get the result there were some really promising signs for a team that had only been together fully for eight days, and the season ahead looked positive after beating Melbourne Rising the following week.

“I can’t remember being in a team where we have scored so many first-phase tries, and we have certainly created some line breaks. But similar to our defence, we have just been slightly off in our details, whether it be holding the pill and scoring off the next phase, or not running out and we don’t quite score the try. Regardless of the results, we have certainly played some good footy in phases, which probably hurts the most as we have proven we are capable of it.

“Looking at the schedule last year, there were three weeks between the Shute Shield final and round one of the NRC, whereas this year, there was non. Fortunately we managed to have the bye first round, and whilst I previously said you couldn’t blame injuries, the one thing you probably can blame them for is our inability to develop as a team in some regards. Due to injuries we have had between one and three new faces turning up to training each week, so we have had to go over a lot of the stuff we had previously gone through again – the very basics of our structure – and fit that in to an already tight training schedule. I don’t think you can blame that on the coaches or the new guys, it was just the nature of the beast.”

Harry Burey_Rays v Rams_2017 NRC_CC

On the charge against the Greater Sydney Rams -Photo: Clay Cross/SPORTSPICS

Despite the disappointing results, Burey thinks he can still take a lot away from his NRC experience, given the opportunity he has had to learn from some of the professional players alongside him, the professional players he has come up against, and from a different set of coaches.

“I’ve been playing at Norths for two years now and we have a certain way we do things, so it’s always interesting to play in a different structure and with different players to see how they go about things,” he affirms. “I wanted to test myself out but so far I’d say it’s not that much of a different level than the Shute Shield, especially what you experience in the finals series. In terms of the speed and the physicality, it’s pretty similar. But if you do slip up here you get punished more. A dropped ball or turnover ball often ends in a try, whereas in the Shute Shield, you can get away with those things a little bit, so you’ve got to be more clinical.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever had a coach who’s played the same position as me, so in terms of ‘Hux’, personally it’s been enjoyable to get minor tweaks off him. I have certainly picked up some little details in terms of my skill set – my kicking technique and running lines etc – through working with him, and overall he openly encourages us to back ourselves, which I like, particularly in this competition.”

In a season where he has swapped between 12 and 15, and gone through a whole host of flyhalf and centre combinations either side of him, one thing that doesn’t unduly concern Burey is his growing reputation as ‘Mr Versatile’. While his ability to play both positions with aplomb is a coaches dream, that potential tag of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is one he would do best to avoid. But he enjoys the challenge that both roles present, and as someone who clearly puts the team first, he is happy to fill in where needed.

“Being from Wagga, country footy’s a bit like that, you sort of get a crack at every position and that helps you develop different skills. I haven’t played on the wing yet and I’m not sure how I’d go but if I had to play there I would. I’m happy to fill whatever role is needed. It doesn’t worry me wherever I’m playing, I just get comfortable and play. You’ve just got to do a role for the team.

“There are pros and cons for each position that I play but I’ve played a lot of footy at 12 and feel a bit more comfortable there. I really enjoy playing outside of Gus [Angus Sinclair], and I think we formed a pretty good 10-12 combo this year. He’s a pretty calming influence and that always gives me confidence, but it’s his game management that really stands out. He’s a smart footballer.

Harry Burey tribute_Angus Sinclair

“It is difficult to build continuity when you’re changing positions or the people around you are changing for whatever reason. When I was at 12 all season for Norths with Angus you end up reading each other without saying too much. But that’s the challenge, and that’s the exciting part about getting back into training. Everyone has got the skill set, we don’t need to work on that so much, but it’s more about working on the combos and getting that fluency.

“It can mean you don’t become a specialist in one position, but I think it’s challenging playing at 12 or 15 each week. It keep’s it exciting and you get to learn different skills and so on.”

Whatever happens over the next two weeks with the Rays, Burey can hold his head up high after another consistent season for both teams he has turned out and given his all for. Still only 21-years-old, and with just 26 games of 1st grade Sydney footy under his belt, there is plenty of room for improvement over the next few years, and who knows where that could eventually take him. But first and foremost, it is the bread and butter of club footy that has him excited about 2018.

“I’m not thinking too far ahead but already I’ll tell you I wanna win the Shute Shield again next year,” he states. “Anyone who says that after winning one you lose the desire is talking bullshit. You don’t truly know how awesome it is until you win one, and to go so close again this year still annoys me.

“I’m not sure anyone would survive in the Shute Shield or NRC if there wasn’t a little part of them that would love to play professionally, and for me that would be unreal. But I’m not naive and I know that not everybody gets that chance. I love playing for Norths and I would love to become a part of the 100 club there.”

Harry, the floor is all yours champ.

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