Play it again Sam: Eagles prop Needs, chasing further success
Photo: AJF Photography
He can still remember the day. Heading to Coffs Harbour Stadium with his Dad because the touring British & Irish Lions, a side containing most of the Northern Hemisphere’s finest talent at that time – think Jason Leonard, Ronan O’Gara, Neil Jenkins, Ben Cohen and more – had come to town. But for a 10-year-old Sam Needs, it was the guys in the other jerseys that captured his imagination.
The burnt orange hue of NSW Country shone brightly in his eyes on the night of 26th June 2001, as the state’s best ‘boys from the bush’ took on the almighty Lions. They went down 46-3 in the end, but the torch had been lit for this aspiring young player watching on the hill, and as he wrapped himself up from the winter chill for the walk back to the car, he had added another goal to his list of future rugby targets.
“Growing up on the mid-north coast, the big team to watch was the NSW Country Cockatoos, and watching them play the Lions back in 2001 was such a great experience,” recalled Needs for Behind the Ruck this week. “Now, playing for the NSW Country Eagles team, although slightly different to the Cockatoos, I feel proud to represent where I grew up.
“I’ll never forget all the Lions and Cockatoos coming over to sign my jersey as a kid, and that’s something that we love doing after all our Eagles games, particularly in the country, where these kids don’t often get an opportunity to watch these kinds of matches.”
Now in his second NRC season with the Eagles, Needs is preparing for a ‘do-or-die’ clash with Brisbane City in – ironically enough – Orange this afternoon. A win guarantees semi-finals football next week, and another chance to go one better than last season’s runners-up finish. Lose and it’s goodnight Vienna.
With the pedigree of success he has slowly built over the last few years, you wouldn’t back against him going on to add to his trophy cabinet. Indeed, should the Eagles go on to claim an inaugural title, he may find it hard to diffuse a growing reputation as a lucky charm, coming as it would off the back of two Shute Shield Premierships with two different clubs – Eastwood in 2015, and Warringah in such dramatic fashion just two months ago.
Back in 2001, the 10-year-old Needs’ other goal was to emulate his idol Matt Burke and pull on the Cambridge Blue jersey of his state. But it’s been a circuitous route that took him from the budding fullback he always wanted to be, to the 26-year-old prop he has become, a front-rower that sits very much on the ‘next cab off the rank’ list for Australian Super Rugby.
Described – tongue-in-cheek – by his Eagles and Warringah head coach Darren Coleman as the “tattooed, psychotic, Hells Angel-style hardman that every team needs”, the abrasive prop on the field is anything but off it. For despite the intimidating appearance – the shaved head, biker’s beard and arm-length tattoos – one chat with Sam reveals a warm, friendly, polite, intelligent and articulate soul, who is currently putting his sports science degree to good use in the world of strength and conditioning.
After forging his front-row reputation at Eastwood, a breeding ground for those who specialise in the dark arts, many eyebrows were raised when he chose to leave the club that had lifted three Premierships over the previous six years. Especially when his destination was Warringah, a team who, whilst possessing a generation of undeniable talent, seemed destined to don the dreaded ‘nearly-men’ tag for the foreseeable future. Right now of course, that decision looks rather prescient.
“I’d been at Eastwood for five years, and so many of my top rugby memories are with the Woods, so it was a very tough decision to leave,” he reflects. “But I was starting to not enjoy my footy as much, and I felt like I needed a change of scenery.
“Playing in the NRC for the NSW Country Eagles last year, with Darren Coleman as coach, I started to enjoy it again. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed the playing and coaching style that DC brought to the team. I’ve known him for a while as he grew up in the same small town, and I think that certain aspects of my game improved over such a short NRC season, and I wanted to see how much I could develop over the course of a longer Shute Shield season with the same input.
“DC was the new coach at Warringah and I’m also good friends with a few of the Rats boys, which was a bit of a bonus, and I just felt that this was the change I was after. There’s no hard feelings towards Eastwood at all, but I wouldn’t change my decision if given the chance, I couldn’t be happier at the Rats.”
That ‘same small town’ is South West Rocks. Situated on the mid-north coast of New South Wales with a population of just under 5,000 people, it was there that Needs got his first taste of rugby. Born an hour away in Port Macquarie, he grew up in ‘the Rocks’ and went on to make his debut for the local team, the ‘Gaolers’, at the age of nine, before heading down to the big city to board at the famous rugby nursery that is St Joseph’s College in 2003.
At 15, the discovery of “food and the gym” necessitated a move from the ‘Princesses’ to the ‘Piggies’, where he initially played at hooker. After completing high school in 2008, he headed to the nation’s capital for stints with the Gungahlin Eagles and ACT colts team, before a return to South West Rocks led to his final two games for the Gaolers, and a shift to loosehead.
Heading back to Sydney in 2012, he began a five-year relationship with Eastwood that had a number of lows to go with the inevitable highs of winning trophies. An ankle injury wrecked his first season and most of his second, before he finished on a positive note in 2013 with a 3rd grade title. But another season of niggles and setbacks in 2014, just as he was making the push for 1st grade recognition, left him in a pretty dark place, and almost forced him to hang up the boots.
It was his parents who told him to stick it out and keep fighting for his passion. Looking back now, it was probably the best advice they ever gave him.
“There were some pretty dark days battling away in 3’s at Eastwood and with some injuries that kept me out for a long period of time,” he concedes. “It was in these times that those negative thoughts start to creep through your mind, and you begin to question yourself and your ability.
“My parents have always been so supportive of my siblings and I, (Sam is one of six!), and they have always been supportive of my rugby. Mum would drive me all over country NSW to play, and their advice to not give up on what makes me happy is something that still drives me today. It’s a bit surreal to think about what has happened with my rugby over the past three years, and how far away those dark times seem to be.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that if I kept at it, that all I needed was an opportunity and that I’d be ready when that opportunity came. But it wasn’t until 2015, when Jed Gillespie went down to the Rebels, and Guy Millar to the Force, that I got an opportunity to start for 1st grade.”
Re-invigorated and finally injury-free, he cemented a spot in an Eastwood side chock-full of Premiership winning experience in the shape of Hugh Perrett, Ben Batger, Jai Ayoub and others. Coming off the bench in the grand final, he helped the Woods to their second successive title with a tension-filled 15-12 extra-time victory over Manly, and went on to get his first taste of the NRC with the Greater Sydney Rams later that year.
Another impressive season with the Woods in 2016 led to a training spot with the Waratahs, before his switch to the Eagles under the tutelage of Coleman also took his club career in a different direction. Now two months on from that emotion-filled afternoon at a packed North Sydney Oval, Needs still can’t quite believe the way Warringah’s season played out. From the horror of losing one of their own on the field of play, Lachlan Ward, to the jubilant scenes at the final whistle, as a community came together to remember and rejoice. It was some ride.
“My first year at the Rats has been an amazing one, it feels like I’ve been at the club my entire life,” he smiles. “To help guys like Wardie [Sam Ward], Hamo [Hamish Angus], Luke and Josh Holmes and ‘Tree’ [Cameron Treloar], guys that have been around the traps and been the best players for a number of years, to see them finally get their hands on the Shute Shield was just amazing. It’s been a very special year, just unbelievable.
“Knowing that we had quality players who were hungry for success, in conjunction with the new and very experienced coaching staff, I knew we could go all the way. The belief was there from the start of the season, but it was after our hard fought and gritty win in the wet against the undefeated Marlins at Manly Oval, that it really grew. Things were put into perspective the following week with the tragic passing of Lachie, and what we were playing for after that day was something greater than ourselves. For that reason our season would have been a success regardless of how things ended up on grand final day.
“It still gives me goosebumps. Running out through that massive tunnel and on to a Rat-packed North Sydney Oval, the image of Wardie holding up the Shield, it’s a feeling I’ll never forget. The celebrations back at Rat Park that night were amazing, the whole community turned out and it was just the perfect way to finish off such a roller coaster season.”
Two days of revelling on the northern beaches were ended by the reality check of training with the Eagles on the Tuesday, ahead of their season opener against the Greater Sydney Rams on the Saturday. Having fallen at the final hurdle to Perth Spirit in 2016, hopes were high for the Eagles to go one better this time out, but they hit a bump from the off after a 44-23 defeat. And while Darren Coleman, Sam Ward, Seb Wileman and Maclean Jones all somehow backed up just seven days later in a different competition, Needs admits his tank was running on empty.
“After the GF and such a long season, I needed to freshen up mentally and physically for the next 10 weeks of NRC, so I took the first round off,” he reveals. “For the guys that were involved from the Rats, including DC, I think that it was very difficult to put such an emotional Shute Shield season behind them in just two days off before beginning the Eagles campaign.
“You could potentially put that loss down to new combinations not having time to be developed with such a short turn around, whereas, from the Rams perspective, they are comprised of a lot of Manly and Eastwood boys who would have benefitted from a week off after the semis and would have been itching to go. Having round one of NRC the week after the Shute Shield GF is ridiculous. A similar thing happened in 2015 with Eastwood, six days later we were into the NRC with the Rams. Players involved in the GF need to have some time off in between competitions.”
The Eagles had the bye the following week, but their slow start to 2017 continued with a 31-14 loss at the hands of the Fijian Drua in round three, in the first NRC game to be played outside Australia.
“Playing Fiji in Fiji was always going to be tough, no matter where in the draw you come up against them. Queensland Country have been the only team successful against them on home soil,” Needs observes. “The conditions in Sigatoka were very tough to play in, but I don’t believe that’s why we lost. The ground was hard, the sun was beaming down, and we were all dripping in sweat walking to the warm up. But we gave them too many opportunities in that game, and they turned almost all of them into points.”
Things began to turn with a vital win over the highly-fancied Canberra Vikings in round four, courtesy of a Tayler Adams penalty after the bell, and they backed that up with a disjointed but worthy win in the end over the Sydney Rays down in Goulburn. A second half fightback against table-topping Queensland Country a week later only earned a losing bonus point, but they carried that momentum into the grand final rematch against Perth Spirit in Tamworth, a game Needs feels was their best of the campaign so far.
“That win over the Vikings in Armidale was crucial to getting our season some momentum, and backing that up against the Rays started to give us the confidence that we are capable of getting the results. It was looking pretty bleak up on the Gold Coast against Queensland Country, and when you’re 31-0 down, you have nothing to lose. Despite just falling short in the end, we took a lot of confidence out of that game. They had a number of Super Rugby players that day, but we showed that if we stick to the game plan and play our style of rugby, that we can put points on the board.
“In such a short competition, just one win can be the boost that’s needed to help spark a bit of momentum. You’ll take an ugly win over a loss any day, and I think that each week we’ve been building on some areas, but it wasn’t until we played Perth in Tamworth that we put in our most well-rounded performance. After a slow start and a couple of losses, we are starting to show the form that we have been working towards.”
They’ll need that form to continue this afternoon against a Brisbane City side – like the Eagles – who are shorn of much of their Super Rugby talent through representative commitments. No Quade Cooper, no Karmichael Hunt, no Samu Kerevi, no Kane Douglas, no Andrew Ready to name but a few. But Needs knows his side will need to be firmly on their toes if they are to keep their season alive for at least another week.
“Brisbane will be without a few big names this week, as will we, but we aren’t treating it any different to if those players were on the field. The new players who are looking to debut for City tomorrow will have a point to prove and will be wanting to make a big impact, so we know they’ll be ready for the challenge.
“They will be a very strong outfit and we will need to make sure that we can take our opportunities when they’re presented, and to limit the opportunities we give them, as they have the strike power, particularly out wide, to score points. I think everyone gets pretty excited to play in these kinds of games, and our focus is on controlling what we can control, and doing what we know we can do and not to worry about anything else.”
Whether or not the Eagles do go on for another week or two, or even lift that elusive NRC trophy in two weekend’s time, the stellar contributions made by Needs to both his respective teams in 2017 must have him back on the radar of Super Rugby. A part of the Waratahs supplementary squad this year, he fulfilled his dream of representing his state when he earned his first cap in a tour match against Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo in June. But he won’t rest until he takes his bow in the big time.
“Lately, it seems to be the trend to invest in the younger generation of props and try to teach them experience, instead of them experiencing experience, and maybe 26 years is too old for a prop these days! Others would say that you’re just getting started. But rugby is still the career that I’m looking to put to the forefront, and you don’t have a long window to try and achieve this. I’ve always wanted to play Super Rugby, so this is an opportunity that I’m working towards. However if the right opportunity to play professionally overseas came up, it’s something that I would love to do before I hang up the boots.
“2017 was a big learning year for me,” he continues. “Playing a full Shute Shield season at tighthead was what I needed in the transition from loosehead, and being able to take what I learned from there into the NRC has helped me to further develop this area of my game. I’m always looking to improve in any way I can, so I guess the simple answer to ‘what do I still want to achieve?’, is to keep improving and trying to be the best tighthead I can be.”
In the meantime, he’ll look forward to a well-earned break from the game for a few weeks before it’s back to pre-season at Warringah and the challenge of defending their title in 2018. But any plans he may have had to begin living up to the ‘tough guy’ reputation cheekily afforded to him by his coach, are firmly on ice.
“Luke Holmes gave me a go on his Harley Davidson the week before the grand final, and I almost crashed into his wife’s car and then ended up stalling it! So, despite my appearance or whatever perceptions there are out there of me, I’m not like that at all.”
So there you have it. A ‘tattooed, psychotic, Hells Angel-style hardman’ on the field, a teddy bear off it.
Play it again Sam!