Reborn in the USA: Jed Gillespie on a year to remember (mostly!)
If Intrust Super Shute Shield supporters adopted the chants of adulation bestowed upon the rarity of a home grown player turning out for their local team, which is found in soccer’s tribal EPL, Eastwood and Greater Sydney Rams prop Jed Gillespie may well find himself running out to the strains of ‘He’s one of our own’ coming from the TG Millner faithful every other week.
There are other ‘locals’ to be found in the current Woodies ranks of course, but none who can match Gillespie’s upbringing a stone’s throw away from the hallowed ground, or the fact that his old man packed down for the same club some 20 years previously. Heck, his Mum even serves on the current board!
So while young Jed’s ascension to the 1st grade ranks in recent years may have been a mere passing of the baton from father to son, his elevation last season to captain of Eastwood, was a recognition suitably treasured by a family that clearly bleeds blue and white.
“It was a great honour, and something I wasn’t really expecting, and a tough challenge too,” Gillespie told Behind the Ruck this week. “Mum and Dad were really happy for me and very supportive throughout the year. I just want to do anything I can for Eastwood, and to be given the captaincy is something I will always cherish.”
He was never going to play anywhere else. Father Rob was a hooker back in the day, a childhood friend of former Wallaby and now Eastwood President Brett Papworth, an on-field rugby bond that took them all the way from Epping under 6’s to the 1981 Australian Schoolboys side that to this day, has still produced the most Wallabies. He went on to rack up “more than 50 but less than 100” games for the club, playing with the likes of Marty Roebuck, Scott Gourlay, Steve Tuynman, Darren Junee and Peter FitzSimons.
Young Jed dabbled with a bit of league at Kings School in Parramatta, but union was always going to be his game too, and it was no surprise when he followed in his Dad’s footsteps, spending most weekends watching the Woodies after playing for Epping Juniors, and becoming a mainstay of the club’s youth teams from the age of 10. And despite dreams of being a playmaker at 10 or a dashing winger, he too became a fully paid-up member of the front-rower’s union.
“I’m definitely a frustrated back but I guess I was just born a big, ruddy bloke so I had no choice. I’ve always played prop and that’s just the way it is,” he laughs.
After finishing school in 2010, he played colts at Eastwood through most of 2011, but got a few opportunities in grade and even made his 1st grade debut that year, at the age of 18, against Sydney University at a packed TG Millner, facing off against the likes of then Waratahs prop Jeremy Tilse at scrum time.
The two sides would later meet in the Shute Shield grand final, Eastwood running out Premiers for the first time in eight years with a thrilling 19-16 win in extra-time at Concord Oval. And while Jed was back cheering on from the sidelines for the finals series, the experience of packing down with and against some of the best front-row exponents going around in Australia at the time at training every week, was an invaluable experience he remembers fondly.
“When I was in 2nd grade that year there were some awesome props running around in 1st grade, guys like Matt Dunning, Ben Alexander, Benn Robinson and Kieran Longbottom. Getting to train with those guys when I was still pretty young was awesome for me, we packed a lot of live scrums. But the club as a whole that year was just a good place to be, it was a good time.
“Benny Robinson has always been very good to me, and very helpful. In my first year with the Greater Sydney Rams a couple of years later, Robbo was the starting loosehead prop and he was coming in and out of Wallabies duty. I was 21 and hadn’t figured it all out yet and he was really helpful to me, and him being an Eastwood guy too probably helped. I’ve probably only played about 10 times with him over the years but whenever we’ve trained together he’s been great and someone I really looked up to.”
By 2013 he was starting 1st grade games week-in, week-out whilst also training at the National Academy at Moore Park two or three times a week. By the end of 2014, he was starting a Shute Shield grand final and creating his own Premiership legacy for his beloved Woodies.
“I’d seen Eastwood win a few comps when I was 9 or 10, so getting to actually win one as a player was pretty special,” he recalls. “We’ve got a massive following at Eastwood, there’s a large supporter base, and having a grand final day with all those people around, and with Mum and Dad there too, it was just a great day – for the club and the area.”
By now, he was on the radar of some bigger fish, and after gaining his first representative honours with the fledgling Western Sydney Rams as they were known in the inaugural NRC season, he got the call to head down to Melbourne and try out for the Rebels. But instead of revelling in the optimism of a shot at professional footy as an aspiring young player, the next two years served as a harsh reminder of the fragile existence you can lead in this, and any sport.
“I went down to the Rebels in 2015 and did a pre-season unsigned, and they seemed pretty keen to get me on board,” he explains. “But I felt l was a little bit on the outer from the beginning. I spent most of my time standing on the wing or holding tackle bags, rather than getting any reps as a prop, and didn’t end up playing any footy for them.
“When l signed l was third string, as they carry six props, but then they brought in a Japanese loosehead and he jumped me in the queue, so l was then fourth string and a long way from the matchday 23. I’m definitely a lot older and wiser now than l was when l was down there, and maybe l could have used my time a bit better at the start. But I spent a season pretty much kicking rocks down there, which was frustrating, and I’m not really sure why.”
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but while Gillespie has no regrets about trying and coming up short, he readily admits that having that dream squashed so clinically took a toll.
“It was a pretty mixed year down there because of that, but overall it was a good learning experience,” he says. “It was an eye-opener, because when l joined it was the closest I’d ever been to playing Super Rugby, but when l left l felt further away than ever before. I spent a year playing Melbourne club footy and l was off the radar. It was pretty tough to deal with, it felt like a kick in the guts and I’d say it took me a year to get myself back together.”
His initial return to the Sydney rugby fold was successful. He came back to Eastwood in time to play four regular season Shute Shield games before being a mainstay of the Woodies’ run to another grand final, where a dramatic last-minute field goal from Jai Ayoub against Manly secured the club’s second successive Premiership.
He kicked on from there with another stint at the Rams and was champing at the bit for a full season with the Woodies in 2016 before injury struck as he broke his hand not once but twice, restricting him to just three matches as the reigning Premiers relinquished their title in the first week of the finals at the hands of Uni. It was at that point that the frustrations of the previous two years kicked in.
“After being released from the Rebels, l came straight home and won the grand final and then got into the NRC, and l think l maybe played my best footy with the Rams at the end of that year,” he muses. “I was in good form and was still riding the high of a second Shute Shield title, but l think when the NRC came to an end the reality of what had happened set in, and the disappointment of Melbourne really hit me.
“I was back living at home and training by myself, it was like the whole thing never happened. Then breaking my hand twice the next year, it was like going from being a pro to being forgotten.”
A shift to the NSW Country Eagles for the 2016 NRC didn’t lift the fog, despite an enjoyable run to the grand final where he came off the bench against Perth Spirit in a 20-16 defeat.
“The Rams said they had a spot for me at tighthead, a position I hadn’t really played, but then DC [NSW Country Eagles head coach Darren Coleman] rang me up and said they were after a loosehead. I didn’t get the game time I would have liked but DC ran a great program and it was a high quality squad, so it was the right call.”
But now starved of meaningful rugby for almost 24 months, and still disillusioned by his negative ‘next-level’ experience, Gillespie was at something of a crossroads in November 2016. There was an itch that needed scratching but he wasn’t sure where to find the right application. Cue former Eastwood team-mate and good friend Ben Batger.
“’Batg’ had an affiliation with a team in San Diego, and he just flicked me a message asking if I wanted to go to over there for three months and play some footy. I didn’t really know what it was all about, or the club or the competition or anything, but I just said ‘Yeah!’ I just wanted to play a bit more footy at the time but it turned into an absolutely amazing experience – the best rugby experience I’ve ever had.”
The team turned out to be OMBAC – short for Old Mission Beach Athletic Club – who have been around since 1954 and produced several US Eagles. The competition was the California Cup, a short-sharp regionalised tournament involving six teams based up and down the California coast. Running from November to February, with a couple of friendlies, five regular rounds and one grand final day, it was just the tonic Gillespie – along with Batger and fellow ex-Woodie John Grant – needed.
“Half the team were Americans and we had a few ex-pats,” he explains. “We had a few ex-US Eagles; former captain Todd Clever, who also played Super Rugby for the Lions; Brian Doyle in the second row, who spent some time at Northern Suburbs back in the day, and Tai Tuisamoa, another second rower. So we had a pretty handy side.
“I was actually playing hooker over there, which was a bit of a change-up for me, and the set-piece was a pretty good standard. There’s no grading, so it’s hard to compare, but I’d say they would be a very competitive 2nd grade side as far as Sydney club rugby goes, and there is a lot of old rivalries between these clubs, so there was a lot of feeling in the games.
The Americans are very committed people, and those that are into rugby take it very seriously, they are students of the game and the training was hard too. Everything was up to scratch.
“The Director of Rugby, a guy called Jason Woods – who also played for the US Eagles – he’s built quite a rugby community around OMBAC. So when we had our home games, he drove a pretty good crowd of up to and over 1,000 people. It is a niche sport in America, but even for the club games you get a lot of guys who used to play, or played juniors, so the crowd’s are quite healthy.”
The fact that rugby isn’t the biggest sport in the US also means that all hands on deck are required to make things tick along as smoothly as possible. Whether you’re a volunteer or a player, you’re all expected to get your hands dirty at some point and chip in, and the recently arrived Australian trio were not exempt from responsibilities.
“The American rugby community is a small community and they do everything for themselves,” affirms Gillespie. “For one of the games, myself ‘Batg’ and Johnny were mapping out the field with chalk the night before. It had been raining, so the chalk had all fallen away and needed redoing or we would have had to play on a different field. So there were the three of us with a line-marker and a measuring stick. That was different!”
Things couldn’t have gone better on the pitch, OMBAC won four of their five round-robin games to finish second on the ladder and earn a place in the grand final, where a gritty 26-22 win over Life West wrapped up a very popular title for the locals, and a third straight season of silverware for Gillespie.
“A few of the guys had been there for 10 years and hadn’t won a tournament, so it was good to help out and get that win,” he says. “It meant a lot to those guys and it meant a lot to us as well, but it was good to thank them for having us and looking after us during our short stay by helping them lift some silverware.
“We were so lucky that the club we played for were so good to us. They welcomed us from day one, tried to help us out and put us up, and gave us everything we needed basically. America is an amazing country to visit and to live in, and to get to travel up and down the West Coast for a couple of months playing footy from San Diego to LA to San Francisco, was awesome.”
Reinvigorated, Gillespie returned to Sydney excited ahead of a new Shute Shield season with Eastwood this year, but major injuries to key players in the early rounds scuppered their campaign before it had even started. And while the long-term absence of Jai Ayoub led to the captain’s armband being passed to a proud Gillespie, the loss of the Woodies playmaker came at a significant cost, with the side sneaking into the top six on points differential only, before finding another level in the finals and falling one game short of another grand final.
“It was a strange year,” he reflects. “Losing our five-eight in Jai so early in the year, someone who not only drives us on the field but is a really important character around the club, was a big blow. Everyone knows he’s a bloody good player, but he’s very switched on as a captain too, and losing him was massive. We lost other players as well, Rhys Allen was a huge loss in particular and at one point, we seemed to be losing a player every week. It was a tough campaign overall.
“I think we did pretty well to switch on at a crunch time in the season and make the finals, and then knock off Manly – who were the Minor Premiers – on their own ground in week one to make the semis. Falling short against Norths a week later was obviously disappointing, but I think we can take a lot of positives away from this year. We blooded a lot of young guys, we asked a lot of players to step up in key positions, and I think that will hold us in good stead for next year.”
With the Western Sydney Rams licence being bought out by the Eastwood club and changed back to the Greater Sydney Rams, and all home games taking place at TG Millner Field, it was perhaps a given that Gillespie would return to his roots for this year’s NRC. But it was the chance to hook up again with his coaching mentor John Manenti, that really whetted his appetite.
“Johnny has pretty much been there from day one for me since I left school, so if he’s coaching a side, it’d be a long shot for me to say I’m not going to play for it,” he admits. “My last Rams experience wasn’t my fondest, but I heard a few of the guys were going around again, and then the coaching ticket with Johnny and Billy [Melrose], and it sounded the goods.
“He’s just an excellent man-manager as a coach. He knows his technical aspects very well – that’s what he coaches every day with the Aussie Sevens sides – but he’s an excellent man-manager. Eastwood is a club that is all about culture and he’s driven that, and any team he steps into, he will always have that rapport with the players. You wouldn’t find a player who doesn’t get on with John, and that’s because he’s great with people, he knows his way around a team, and he knows how to motivate people and get the best out of them.”
While the season didn’t pan out the way they would have liked, with just three wins from their eight matches and a 7th place finish, the Rams did show enough to suggest that they can compete with the Super Rugby-laden sides that ultimately filled the top six places above them, had they managed to keep their first-choice XV on the park every week. For Gillespie, it was an enjoyable, and far from fruitless experience.
“I’d say it’s been far more successful than it looks, and it’s been a reasonable campaign for us considering we’re mostly a bunch of unsigned guys. Our results have been misrepresentative of the work we’ve done and the things we’ve put in place, and I guess the win over Brisbane City showed a little bit of what could have been. We’re capable of beating any of those ‘franchise’ sides, and in that game we put all our footy together for 60 minutes. But we have been too inconsistent.
“It is so tough to put it together week-in, week-out in the NRC with a ‘non-franchise’ side. We’re fully non-professional in terms of training and we just don’t have the depth when you rack up the number of injuries we’ve had. We had to pull guys out of club footy and ask them to learn the playbook in one training session, so it is difficult. Overall we’ve done pretty well, and one more win could have had us really up there.”
Such is the desire to keep playing after his stop-start 2016, Gillespie is likely to enjoy the shortest of breaks now before heading across the Pacific once again for another taste of rugby US-style. That is, unless something else lands on his lap first.
Now 25-years-old and with over 100 club games (90 in 1st grade) under his belt, he feels far better equipped to deal with another professional opportunity should it eventuate. And after the travails at the Rebels, the desire to get another crack and prove people wrong burns brightly.
“There are mixed feelings. In some ways I feel like I lost two years of my footy life, and in other ways I’m harder and smarter for having gone through that period,” he says. “I’m more thankful now for any injury-free period I have, and for any rugby opportunities I get, and if I had never left Melbourne I wouldn’t have finished University or captained Eastwood.
“But at the same time, I’m unsatisfied with the taste of professionalism I have had, and I’d love another opportunity. As I said, I’m a lot older and wiser now, and I think I’m a much better player than I was in 2014. But I know there’s not a lot of opportunities out there, especially now, that’s why I need to take advantage of all the ones I do get.
“I’m planning to go back and play for OMBAC in January, pending any professional opportunity in Australia of course. But I’ve learned you can’t hold your breath with that sort of stuff, you’ve just got to plan ahead in case it doesn’t happen, and if it doesn’t, I’d love to go back and play with those guys again. I haven’t done everything I want to do yet in rugby but out of everything I have, it was far and away my best experience.”