Story of a Season: Eastern Suburbs 2017
Photo: SPA Images
Taken at face value, Eastern Suburbs’ 2017 Intrust Super Shute Shield season appeared to be another tick in the box marked ‘failure’. With victory in just a third of their matches, their 9th placed ladder finish indicated little by way of marked progress from the preceding fallow seasons at Woollahra Oval. But take a look beyond the cold, hard facts of the win, lose or draw, and you’ll see a young team that lost six of their games by 9pts or less, and who had to train and play their entire season away from home, after their new all-weather pitch had to be re-laid.
Coach Craig Morrison paid the ultimate price for the below-par results, and the decision to go down a different path for 2018 – ex-Beastie Pauli Taumoepeau has been promoted from his fine work with the club’s colts – was made before season’s end. But with the club’s blessing, Morrison was good enough to take Behind the Ruck through the year to give an insight into the difficulties he and his side faced, and to put some flesh onto the bones of mere results.
Easts finished 8th the year before under Darren Coleman, while you coached 2nd grade to a grand final. Did you feel you were inheriting a good squad of players with some promise to work with?
Craig Morrison: “They’d finished 8th the year before and 10th in 2015, and that was with a full-time coach and with all the playing and training facilities available, so I was under no illusions as to the job at hand with a squad that wasn’t accustomed to making finals. Of course, no-one could have foreseen what would happen with our field.
“I thought it was a squad with potential but at the same time, I think we needed to go to another place. We needed to become better footballers, better decision makers on field and prepared to accept accountability and ownership of how we play. We needed to have a sharp edge to our attack to beat the better teams, because good teams watch video and do their analysis. We needed to find that winning edge and that winning attitude, and how to play a winning style of rugby when it really matters.”
What were the big pre-season work-on’s to help facilitate that change?
“Everything in pre-season was about trying to get away from a structured format of play, becoming decision-makers on the field, and being fit enough to execute those decisions. In the previous season when I watched 1st grade they didn’t seem to see opportunities at times. They had become very good at playing to their systems but needed to develop an ability to take opportunities outside of that. It’s fair to say that all those best-laid intentions were significantly impacted by the problems we had with the new field.”
So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. What was the timeline in terms of finding out when you weren’t going to be able to use the new pitch at Woollahra as a home venue, and the impact that had in terms of preparation?
“In pre-season we were given a date of the 1st January for when the field would be available for training. So pre-Christmas, whilst we didn’t have our field, we were able to train over the back at Woollahra and no-one else was using it, so that was fine. When we got back after Christmas, we found out that it had been pushed back to some time in March or April, so we had to kind of ad-lib for six weeks. But then four weeks later, it was pushed back another month, so we were continually trying to make alternative arrangements. That was pretty hard because the council had nowhere else to put us, all the fields were taken, and that’s why we ended up at Cranbrook School under pretty poor lighting every Thursday night once the season started.
“We had four grades training on half a field for three months leading into the first round, which was obviously difficult, but the field was expected to be ready for our opening clash with Sydney Uni. However, the ARU came down and inspected it and said ‘It doesn’t pass’, so it was the week before round one that we found out we wouldn’t have the ground til June. Then six weeks into the season, we were told we wouldn’t have it for the rest of the season, so it was just a continual basket case really.”
As a result, your first two games were away fixtures, kicking off the season with a 9pt loss to Sydney University on a Friday night under the lights, followed up by a 34-20 win at Parramatta. There were some pretty good signs at Uni despite the loss, and 34pts and a win at Death Valley you’d probably take every day, so were you fairly pleased with the opening fortnight?
“We were looking to kick-off our season with a big win, and to build belief, so I was gutted at the loss to Uni, that was a very frustrating result. I thought we had them on the rack and created all the chances in that game, and there were some really positive signs on the night. We virtually had the ball over the line on three occasions but didn’t score, and Uni didn’t impress me at all, I thought they’d struggle to make finals based on that performance. To then go to Parra and get that result was good, it is always tough out there. There had been a lot of hype around Parra coming into the season and they were a bit of an unknown, so it was good to get the win. We weren’t great that day but again, there were plenty of positive signs.”
Your first ‘home’ match came next, a defeat to Eastwood played at Cranbrook School. How did that venue change affect the team and the preparation?
“We hadn’t actually trained there at that stage, it became a regular Thursday night option much later in the season, so we were still training under lampshades in parks effectively! The venue was completely unknown – I think we had the odd player in the team that had played a schoolboy game there – but it was effectively an away game.
“That Eastwood match was one of those games, and I still think the refereeing interpretations on the day cost us. We were in it right to the end when they scored one to open up the margin but really, that game was there for the taking. So that was two games against Uni and Eastwood where you look back and think we could well have been three from three instead of one from three.”
Losses to Manly, Randwick and Northern Suburbs followed to make it four defeats in a row, but all to sides you would consider as title contenders before the season started. What did those results and performances tell you about where Easts were sitting at the time, and how far off they were challenging for finals footy at least?
“It told me that we were exactly where I knew we could be or would be but in all honesty, I thought we’d jag a couple of wins in there as well. I thought Uni particularly were ripe for the picking in round one and I really thought we had Eastwoods measure throughout that match. Norths at North Sydney Oval was a good effort because they raced ahead and we came back. We pretty much had them beaten in the dying minutes but dropped the ball with the line open. But those losses, the continual disappointment with the field not being ready, and the training issues just made it all that bit harder to get to where we wanted to be. Those results started to eat away a bit at the belief and the winning attitude we were trying to build. So whilst I still thought we could make finals, you know that at the back end of the season when it’s tight those losses are going to cost you, and they did.”
The next month of footy was arguably your best of the season, with wins over Gordon in Orange, away at Penrith and West Harbour, and a creditable draw with the eventual champions Warringah up at Rat Park – a game you probably should have won. Did you feel things were beginning to click?
“I did and I knew it would take time. We were already a team that was good at playing systems and structures under DC, so I was coming at it from the other end of the spectrum, and I was trying to open up the player’s minds and their vision about how the game could be played. I thought that it would take three or four games before we could see where we were. Obviously, West Harbour were on the way up when we beat them out there and Penrith was one of our most clinical performances of the season, I think we led 40-0 at half-time. To play a home game against Warringah, but at Rat Park, and lead 27-10 with 10 minutes to go but only come away with a draw was disappointing. But at least we got the draw, that was something, and our performances were definitely picking up.”
And the obvious question is, what went wrong from there, because you then lost the next six games in a row?
“Probably Southern Districts in round 11. They had been inconsistent to that point, and the score was 21-all with not much on the clock that day. I remember Rowan Perry was 10cm short of scoring under the sticks with five to go. That would have put is in front and in good position but we just couldn’t seem to buy a break. We were guilty of giving away silly penalties at times during the season and there were key ones late in that game that cost us and we lost 27-21. We certainly played good rugby that day in terrible conditions but to lose that one was pretty critical when you looked at the ladder. The players had held it together really well up to that point – I think we all had. No-one had walked away, no-one had cracked the shits, but to lose that one when we’d done everything to get the result was hard.”
Those six losses came at the hands of Souths, Randwick, Manly, Warringah, Eastwood and West Harbour – so five finalists and the most improved team in the comp in Wests. Was it just a difficult run?
“It was a difficult run, and also, of all the years not to get Uni twice this maybe wasn’t one of them, but I don’t think you can blame the fixture list. We needed to win some early games that we didn’t, we got the middle part of the season almost right and went on that run, but the Souths game was critical. That would have set us up nicely for the run home but instead, we went into that set of games on the backfoot, and if you look at it, we didn’t beat any of the sides that finished in the top six. That’s the reality, and the more games you go through against those top sides and you haven’t jagged one, it becomes harder to take a scalp.”
You’d also moved your temporary home from Cranbrook School to Centennial Park – more upheaval. Why was that?
“We just didn’t have anywhere to go. There were two alternatives, one was to play every home game at the opposition club’s ground – for example, Randwick offered to play us at Coogee Oval and give us half the gate. But it was felt that it was best to have a place to call home rather than give every opposition another home game, and that was a decision I supported.
“So we chose to play at Centennial Park, but it didn’t have much atmosphere, it didn’t have much going on at all really. In hindsight, the players might have been able to get up for those away games more and we could have used use that siege mentality if you like. You just get that edge at home games from the crowd and we hadn’t had that feeling all season. There was a real sense of homelessness and whilst we talked a lot about overcoming adversity early in the season, it seemed to be too big an ask.”
Tom Pincus was your leading points-scorer when he headed overseas to Jersey in the English Championship after the round 10 clash with Wests. That proved to be a big loss didn’t it?
“If you look at the squad we had through the season, we brought a couple of key guys in. Mack Mason, who we’d have loved to see a bit more of, was in and out quite a bit and that certainly didn’t help. But Tom settled in really well and was obviously playing some really good football alongside his brother Joe. They were two really good pick-ups and it was disappointing to lose him at that point because arguably, he was the difference in some of those results we got after he left. We certainly missed him, but at the same time, we brought on a lot of young players with a view to 2018.”
You did finish off the season in style by putting 50pts on Parramatta at Centennial Park, and then 47pts on Gordon at Chatswood to leapfrog them on the ladder on the last day. By that time it had been announced that you weren’t going to be head coach for 2018, so how pleasing was it for you, and the team, to go out on a high?
“Very much so. We certainly stayed tight during that time and it was a tough situation to be in for me, but what do you do? What I think we did was deliver on the promise we’d shown earlier in the year. Fortunately, we got a couple of players back in Ryan McCauley and Jack Maddocks at that time and in fairness, if you look at the list of representative players from all the other clubs week-to-week throughout the season, we were well down the list on that front. I thought we competed well with a young squad – we were one of the youngest teams in the comp – so we had a lack of 1st grade experience. But it was all about building for the future and those wins at the back end were a clear indication of what we were capable of. Credit must go to our leaders as well in Tim Buchanan and Rowan Perry, who showed great maturity throughout the season in staying positive and focused on the task from week to week, rather than looking for excuses.”
What was the best or most pleasing performance/s of the season?
“There wasn’t one result that stands out because we didn’t ever nail it, and I just see that as a clear reflection of our lack of training time on a full field under proper lighting. But there were a few that I remember as being better than others. Warringah up there was a really clinical performance up until the last 10 minutes, against a team that went onto win the comp. We had Manly on the rack at Centennial Park as well, one more try would have put them to bed. We had Randwick almost dusted until they brought a Super Rugby player off the bench in David Horwitz. He just had fresh legs and was the difference along with Reece Robinson. It would be great to have the luxury of bringing those guys on late in the game. Souths again, were an improving side when we narrowly lost to them, and they went onto finish in the top two. I think all our close losses against the top teams were pleasing in a lot of respects, it was just disappointing that we didn’t get the result in any of them.”
Conversely, the worst or most frustrating performance/s of the season?
“Warringah up at Rat Park the second time was probably one. Talking to DC afterwards, he felt that was their best performance up to that point of the season, everything clicked for them that night. Having been there and dominated them in the first encounter, that was disappointing. The other one was probably Randwick at Coogee, where I think we just got spooked by the occasion early on. We didn’t make a big deal of it, we treated it as just another game. But in hindsight, maybe we should have made a bit more of it!”
Player of the Year?
“Fergus Lee-Warner easily, he was an absolute standout. He was fantastic right from the start. His ball carrying is outstanding, he was our best defensive player, and he’s resilient too – he doesn’t miss a game and doesn’t miss a training session. He plays in the tight five every week and yet arrives every Monday ready to go and he’s not carrying this or that or resting or seeing the physio, he just gets it done. It’s quite extraordinary really.”
Rookie/s of the Year?
“That was really tough because there were so many that put their hand up but we gave it to Will Maddocks. He’s been at the club for a couple of years and this was his first season in 1st grade and he did really well. He got the vote narrowly over Ned Yeomans, who played every game in what was his first year out of colts and off the back of a significant injury last year. He was terrific.”
Most Improved Player of the Year?
“Sam Fogarty was new to the club, and he got injured early on unfortunately but ended up in 1st grade on the wing. He really improved in that spot, which was great to see. But I’d probably say someone like Ned Yeomans again, just from where he started, to where he got to. He started in his position because we had no-one else and we were looking for someone to come in, but he really made it his own and worked hard at it.”
Across the club, all three lower grades finished 8th or below, while the colts had a stellar year, all three making the finals and 1’s and 2’s losing the grand final. Is that the great hope for Easts over the next few years, that those colts can push up into grade and build the depth so that all four grades are really competitive?
“Definitely, and that was certainly the plan. The club kick-started that colts program a few years ago and I think that’s the only way to build a club, from the ground up. The key performers this season were our younger guys and if Easts see plenty of them next year as well as some of the talent coming up from colts, that’s an exciting thing for the club. There’s no question that Easts had a very formidable squad on paper this year in colts and they were targeting a Premiership. They fell one short, which was a good effort, and they’ve got to maintain that winning culture and that attitude as they go into grade.”
“We were underdone coming into the season just with our lack of training facilities in pre-season, and I think that played out during the course of the year with nine of the losses that we suffered coming by basically a try. All we needed was three of those and we would have qualified for the finals. To play no home games probably impacted on that, it certainly impacted on our preparation, and that was probably the difference between us being a finals team or a team that came 9th. Finding out at the eleventh hour that you’ve got no home ground for the first 12 rounds, and subsequently, for the whole year, I think it was impossible.
“Easts haven’t made the finals for a number of years with full-time coaches and resources, and playing on their own pitch. This was a year where the club and the 1st grade side were under-resourced, and on top of that we lost our home ground and our training field. We were trying to perform a miracle to make the finals, but at the same time, I think we weren’t far from it. The suggestion from some quarters – not necessarily internally – was that we weren’t fit enough at the back end. But I just think we lacked that cohesion and attention to detail at times because of our ill-affected training regime right through the year, and that played out in critical moments, particularly earlier in the season.
“But we still did our best and hit the ground running, and at season’s end I’m happy to hang my hat on the fact that we played a far more attacking style of rugby that was unpredictable for our opposition. We created plenty of opportunities, we just didn’t seem to be able to convert those opportunities when it really mattered at crucial times in games. That was mostly down to holding our nerve under pressure, and that’s where I think we failed this year.
“I believe the players had more ownership of how they played and enjoyed that, whilst also struggling with it early on. We wanted to become better footballers, better decision makers and accountable to ourselves, and our team. Giving players ownership is sometimes difficult for coaches, but I believe it makes them better players in the long run. The upside was that we did have a consistency in our performance compared to previous seasons, where we had been a bit up and down. We also had 15 players debut this year that will still be at the club next year, and that’s pretty significant I think. They’re all young and they’re all players for the future.”