First Hand experience: Big Ben helping Marlins tick

Photo: Adam MacDonald

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The Intrust Super Shute Shield fixtures computer certainly has a delicious sense of irony. Either that or a mischievous hidden logarithm, programmed to prescribe clashes that are a repeat of seismic encounters just a few short months earlier, or that pitch players and coaches against their former sides as soon as possible.

So it was no surprise at all when the 2018 calendar was announced, and round one was spearheaded by a grand final rematch between Northern Suburbs and Warringah. But at the same time about 12kms north-west of North Sydney Oval, the rugby stars had also aligned to send ex-Eastwood legend Ben Hand straight back to his old stomping ground of TG Millner Field, as he embarked on his fledgling coaching career with Manly.

“In some ways I’m happy that it was first up and that it’s done, because it was a bit of a weird feeling going back there in different colours,” he told Behind the Ruck this week. “But the way the game is going it’s par for the course and plenty of people do it. I’m just glad the boys put in a good performance to start the season off well.”

That they did. Hand’s new charges romped home in the final quarter to see off the Woodies 32-13 and ensure a positive start to the new campaign, only for a loss to Norths a week later to sully those celebrations somewhat. However, another win on the road at Southern Districts in round three has left the Marlins ticking along nicely in 3rd spot on the ladder, as they look to mount another title challenge.

But the very fact that he is watching proceedings from the coaches box at all, was far from the tried and tested pathway taken by many in the game when they finally call time on their playing careers. For it was certainly more by accident than design that saw him take his bow on the other side of the white lines.

Hand’s performances for Eastwood as one of the more astute locks going around in club footy, saw him go on to carve out a Super Rugby career with the NSW Waratahs (10 caps), and then the Brumbies (43 caps). But after 10 seasons plying his trade in Australia, he took his wares overseas for a stint with French side Grenoble that saw him experience promotion, relegation, and the traditional Top 14 coaching merry-go-round.

It was while he was enjoying his fourth year at the foot of the Alps, that an unexpected opportunity knocked.

“I was captaining the team after my third season, and then in my fourth season our forwards coach got punted – as tends to happens over there – and I sort of took a bit of control over the lineout and some forward stuff,” he explains. “I was player/coach but it wasn’t in any official capacity, I was just doing the forwards because there was no-one else.”

One year later, Hand finally hung up his boots at the age of 35 and returned Down Under with no other intention than settling into a new life away from the game. But the coaching bug had bitten, and he soon found himself putting his wealth of rugby knowledge, nous and experience to good use, while he also adjusted to a new profession outside of his comfort zone.

“There was no plan to do it, I’ve just found it enjoyable to be coaching since I’ve got back home as a way to stay in touch with the modern game I suppose,” he admits. “A lot of people talk about transition, and for me it’s been good being in the insurance world now. But when you first start a job outside of rugby and you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s quite comforting to go to a training session around rugby, which you’re very familiar with and feel comfortable doing.”

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Lifting the Shute Shield after the extra-time win over Sydney Uni in 2011 – Photo: SPA Images

He hooked up with the Western Sydney Rams for last year’s NRC competition as lineout coach, a role that put him under the familiar auspices of coaches John Manenti and Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose, both of whom Hand had played under during his successful tenure with the Woodies. It went well, so much so that the canny Melrose – also head coach of Manly of course – tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would like to join him at the Marlins as he planned for this year’s Shute Shield campaign.

From the outside looking in, a coaching apprenticeship at TG Millner with the club that ran through his veins seemed to be the most obvious natural progression. But as Hand explains, some things just land in your lap at the right time, and are simply too good to turn down.

“Billy got there first and as I said, I didn’t have a great intention to do anything coaching-wise, and as far as I knew, Eastwood were still entrenched with Stu Woodhouse and Johnny Manenti coaching, so I didn’t really explore that avenue.

“Billy and I have a long relationship from the inaugural Western Sydney Rams back in the ARC, then at Eastwood, and he also coached me at the Waratahs. I also live on the northern beaches now, so it just kind of made sense.”

Hand’s official title at the Marlins is set-piece coach, with a shared responsibility for defence with Melrose, a character who is known for his passion, intensity and commitment to the cause – sometimes too much! But his new assistant feels that their prior history could be the perfect combination for all involved.

“I was captain of a number of teams that Billy coached, so we had a good relationship from that. But not much has changed, and I don’t see him any differently now,” he affirms.

“He’s got his handle on all levels of rugby, he has plenty of experience and knows the in’s and out’s of the game. He’s a very passionate man and can be a pretty intense customer at times I think some people would say. So I think if I can maybe have that connection with the group, we can kind of be the yin and yang to each other. But that’s not to say that I don’t have a certain intensity around my own coaching as well.”

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Hand played 43 times for the ACT Brumbies – Photo: SPA Images

Melrose led Manly to the Minor Premiership last season before injuries and a lapse in form ended their challenge at the semi-final stage. And besides a few extra ‘perfect world’ boxes he’d like to have seen ticked before a ball was kicked in anger in 2018, from what Hand has seen in pre-season and the early rounds of the new competition, he feels pretty confident that they can be there or thereabouts once again.

“We had a good year last year but we’re probably short in depth in a couple of positions, and every club has those problems,” he reasons. “We also have huge amounts of depth in other positions, and I’m really going to sound like a coach now but I don’t think you’re ever truly satisfied with what you’ve got. I know other teams will have had their challenges as well, but I also think we’ve come in a bit underdone with injuries and Sevens comps and what have you. We also had a huge bulk of players involved in the NRC, so we didn’t pick things up seriously until mid-January around Australia Day. But I think early in a season it’s more or less about trying to win. Nothing is ever going to be perfect and you can try and replicate stuff at training, but we just need to get things in games represented.

“There’s been a real resurgence and interest in club rugby, as we saw last year, and it’s a really exciting time to be involved with it. I think back to when I was at Eastwood for 10 years and there was us, Randwick and Sydney Uni that kind of dominated the competition at that time. But now I see nine teams that could realistically push their claims for a finals spot. There are teams that missed the semis last year in Uni, Wests and Easts that could be three of the stronger clubs this year, so it’s going to be interesting.

“It’s hard for me to say as I haven’t coached in the Shute Shield before, but clearly there’s a huge amount of talent in this squad. So I think we’re going to be strong and competitive, but I think the Shute Shield is going to be very hard this year because it’s more competitive across the board. I can’t see many easy games. It’s going to be hard every week, and I think that’s going to make for a great competition. Injuries will play a big part, as will momentum. So as long as we can stay consistent with our preparation and our performance, then hopefully we can get the bounce of the ball.”

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Calling the shots at pre-season training with the Marlins – Photo: Adam MacDonald

Hand admits he has been fortunate to play under some of the shrewdest rugby brains in the game, but ask him which, if any, he is modelling his own coaching style on, and he’ll say he’s very much his own man. But that doesn’t stop him taking a few pointers now and then.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be coached by Jake White, Laurie Fisher and Justin Harrison, who was a real exponent of the lineout as a forwards coach, which is something I’m passionate about,” he says. “But while there’s not one coach whose philosophy I follow, I am always interested in reading Eddie Jones’ articles.”

One thing that is vitally important to him is the holistic nature of coaching. No doubt driven by his recent perspective as a player, and what made him function to the best of his ability on a daily and weekly basis, he is a strong believer in coaching the person, not just the player.

“The coaches that I’ve played under and really respected the most, not only have a good understanding and handle on what they want on the footy field but they care about what sort of person you are as well,” he observes. “I like to care about the players, and not just see them as rugby players but see them as people. If you have that philosophy of what makes certain players tick and what kind of people they are, it can assist you and it can assist them.”

To that degree, helping this current Manly side put the disappointing end to last season out of their minds, and alleviating the weight of history they seem to carry with them as the clock ticks towards 21 years since their last Premiership, would seem to be a necessary measure. But the straight-talking Hand is no fan of looking backwards.

“A lot of people say that history is ‘holding them back’ but I don’t think it’s this current group’s responsibility for what happened last year, we can only be concerned about this year,” he bristles. “I’d like to think that the pressure shouldn’t fall on this group of players for what happened 20 years ago, and that’s the message I’m trying to convey to the boys.

“In Manly there’s a certain pressure for the guys to perform, but we’ve just got to block that out and concentrate on what we can control, how we train and how we prepare for matches. The boys have been first class in their application towards what Billy and myself have been trying to instil, so we’ve just got to worry about this season, because what happened two years ago, five years ago, or 20 years ago we can’t change, and we can’t let that influence us.

“I wasn’t part of the set-up last year so I’m only interested in what we can do this year, and the thing with us is ensuring that we manage key moments in matches. I was there at the semi-final last year when they went down to Eastwood by 20pts in the first 10 minutes, so the biggest thing for me that I’m trying to bring is to ensure they have a really strong core of base principles, and that the boys know them inside out.

“Then, in times of pressure or duress in games at different parts of the season, they can fall back into those processes and calls. That’s probably the biggest thing for me, not trying to create trick plays or anything like that, just having good core basics that can stand up under pressure.”

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Guiding the maul for Grenoble in 2012: Hand says he learned much from his time in France Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Where he does think he may offer a point of difference in terms of intellectual property is the detail around forward play, an area he believes Australian rugby is still playing catch-up to the European heavyweights.

“Obviously in France, while they’re not very strong around technical stuff, it’s been interesting to see how they manage the emotional side of things over there,” he reflects. “And I think from having played here and then experienced the northern hemisphere and the detail put into the game around the set-piece – where it is such a big emphasis – that gives me a good understanding of the differences.

“That’s probably been lacking in recent times in Australia, and that’s perhaps the reason why we’ve struggled against the northern hemisphere teams recently. So if I can combine the sort of knowledge that I acquired up there and obviously prior to that, then impart some of that knowledge to the teams that I coach, they may have a fair bit of success.”

Helping him try to achieve that goal at the Marlins, Hand is blessed with a bevy of options amongst a forward pack that has been one of the most consistent performers in the Intrust Super Shute Shield in recent seasons.

With the notable absence of retired warrior Ed Gower in the second row, the names of James Hilterbrand, Harry Bergelin, Kotoni Ale, Adrian Hall, Tevita Metuisela and Ryan Melrose have lit up the Sydney club scene for a fair few seasons now, but there are a few newer faces that have got the incoming coach purring as well.

“We’ve got a lot of depth across the front row and we’ve got a young guy called Charlie Abel who’s come to us from Perth, via Canberra and France,” he says. “He’s the younger brother of Robbie Abel at the Brumbies, and he can play all the front row positions and been really impressive. He’s a very skilful player and obviously, an ability to cover all three positions is a real bonus.

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Sam Shires: “A hard-nosed player with a high workrate” says Hand – Photo: Adam MacDonald

“Brad Hemopo’s got a bit of x-factor out wide, and I think sometimes Manly may have struggled looking for the x-factor. But I like to see a few old fashioned workhorses, they are a bit undervalued, and Sam Shires is your typical English workhorse. I just think he’s someone that every forward pack needs, a hard-nosed player with a high workrate. Another one is Alex Westgarth, he’s in really good condition and he’ll be a leader of the pack this year, he’s someone that has really impressed me so far.

“We don’t need to be necessarily dominant at set-piece, we just need to be consistent on our own ball and pressure the opposition ball at scrum and lineout. Consistency is really what I’m looking for.”

The more you talk to Ben Hand, the more his passion for the game, and in particular the dark arts of forward play, becomes apparent. He is a student of it – he loves it, lives it and breathes it – and while he rightly suggests that winning a Premiership requires a lot of different intangibles to fall a team’s way, this seemingly reticent novice coach could well prove to be a key ingredient in Manly’s recipe for future success.

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