Finals fever: Beasts on the way back to the big time

Photo: SPA Images

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After four years without finals football, Eastern Suburbs looked from within at the end of last season for a change of fortune, and to someone who had the fabric of the club running through his veins.

A former Easts and Sydney University loose forward, Pauli Taumoepeau’s playing career never got the chance to reach the heights his selection as Australian Schoolboy’s captain at the age of 17 promised. While younger brother Afusipa racked up 25 appearances for the Brumbies and Rebels before heading to Europe, where he is currently plying his trade with Castres in the French Top 14, Pauli’s career was a story of ‘what if’s’, as injury after injury curtailed the progress of a hardworking, combative, but hugely skilful young talent.

So when he finally called time at the age of just 27-years-old, it was no surprise that the rugby-obsessive moved into the coaches’ box, and he freely admits that it was a way of trying to replace the possibilities that were stolen from him on the field. “I miss three things about rugby. One is defence – I loved defending, and second is that I’ll never get an opportunity to play with ‘Sipa’ again. But maybe most of all, I miss the strategic side of the game as a captain. So whilst I don’t get to play or tackle anyone while I’m coaching, I do get to exercise the brain.”

He spent the last three years serving his apprenticeship as Colts Director down at Woollahra, a role that culminated with all three colts grades reaching last season’s grand finals, and one claiming the big prize. So it was perhaps a no-brainer for the Easts board to offer him the chance to take up the reigns on a bigger stage. But while he is genuinely humbled by their faith in his potential, he wasn’t quite so sure that he was the right man for the job at this stage of his coaching journey.

“I do think I’ve coached for long enough that I can deliver something to a group, but in terms of whether I was ready to go as a 1st grade coach I don’t know, I’ve just never really looked at it that way,” he told me earlier in the season. “When I got the role, I had a lot of people say to me that I was ready for this, and that what I had done with the colts program had been really good. But I just thought ‘Why does this blessing happen to me? Why do I get to come in on a Monday and look at rugby videos? That’s what a lot of people try to do at work and hide it from their boss, but I get to do it as a job!’

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Brotherly Beasts: Pauli (right) with younger brother Afusipa in 2011 – Photo: SPA Images

“I don’t get ahead of myself, I’m only 31, so I realise that I’ve got a lot to learn, and I understand where I am in my development as a coach. So to have the team and the board allow me to do my thing as I’m learning is unbelievable, and I’m learning every day. But I love it, I really love it!”

That infectious enthusiasm and unbridled joy in his work paid immediate dividends, with his new charges enjoying their best start to a season since 2012. But while plenty outside the Beasts’ camp were showering them with praise, Pauli made sure that those on the inside kept their feet firmly on the floor. He is all too aware that it’s been so long since Eastern Suburbs last tasted success in the Intrust Super Shute Shield – 1969 to be exact – that weighing the current side down with that kind of historical baggage was not a distraction they needed.

“Our trophy cabinet is empty, there’s nothing in there,” he railed. “The best thing about our clubhouse is the bistro – there’s no Shute Shield, no Colin Caird Shield, no Sir Roden Cutler Shield, and no Club Championship. So we’ve got nothing to be arrogant about.

“You never win by accident, you only lose by accident, so we prepare to win all the time, and if we keep winning, that’s what we’re preparing for. Obviously, we’re going to try and develop, we’re going try and build confidence throughout the 18 rounds. But I don’t think arrogance will be an issue because it’s not in my DNA, so I won’t allow it.”

A major part of the challenge when he took over, was lifting the morale of a team that had clearly underachieved in recent seasons, and that had lost that winning ‘edge’ to get them over the line in tight games. A mitigating factor for that last season was that they played all their matches away from home, following the unforeseen delays that prevented the opening of the new all-weather facility at Woollahra Oval. But Pauli wasn’t having any of that either.

“Two years ago I thought they took easy options on the field a lot, but they were a young side, and last year was maybe a transition,” he reflects. “But I didn’t want them using the pitch as an excuse, and that feeds into the mentality side of things. I told them that they could have won the Shute Shield playing at Centennial Park, and that if you lose your ground, you just have to get on with it, rather than losing games and using that as the excuse. I said to them very early on that a switch play, whether it is on a patch of grass, a synthetic pitch, or on gravel, is still a switch play, and it depends on the execution, your intent to get over the advantage line and the clean out. You can achieve that anywhere.

“This is a life thing. I find that when you have clarity around the areas in your life, you’re going to do well. When you get in the car, and there’s clarity around where you’re going – from your house to your work and this is the route that you’re taking and you go that way – there’s no mucking around. I’m not going to comment on what they were doing last year or their mentality, but that’s definitely something that we’ve done this year.

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Calling the shots: Coach Pauli lays down the law at Chatswood Oval – Photo: SPA Images

“Everyone understands that if we’ve got a scrum in midfield, what our objective is, what our outcomes are and how we get there. Sometimes, we need to get there by different ways, like when there’s a traffic jam on the normal route to work, how else can we get there? We’re not just going to turn left and see how we go, we’re going to go left or go right, and if those options are opposed then we kick it and chase. I think that’s been a positive for the boys, that if they get to an edge, or are in midfield, they know what they’re doing.

“Momentum is definitely something we’ve spoken about as well. I used to get pressure from my coaches when I was a captain about controlling momentum, but I used to think it wasn’t something you could really control. But now I’m on the other side of the line, I realise you can. You’ve got to be patient in certain areas of the field, pressure the opposition, and understand when we need to use that.”

Just listening to Pauli talk rugby, or indeed life, is enough to understand how he has been able to get the best out of his players. But for all his desire to try and keep a lid on things, the manner and polish of Easts’ opening performances clearly suggested a team – and a coach – that were heading firmly in the right direction.

Fast-forward a few months and that early promise hasn’t proven to be misguided. In Waratah flyhalf Mack Mason, they have a reliable hand on the tiller in terms of game management, while the likes of Connal McInerney and Ryan McAuley have seen their form rewarded with opportunities at the next level. They have one of the best on-ballers going around in Rowan Lerrythe 4th best defence in the comp, a potent lineout maul, damaging ball runners in midfield, and plenty of gas out wide.

Winning nine of their 16 contested matches (two byes replaced the vanquished Penrith Emus fixtures), they grabbed 6th spot in one of the most hotly contested 1st grade competitions we’ve seen. As a result, they head to Camperdown this afternoon for a must-win clash against Minor Premiers Sydney University. But while a return to the upper echelons of 1st grade has been cause for plenty of cheer around the club, it is the seismic improvements across the board that really make you stand up and take notice.

From an eighth place finish in the 2017 Club Championship, Easts have experienced a meteoric rise to sit proudly as the second best in Sydney club rugby just a year later, with all seven grades and colts reaching the finals. Someone who has experienced both sides of the coin is captain Tim Buchanan. Having been a part of the frustrations of recent years, he has had a front row seat to the overhaul that’s taken place, and has no doubt that the influence of Taumoepeau should not be understated.

“I think Pauli and the coaching team set a great platform in the pre-season which the players have all bought into and all really enjoy being a part of,” he explains. “There has been a great feeling at the club all year. He’s obviously a big family man and he’s created that family environment. He respects us as players, promotes respect for each other, and he understands that people have jobs outside of rugby, and the time and pressure that comes with that.

“Everyone has bought into that, and everyone wants to be the best they can and come to training. But if work or life has got to get in the way, Pauli understands that that comes first. He’s quite a calm character, and when the heat is on he’s all about taking a breath and keeping your composure and emotions in check. But he’s also got a hard edge to him, and as you can see with our defence, he’s brought that into the team.

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Tim Buchanan leads by example against Sydney Uni – Photo: SPA Images

“It’s tough to exactly put your finger on why we haven’t gone so well in recent seasons, but I think Pauli has done a great job building the culture off the back of what was a really tough year. If you look at the results in 2017, we weren’t that far off in a lot of games – a try here and there could have changed the story of the season. I think a lot of lessons were learned, and a lot of players got to play their first season in 1st grade. But Pauli’s given us a bit of calmness, smartness and game control. I think he’s done an incredible job.”

While the coach is rightly adamant that you should be able to play footy anywhere, on any surface, and in any conditions, if you have ambitions to succeed, the boost of returning to a superbly revamped Woollahra Oval this season, and actually having a place to call home, has definitely played a significant role in the club’s revival.

“Having your field back is a huge plus, and you can just see the energy that it’s brought back to everyone,” Buchanan agrees. “All the grades, colts and women can train together on the same night, it’s not just 1st grade’s field, it’s everyone’s field, and I don’t think you realise until you play on a weekend just how much that benefits you as a club. Everyone knows each other’s name and everyone is supporting each other. Having a home is key.”

All well and good so far then. But while the improvements across the board are plenty of reason to celebrate, the next three weekends will determine the true success of Easts’ season. Now that they’re here, Buchanan and co. do not want to waste their opportunity.

“The table probably shows that we haven’t been as consistent as we would have liked, losing some games we shouldn’t have,” he reflects. “But those 11 wins – including some against top six teams – give us the chance to play, and gives us confidence going into finals. It’s a much different team now than round one, and we are playing much better rugby. In the second half of the season we faced some must-win games to make the top six, so we are well prepped for knockout footy.

“The prep has been great. You rarely get the opportunity to have two weeks to prepare for a final, so we’ve taken full advantage of it. There is a great buzz and energy around the whole club, having all seven teams in the finals is a huge achievement and something everyone is really proud of. But the job isn’t done yet and everyone is looking forward to the challenges ahead.”

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Mack Mason has played a pivotal role in Easts’ progress in 2018 – Photo: SPA Images

The two-week break came courtesy of a bye in the last round of the regular season, but it followed what was arguably their worst performance all year, going down 51-5 on their own turf to an impressive Northern Suburbs. For a team that has been as well-drilled defensively as they have in 2018, it was a surprising capitulation.

“We simply didn’t turn up and just expected it to happen,” concedes the skipper. “We had a few guys come back in and probably expected them to lift us, and we didn’t play with any real energy, which has been a strength of ours. It was a good reality check for us and showed us the standard we have to be at as a finals team.

“We had a poor loss to Warringah in the middle of the year and then had a three-week break with our first bye and then the competition bye. But we came back from that to put out a great performance to knock off Norths away from home. So we have no choice but to make it work for us again.”

They have faced Sydney University twice already this year, going down 27-19 at Woollahra, and 36-29 at University Oval No.2. But as the results imply, they showed more than enough to suggest they have the tools to worry the Students, particularly in a one-off contest. Buchanan certainly believes that it was more a case of what his side didn’t do in both matches that decided matters, rather than anything the Students specifically did.

“We lost those two games ourselves, we weren’t beaten by Uni. We gave them multiple tries and opportunities in both games, and against a top side you can’t do that, they will punish you. They play with a lot of energy and move the ball across the field well, and look to hurt you out wide. Obviously we need to tighten up and not provide them with those opportunities.”

Should they fall short and their season is ended by around 4.40pm this afternoon, it would be hard to make a case for negativity given the hurdles they’ve already straddled just to get to this point. And there is no doubt that in Pauli Taumoepeau, they have a head coach whose morals, ideals, ambition and rugby nous, should ensure even better days to come in the ensuing seasons.

But part of aspiring to greatness is a refusal to accept failure of any sort, and Buchanan isn’t ready to accept a gracious defeat.

“To an extent it’s been a successful season. But like all the other grades, we’ve set the goal to win the competition, so anything short of that is not really a success. We will definitely be disappointed to get this far and not finish it off.”

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