Grand Final Key Match-Up – Rory O’Connor v Paddy Ryan
Photos: Karen Watson & AJF Photography
Ask anyone with even a passing interest in this afternoon’s Intrust Super Shute Shield grand final, and they’ll tell you that the scrum battle will be key. Statistically the best scrum in the comp, Uni have forced eight penalty tries already this season under the guidance of forwards coach Joe Horn-Smith, and they are boosted in the title decider by the presence of club stalwart, and former Waratah and Wallaby, Paddy Ryan.
But packing down on the opposite side for Warringah is one of the country’s, most promising – and out-and-out strongest – young props in the shape of Rory O’Connor. As Rats head coach Darren Coleman – who is more than familiar with Ryan as his skipper in the NRC with the NSW Country Eagles – describes at as the ‘young bull versus the old bull’
The contest between the two, and both packs in general, looms as potentially the clash of the day. Behind the Ruck caught up with both front row behemoths earlier this week to gauge their views on the battle ahead.
ON THE SEASON SO FAR:
Rory O’Connor: “This season could be probably be narrowed down to three phases in the defence of last year’s title. The first phase is based around a fear of complacency and constantly comparing the start of the season to the end of last year’s performances. So you get a bit bogged down in chasing unrealistic goals. The second phase is usually marked by a couple of poor performances, and/or losses where you realise it’s purely going to take hard work to get back to the top. The last phase is grinding out games – ideally wins – and anxiously calculating the run to the finals. Eventually, based on injuries, a bit of luck and the fruits of your labour, you possibly end up at the same place you were last year.
“Last year’s experience will definitely help in eliminating some of the unknown’s of grand final day in terms of logistics, and how to approach the game as a team and individually. Other than that I think it’s better to cross each bridge as you come to it, and follow the same steps you have taken every week, otherwise you can become victim to this sense of ‘we deserve this’ or ‘we’ve earned it’.”
Paddy Ryan: “I wasn’t there for the start of the year, however, from afar there was noticeable change at the club instigating by the appointment of Rob Taylor (RT). One of the first acts I witnessed was him inviting a lot of blokes who’d been involved with the club to get back involved on a casual basis. Examples of these guys are Jono Jenkins, Dave Hickey and Jordan Sukkar. Over the last two seasons we’d been too inexperienced in big games, and returning these blokes – even though it was in a social capacity – has allowed young guys to witness how they behave and hear their stories. Personally, for the first time in nine years I trained in the Uni gym over the Christmas break. RT offered all the Tahs boys that opportunity. So whilst I didn’t witness much of the pressure or the early days of training, I could sense a change come over the place as RT took the reigns.
“Something that youth possess is that fearlessness. Our boys, and particularly our backs, have shown that this year. I think that’s also a reflection of RT’s coaching ability. He can work well with the young blokes, whilst also getting the best out of the old fellas like ‘Dools’ [Dave McDuling] and I.
“I think good teams build their own identity. What we’ve seen this year is the team feed off some dominant members of the group enjoyment of the physical battle. In previous years we saw the group love to work hard. There is no right or wrong way. Rather it’s the style the group embraces that maximises their potential. I have loved what ‘Swints’ [Lachlan Swinton], [Nick Champion] de Crespigny and in later weeks [Tom] Horton have brought. It’s the kind of borderline physicality that other teams hate. And for that it has played it’s role in getting us to this point of the season.”
ON EACH OTHER AND THE SCRUM BATTLE:
Paddy Ryan: “The set-piece will play a big role in which way this game goes, and all players involved will love that. Hats off to [Uni forwards coach] Joe Horn-Smith, who has done a great job with this pack.
The difference with this pack, nay this team, is the way it is led. From RT, to JH-S, to Rohan O’Regan – there is no ego. No one wants to be the most important or the hero. Whilst some people looking in may struggle to believe that when we play, they are confusing abrasiveness for ego. I think particularly with the skipper [O’ Regan], his patience and work ethic has been one of the biggest contributing factors to the way the whole team has performed. Rohan is not Tim Davidson, however it is amazing to witness such a young natural leader first hand so soon after the departure of one of club rugby’s greatest captains. I have enjoyed played under him immensely. All good leaders empower those around them, Rohan is very good at this.
“I have packed against Rory a few times. He is a very strong bloke. Last time I shared a gym floor with him I think he squatted over 240kgs! His strength is his strength. It’ll be the toughest challenge I could have faced in club rugby without packing down against my own pack. Rory has been the best and most consistent prop in Shute Shield for two season. That’s why Simon Cron is bringing him into the Waratahs fold. I look forward to the challenge with him and Luke Holmes. Both good rugby men who’ll be up for the fight.”
Rory O’Connor: “Uni have great depth in their front row, right through the grades. I think a lack of injuries has ensured they have a strong bench, but most importantly it’s their technique and ability to scrummage as an eight that dictates their dominance. Our analysis of Uni throughout the year has shown this, and proved scrummaging is more of a reputation built on consistency than any one game.
“The chance to play Paddy in the grand final is certainly a privilege and a challenge. He’s a fearless combatant, who has proved over countless years through every tier of competitive rugby in Australia, what it takes to be a consistent performer and team man. I think many people forget that besides playing for the Waratahs every year, he turns up for Uni when needed throughout the season, and is always competing at finals time. He also pours his heart and soul into the NSW Country Eagles immediately following the Shute Shield, so there isn’t many people around more dedicated to the game than him.
“It’s well known that Paddy is very good at shearing across the scrum, and leaving the loosehead behind or causing him to kick his hips out. Uni in general are the best at this technique but we will be prepared to counter that.”
ON THE GAME:
Rory O’Connor: “The Rats have used their physicality as the focus of their game all year, and the grand final will be the ultimate display of that. We have a number of older players in the team who will be looking to exploit the younger Uni side, proving that it will be one of the main features of Saturday’s decider.
“The experience of last year will certainly help some players to block out some of the extra interest and media, but many of the guys have played in high-stakes games before. They are aware that the team who keeps their wits about them and competes play-by-play, will give themselves the best chance of winning.
Apart from their set-piece, Uni have a very good kicking game that attempts to put the pressure on the opposition through high-balls and broken field play. They definitely do this to out-run the opposition and exploit slower players. However, we have a bond in defence that will be hard to break this weekend, meaning Uni will have to go through us, not over us. If we limit their ability to kick and make smart decisions around counter-attack, we will make good in-roads to being successful.”
Paddy Ryan: “This Grand Final on paper has the makings of a great spectacle. Physicality up front, combined with skill, speed and flair out wide. I look forward to the first time one of our ‘Bash Brothers’ run into [Tom] Preece or Wardy – it’ll be worth the price of admission alone.
“Last year is last year. The boys will be preparing as they have all this season, and replicating what has worked week-to-week, maybe with a little more intensity and less load. For the Rats, last year as a victory transcended sport. What the club achieved in the face of adversity was more special than this poor tighthead could do with words.
“This season they have called on their big game experience from previous years and won clutch moments. That is what they bring to the game, that experience under pressure. Stop them up front and let our backs play – both sides will have that aim. What a mouth watering prospect!”
THE COACHES VIEW:
Darren Coleman: “I’ve got a soft spot for both of these guys having coached them both, and it’ll be a good battle. It’s young bull versus old bull, one guy is on his way out of professional rugby and the other is on his way into it. It’ll be a good litmus test and no doubt Paddy will have a few tricks up his sleeve, but we’re more than confident that Rory is up to the challenge. The scrum battle is always important but we’ve shown this year that we’ve won games with a dominant scrum, and we’ve won games where our scrum has had a hard day. Yes, you’d like to be on top in every aspect of the game but in a game like this, it’s unlikely to be the case. If we are good, or if we aren’t, we can still win the game.”
Robert Taylor: “I can’t really comment on the technical specifics regarding Paddy versus Rory when it comes to scrums. But Paddy is a very versatile prop who gets around, and is like an extra backrower running and tackling with his size. It certainly helps when lifting the lineout to have a few more inches at the top.”