Andrew Deegan: Back on deck, back on track, and loving it!

Photo: Western Force

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Being called Andrew and helping to lead the Western Force back into the limelight seems to be in vogue right now. But while Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest is busy putting his money where his mouth is and delivering off the field for rugby fans in Western Australia, it’s his on-field namesake Andrew Deegan that is doing to plenty to validate those efforts to preserve the Force’s long-term status.

And while the performances of the young flyhalf are undoubtedly benefitting his team and endorsing their decision to bring him back to Australia from a frustrating stint in Ireland, they are perhaps doing even more for a player that has been knocking on the door and just waiting for a chance to show what he can do at the next level.

He gets a further chance to shine in this afternoon’s blockbuster NRC semi-final clash against Queensland Country on the Gold Coast. Another victory over the reigning Premiers on their own turf to back up the win they achieved there just four weeks ago in the regular season, would take the Force into a grand final showdown with the Fijian Drua, and an opportunity to cock a further snook at the powers that be with some silverware.

But let’s rewind a bit.

Some twelve months ago, Deegan was already one of the hottest properties donning a no.10 jersey in Australian club footy. And in a country that hasn’t exactly forged a lengthy queue of potential test pivots behind Bernard Foley since the Wallaby incumbent first took his international bow, he was definitely one to keep an eye on.

However, a couple of seasons on the fringes with the NSW Waratahs bore no fruit, and it was becoming increasingly obvious from his stellar form with club side Randwick, that the then 22-year-old would need to head in another direction if he was to be afforded the chance to flex his fledgling wings and fully take flight.

If the Western Force hadn’t just been axed from Super Rugby of course, his arrival across the Nullarbor may just have taken a less circuitous route. But with no viable options on the table in his homeland, Deegan opted to chance his arm in Europe when Irish side Connacht came calling.

At the time I wrote a piece on his impending departure, and how bloody frustrating it was to lose another talented young flyhalf – see also Sam Johnson, Sam Greene, Jake McIntyre and Paul Asquith – overseas. But that given their recent history of expressive play, I also saw Connacht as a seemingly good fit for his particular style, and that it may well prove to be the environment he needed, in which to fully thrive.

Seven months and just two first team appearances later, not only did I end up with a fair amount of egg on my face, but the hopes and aspirations of a burgeoning talent prepared to take a punt, had been summarily quashed.

“I got over there a bit late last year after the Shute Shield finals,” Deegan told Behind the Ruck when we caught up again this week. “And when I arrived, I had to wait a couple of weeks before I was eligible to play because there are rules around how many non-European players you can have in your side. You’re only allowed two in your matchday 23 and we had too many, so the club had to wait until another player became European qualified before I could get a crack.

“But when I did finally play, I thought I did ok in my first Pro 14 game against Cardiff. Then the following week we went over to Geneva to play Oyonnax in the European Challenge Cup, won by 40pts, and I was named Player of the Round for that week of the competition. But I never played again after that.”

Andrew Deegan_Connacht_2017_Getty

Deegan in his one and only Pro 14 appearance against Cardiff Photo: Getty Images

Yes, you read that right.

Deegan racked up 18pts that day as Connacht summarily dismissed the lowly French outfit 43-15 in what is European rugby’s shadow competition to the Champions Cup.

He picked up an award as the best player in the entire tournament for that round, and also had the local press warming to him too, with this piece appearing in the Irish Independent after the match.

But he never pulled on the jersey again. Which obviously begs the question – why the hell not?

Six months after he returned Down Under, he’s still not exactly sure.

“There was a new coach, a new system, and they did a bit of rotation for the next game and admittedly, the other no. 10 Jack Carty was in good form,” he humbly offers.

“The coach (former Chiefs assistant Kieran Keane) liked to play a running style of footy, and most of the teams I’d played with back in Australia like that style, so I thought I’d fit in quite well. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be at the time. I don’t think there was a personal clash with the coach, I just think he saw me as being better-suited to Southern Hemisphere footy.”

Several vexed months of kicking his heels in the second team later, and it was pretty clear that, for whatever reason, the young Aussie wasn’t a part of coach Keane’s plans. The frustrating part for Deegan was that he had settled well into life on the wild and woolly west coast of Ireland. He loved the town of Galway, the people, and the players. And as an exercise in broadening your palette as a playmaker, the trials and tribulations thrown your way in a northern European winter certainly tick plenty of boxes.

“A town like Galway is very welcoming, and I got on really well with a lot of the players over there and really enjoyed my time,” he asserts. “Obviously, I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do rugby-wise. But in terms of lifestyle, life experience and meeting new people, it was unbelievable.

“Just being in training and playing in the second-string side at Connacht, the Eagles, it really does challenge the way you were brought up as a young kid playing in Australia. The forwards over there have a lot of contact sessions, and there is a greater focus on the set-piece and maul. If you get a good platform from your forwards, then it’s about picking the right areas of the field to play in, and knowing when to conserve the energy of those forwards and unleashing your backline.

“There are days there where you are training with five or six layers on because of the cold, and a lot of times it’s in the rain and sometimes with hail. So it does test your skills and your mental approach to rugby, and it’s interesting to hear the perspectives of the many different nationalities and how they think the game should be played.

“The experience hasn’t put me off playing overseas at all, and I think it’s something all Aussie players should do at some point if they can because you learn a lot about yourself, and you learn a lot about rugby when you go to Europe. It’s definitely a different beast to rugby down here, and I loved it.”

But ultimately, if you’re not getting minutes on the field on the stage on which you want to truly test yourself, there was only one decision to make when murmurs of a Western Force revival, and subsequent recruitment drive, reached his ears.

“I got a call from my manager to say there were rumours that WA would be starting a team up again, and he asked around a bit to find out how that might work,” Deegan explains. “From what we were told it was the start of something new, and there was such conviction in the way they felt they were going to make it happen, that I just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be a part of it.

“There was definitely the excitement of the new competition, but I think the opportunity to play quality rugby again was a big factor. Obviously I didn’t play much over in Ireland, and I looked at this as a chance to get some more minutes under my belt. I also knew a few of the players that were coming over here from Sydney club rugby and what they were like in terms of personality, and it became a very attractive time to join a team like this.”

Twiggy Forrest_Force v Fiji Warriors_2018

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest: A West Australian rugby man on a mission

Indeed, the renaissance under ‘Twiggy’ Forrest was in full swing, and what seemed like potentially empty rhetoric from the billionaire businessman after the Force’s horse had already bolted from its Super Rugby stable, was increasingly proving to be the potent call to arms of a proud rugby-loving West Australian that he always intended.

Year one would consist of a series of ‘exhibition’ matches against teams from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Hong Kong and Japan, and Super Rugby opposition in the shape of the Melbourne Rebels and Crusaders. It would also herald a trial revamping of the laws, with seven-point ‘power tries’, flashing goal posts, extra substitutions, a scrum clock and fireworks galore. Deegan wanted in.

Thanks to the key support and assistance of Connacht Director of Rugby Tim Allnutt, the move from the west coast of Ireland to the west coast of Australia went through. His contract was mutually terminated, allowing him to head to Perth in April this year, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“I love Perth. I’d only ever been here once before for a cricket tournament back in Year 10, so I was keen to see what it was like to live here and it’s a good lifestyle. I think it’s not until you go overseas that you are reminded about the luxury that Australia offers with the weather!” he laughs.

“It is the most isolated city in the world but everyone is very welcoming, it’s very laid back, and people know what they need to get done and they get it done. It’s quite a humbling city that way. The Force squad is made up of players from all around the world so everyone comes together, and while we don’t have a lot of family and friends outside the rugby circle here, those people that are inside that circle make it so much better.”

The opening game of World Series Rugby was against Fiji A on May 4th, and despite only spending a month with his new team, Deegan immediately shone. Showcasing much of the skills in his locker that had weekend scribes such as myself waxing lyrical about his prowess long before he got his visa stamped for the Emerald Isle, he guided his newly acquired team mates around nib Stadium with aplomb in an exciting 24-14 victory.

What clearly worked for the Force from the off is the balance they have struck between up and coming talent like Deegan, Tevin Ferris, Fergus Lee-Warner and Jack McGregor, alongside a batch of experienced older heads.

“You’ve got someone like Rod Davies on the wing who is electric and you just want to get his hands on the ball as early as possible and let him do his work,” says Deegan. “And then you’ve got someone like former All Black Jeremy Thrush in the second row running the lineout, and Kieran Longbottom and the dark arts in the front row.”

But it is the influence of one player in particular that he has benefitted from the most.

“For someone with the rap sheet of achievements that he has got across his career, Peter Grant is probably up there as one of the nicest, most humble blokes you could meet,” says the former Springboks young apprentice. “To have him around at training to go up to and ask questions, or for him to say to me ‘Have you thought about this?’ or ‘I think you should do that?’ is great.

“Having someone else in your ear with that experience and seeing how he sees the game helps me to expand my horizons and he’s been instrumental with me this year with a number of things in our backline, and how the team wants to play. He is still playing great footy, and for me to be constantly challenged by someone like that, and to hopefully be challenging him at the same time, can only be good for the team.”

Peter Grant_Western Force v Hurricanes_2017

Former Springbok Peter Grant has been an invaluable sounding board for Deegan – Photo: Western Force

It proved to be very good indeed for Deegan, his form in the World Series earning him a surprise call-up to the Super Selection squad that took on the Wallabies in a trial match at Leichhardt Oval ahead of the opening Bledisloe test. Seemingly unfazed by the occasion, and the fact he was facing off against the recently repatriated Matt Toomua, he turned in another polished 80 minutes, causing team captain and Melbourne Rebel Tom English to describe him as “a young guy with a bright future, the way he controlled the game was very impressive.”

Another four wins from the remaining six World Series fixtures was a positive return for the Force, and the average of almost 57 accumulative points per game, plus all the off-field hoopla that went with it, proved to be just the sort of intoxicating combination the WA rugby faithful wanted.

“If you can create a model of rugby with an entertainment aspect to it, people will generally come along and watch it,” reasons Deegan. “And while this first year was a bit of an exhibition round of games, there was some really good footy played, and I think World Series Rugby hit the nail on the head and clearly struck a note with the fans and the community. You can see that with the level of support we’ve been getting, even at the NRC games in Perth.

“I think the average crowd for the Series was 15,000, and that’s pretty big compared to what some rugby teams in the country are turning out. So the drive and the passion for the sport is still here, definitely, and I think what World Series Rugby did this year was give people the opportunity to watch their state team playing again. That’s important, especially for younger kids coming through.

“If there was no professional team in WA, I think they would lose a lot of players to other codes such as AFL and soccer. So to see plenty of kids at the games, and know that most of them are playing with their junior club and that there is still a pathway for them through the club system in WA up to the Future Force program, and maybe the Western Force, is massive.”

Andrew Deegan leads out the Force_2018

Deegan and his Force team mates running out at UWA Sports Park – Photo: Western Force

The most interesting discussion point around World Series Rugby of course is what happens next, and where could it go? There is nothing concrete as yet, but talks are well underway with several interested parties for the 2019 incarnation, with hopes of a six-eight team competition played on a home and away basis across Asia, the Pacific region and New Zealand.

“You can’t get a competition up and running in just a couple of months, but to see what they’ve done with World Series Rugby in such a short time, and to even have a competition in line for next year is a massive feat,” enthuses Deegan.

“Obviously, the news came out recently about Western Sydney not being able to put up a team and New Zealand not pushing for one. But that could be their loss in the long run – who knows? We’re all just excited about the competition and playing for points against different teams from Asia and the Pacific region, where there is a strong passion for rugby.”

All being well, the new competition will get underway in March of next year, and neatly bridging the six month gap in between for both players and supporters has been the NRC. Which brings us nicely full circle.

A lot of people were tipping the Western Force ahead of this year’s competition. Mainly because they were the only side coming in with any kind of cohesion off the back of their seven ‘exhibition’ games etc. But also because there was a feeling that they had a point to prove after what happened to them last year.

“I think the whole team have had a point to prove from day one,” agrees Deegan. “We all knew why we were playing World Series Rugby and what we wanted to achieve from it, and I think we succeeded in that in the first year. We knew we could give the NRC comp a good shake-up with the team that we had. But I think we’ve put in a mixed bag of performances so far. There’s some that we’re happy with and some that we’re not, but we’ve still been getting the results. I think that’s a pretty good sign of a decent team.”

It’s gone pretty well so far, with five wins from seven in the regular season and a place in the final four. Their only defeats came at the hands of the two sides who contested yesterday’s other semi-final, the Canberra Vikings and Fijian Drua. But the loss at home to the Drua last weekend was not how they wanted to finish the regular season, and has made the road to glory that much harder.

“Those two losses were very frustrating,” reflects Deegan. “If you look at the stats against Canberra we actually had a lot of ball and a lot of opportunities that we just missed out on. And against Fiji we actually started well and had a lot of control in the game, and I thought one more try before half-time and it could have been a different outcome.

“We knew that going into the second half you can never write off a Fijian team given their ability to score from anywhere, and again we were close. We missed one or two certain tries that we would hope that we can do better with moving into the finals series, because basically one pass could be the difference in the semis.”

Andrew Deegan_Force v Brisbane City_2018_Sportography

Leading the way against Brisbane City in round one – Photo: Sportography

Coming up against a side in Queensland Country whom they have already beaten, albeit narrowly 42-40, could act as both a positive and a negative for the Force.

“The last time we played them it was a bit tit-for-tat,” recalls Deegan. “We’d kick-off and they’d score, and they’d kick-off and we’d score, and it ended up as a narrow loss for them and a narrow win for us. So they’ll probably be looking at how they lost the game and changing it up, and we’ll need to look at how we won the game and change it up a bit as well because they will be better prepared for it second time around.

“The big thing with Queensland Country is that their forward pack has been very strong. But they’ve also got threats out wide and have scored some seriously good tries in the last couple of weeks. How we negate that is something we will look at in the days leading into it, but I think if we can look at what we did there that worked before and bring together one of our better performances, it should be an interesting game.

“We’ve been given a licence to play footy by the coaching staff, and I think you’ve got to do that to win the NRC. If we can get back to playing to our strengths with ball in hand and off our forward pack, but also with that variation of ball-carrying from the forwards, and then using our decision making in the middle and our speed out wide, we’ll go well. We’re rolling in with a bit of form and blokes are starting to hit their straps as we come towards the end of the season. There’s two weeks to go, hopefully we can get the job done.”

Whatever the result this afternoon, or in next week’s final should they make it, the most important factor in all this is that the Western Force are very much alive and kicking. And leading the charge is a player who thoroughly deserves his time to shine, and is grabbing it with both hands and running with it for all he is worth.

“If we could go on and win the NRC I think it would be a reward not just for ourselves but more so for the community and rugby in WA,” he closes. “It would show that rugby hasn’t gone away in WA and never will.

“On a personal level, to go over to Ireland and not play as much rugby as I would have liked was quite disappointing, and maybe you start to question yourself about whether rugby is still the path you want to take. So to come back here and find some decent form, and rediscover the enjoyment of playing and the possibilities of where it could take me, is really exciting.

“As long as I’m playing footy and enjoying it, a lot can take care of itself, and that’s the only reason a lot of people play I guess. You can’t play footy and not enjoy it, but still expect things to happen.”

Welcome back Deegs. Please keep enjoying it!

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