Harry Potter and the Defence of the Shield: Can Uni do it all again?
Original photo: AJF Photography
Ok, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way from the off. Was the decision to interview a player with the same name as a rather popular fantasy character, a chance to come up with some sort of witty title and graphic to riff on that? Well of course it was!
But it was also an opportunity to look beyond the name, and shine the light on a gifted young player who largely flew under the radar for Sydney University last year, and yet was an integral part of the exciting backline that helped the Students towards a memorable Intrust Super Shute Shield title, and is hoping to do so again in 2019.
Meet the real Harry Potter.
As the opening whistles shrill across Sydney clubland this afternoon to signal the start of a new season, the answer as to which of the eleven teams will be left standing with the famous old shield in their possession in twenty-two weeks, is as difficult to predict as it has ever been.
We probably say that every year. But looking at the changes that have taken place on and off the field across the board, there is a definite buzz of anticipation around who the big improvers may be, and who may have gone backwards. Picking the top six with any certainty is most definitely a hazardous process.
This time last year, perennial challengers Sydney University were actually off the favourites list, given their inexperienced squad of former 2nd graders and Colts about to embark on their first year in the big league. But they happily avoided the spotlight and went about their business, quickly finding their feet under the guidance of head coach Robert Taylor and surprising many shrewd judges by walking off with the title after a consummate dismantling of reigning Premiers Warringah in the grand final.
It was a side that blended perfectly the balance of hard-working no-nonsense forwards with an appetite for contact and physicality that belied their years, alongside a backline full of pace, invention and finishing prowess, and also with no shortage of front and grunt if and when needed.
The stats didn’t lie. Uni conceded an average of just 16pts per match last season, while racking up an impressive 38 at the other end every week. They had a scrum that became increasingly dominant as the season unfolded thanks to the efforts of players such as Matt Sandell, Tom Horton and Chris Talakai, as well as some impressive work from forwards coach Joe Horn-Smith. It was a significant point of difference in the final.
Their work at the breakdown through the likes of skipper Rohan O’Regan, Nick Champion de Crespigny and Waratahs recruit Lachie Swinton, was also brutally effective. But it was the way that the backline took advantage of the platform provided them, ran at every opportunity and countered so devastatingly, that made this particular Uni side arguably the most entertaining I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
The searing speed of Henry Clunies-Ross has been a feature of the Students since he first broke onto the 1st grade scene several years ago. But players like super-boot James Kane, the abrasive Will McDonnell, the silky but combative Guy Porter, and elusive fullback Tim Clements, quickly became well-known names in their own right off the back of Uni’s success.
But take a look across the season and there was one largely unheralded player in Harry Potter who, while he may have played a reduced role in terms of appearances, added a fair amount of glue to help bind all those talents together when he was on board, by seamlessly slotting into several different jerseys. He even scored a try in the grand final.
First off though, that simply unavoidable name. And let’s clear something up straight away, he was most definitely NOT so-called after his fictional namesake.
“I was born shortly after the release of the first book but my parents were unaware of it, and I definitely wasn’t named after him. It was also before the movies, when everything sort of went crazy,” the real Harry happily explained to Behind the Ruck this week.
“Once upon a time I did consider changing it but it’s my name, it defines me somewhat, and I wouldn’t know what to change it to now. I am Harry Potter!”
Born in Wimbledon, south London, an area more synonymous for tennis achievement than rugby, the young Harry moved with his family to the western English city of Bristol, close to to the Welsh border. But when a job opportunity for his parents came up in Melbourne, they moved lock-stock and barrel for a new adventure Down Under when he was just 10-years-old.
Having ploughed the furrow bestowed most young Englishmen he had grown up kicking a football first, before being introduced to rugby. He mixed both sports for a while before – in what may have been a pointer towards the no-nonsense player he has become – he ditched soccer in favour of the oval ball, as he preferred the physicality.
There wasn’t much happening rugby-wise in his teenage years in Melbourne, but after following his elder sister’s higher education pathway to Sydney University, he soon found himself turning out for the Students’ successful Colts sides.
Making his debut in Colts 1 in 2016, he spent most of the rest of that season in 2’s, going on to lose a grand final to Randwick. But just one season later he’d moved up to 2nd Grade alongside a host of his current team mates, and finished the year in style with a demolition of Eastwood in the grand final that was a clear indication of a pretty special group of talented young footy players about to go places.
Will McDonnell, Nick Champion de Crespigny, Chris Talakai and James Kane all started that final alongside Potter. But when those very same players took the next step up into 1st Grade in time for the start of the 2018 season, the feeling was – from myself included – that they would probably need a year of bedding in before they would be in a position to make good on that undoubted promise. But boy, did they make us eat our words!
“Everyone in pre-season was saying that Sydney Uni are going to be a young team and won’t have a sniff,” he recalls. “So last year was a bit of a case of proving them wrong and showing that we could do things straight off the bat.
“We were pretty apprehensive at the start of the season, and took it one game at a time. But there were certainly some bigger games in the middle of the year that really gave us some confidence, and then one thing led to another and we were winning finals matches and putting ourselves in a position to have a pretty special year.”
Despite their callow youth, what was in their favour was that familiarity around key positions fostered in previous years, and the fact that in Robert Taylor, they had a head coach who had overseen much of their progress to that point in his previous role in charge of Colts. He trusted, encouraged and empowered them, backed their on-field decisions, and drove a culture that was hard not to buy into.
“A lot of the 1st grade side came from 2nd grade and Colts, and there were small groups of us that had developed quite a bit of cohesion, and had enjoyed some success at the club, so that definitely helped,” affirms Potter.
“But in Rob we not only have a coach with a game plan that he wants us to adhere to, but also a mentality that he brings to the team around clarity and perfecting our skills, which is a massive asset. Also, his energy towards wanting to win games on a Saturday is infectious. He loves winning, and that drives a lot of players to want to do that as well.”
The frustration for Potter was that he ended up missing almost half a season through injury, and played in several different jerseys as Uni’s backline was forced to test it’s flexibility. However, his role was key, his ability to slot in and out of positions to fill the void was a vital tool for coach Taylor to call upon, as he sought to maintain the consistency of style and performance levels across his young attacking jewels.
He began the season in the no.13 jersey, but after starting the first six games at outside centre, injury forced him to the sideline. When he returned, Guy Porter was doing such a good job after moving in from the wing to cover, that he ended up switching to inside centre for four matches, in turn as cover for the impressive Will McDonnell. But when he was struck down again by ankle syndesmosis, he was left to watch from the stands as Uni’s newly-constructed juggernaut began to fully hit its straps.
Returning in week two of the finals against Manly, he found himself on the wing in place of the hamstrung Clunies-Ross, and put up such a measured performance that he held the spot a week later for the big dance, celebrating victory with a five-pointer in the second half that broke Warringah’s resistance.
“I was a bit on and off throughout the year,” he says. “But there were injuries throughout the season that seemed to put different people in different spots at different times. I came in at centre when Will injured his foot, Guy was out for a little bit, and Henry pulled a hamstring a couple of weeks before the grand final. So there was a lot of one-in, one-out.
“But I eventually found myself in the right place at the right time. And while it all worked out in the end, I don’t think many people would have anticipated that the team at the end of the season would be what it was.”
He admits that his memories of the actual 80 minutes of the title decider that played out out in the middle of a packed North Sydney Oval are sketchy at best, such was his focus and immersion in the occasion. But the emotions of the whole day, and getting to share that with those closest to him, are feelings he will never forget.
“It’s all a bit of a blur and hard to remember exact details or moments to be honest, but the feeling at the end when we won was pretty spectacular,” he says. “To be in that ground at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon playing in front of 15,000-plus people – what better place to be in the world at that moment?
“Club support and family support was huge, wherever you looked there were people you knew all decked out in canary yellow Uni tee-shirts, it was spectacular. It’s amateur rugby but it’s an incredible spectacle, and it gives family and friends a lot of satisfaction to watch it and be a part of it as well.
“I think everyone enjoyed being the underdog in terms of the majority of people not wanting us to win, we fed off that challenge. And then one thing led to another, we built some momentum and all of a sudden, we’d won the Shute Shield. It was an incredible day.”
At 6ft tall and 95 kilos, he is a surprisingly muscled and imposing presence on the field when he’s bedecked in his Varsity shirt and shorts, by comparison to the quiet, unassuming and baby-faced young fella you talk to off it. And that hard-earned physique and refusal to take a backward step mark him out as a prudent option for your midfield.
But his turn of speed and athletic prowess also stand him in good stead when he’s handed a spot in the back three. Being a ‘flexible’ player can have its downside however. It’s undoubtedly a positive to have those extra strings to your bow, but you don’t necessarily want to become known as the guy who can fill in anywhere when needed, without ever cementing one position for keeps.
While Potter does harbour ambitions of locking down a specific role going forward, he is also the ultimate team man, and isn’t the sort of personality to kick his toys out of the pram if he doesn’t get his own way. Besides, he’s just enjoying himself.
“I played 12, 13 and 14 last year, and I’d rather be a master of one trade than a jack of all,” he reasons. “Not that I am that, but I seem to be able to fill in where I can and that maybe helped out a bit last year.
“I really enjoyed playing the start of last season at 13, but shifting to the wing for the last couple of games, I really started to enjoy that as well. I’d be happy to continue there and work with the combinations that are there at the moment. It’s pretty fun to be playing anywhere in that backline to be honest.”
Indeed, he’ll start this afternoon’s season opener against the highly-fancied Eastern Suburbs at Uni Oval No.2 in the no.14 jersey, as the Students look to get their title defence off to the best of starts. But they come in off the back of some below-par pre-season form, and in the early stages of a rebuilding process, having lost some key players in the off-season.
From the grand final winning squad, Paddy Ryan (US) and Rohan O’Regan (England) have moved overseas, while Lachie Swinton and Chris Talakai (both Waratahs), and Brad Wilkin and Stu Dunbar (both Rebels), have been plying their trade in Super Rugby, although Dunbar has been named at flyhalf for Uni in round one.
And losses in the Club Championship play-off against GPS, and to fellow Intrust Super Shute Shield contenders Eastwood a couple of weeks ago in a trial, have left them unusually behind the eight-ball by their high standards. But Potter is confident they can put all that behind them, and be back on point for the visit of Easts.
“There’s been a fair turnover of players in the off-season, particularly in the forward pack, and that was certainly a strength of ours last year. But we’ve had various players fill those roles in the trials, and we’ve certainly got the cattle to do that,” he says. “We haven’t done things too differently in pre-season to previous years, it’s been standard Uni with lots of fitness. We want to be playing a similar kind of rugby and improving each week, so we’ve probably had the ball in our hands a bit more than before. But we’ve had a few practice games now that haven’t gone as well as they could have done.
“I think everyone was fairly confident at half-time in the Club Championship match, and listening back to the commentators, they expected us to go away with it in the second half. We could and should have done that, but GPS were simply better than us when the rain came down. They kicked incredibly well and retained the ball when they needed to, so they played the conditions better than us. But it was still a frustrating one to lose. Having an Australian Club Championship under our belts would have been a nice way to kick off the season.
“We then lost to Eastwood by three tries to two in a game that was very trial match-esque. We didn’t really get up for the fight in that one and were very lethargic. But we’ll learn a lot from it, and we’ll make sure that isn’t the way that we start off the season. A few cobwebs have been dusted off and now we’re all looking forward to defending our title, and we’re ready to go for round one.”
A Beasties outfit that was brilliantly guided by Coach of the Year Pauli Taumoepeau last season, is only expected to improve in 2019, and will provide Uni with the stiffest of tests. In a competition that looks so hard to call, a first-up win could prove to be vital, even at this early stage.
“That Easts game in week one of the finals last season was one of our closest of the year,” Potter reflects. “They’d had a couple of weeks to prepare for that because they had the bye in the last round of the regular season, and they probably gave us the hardest game of the entire finals series.
“They’ve certainly gotten a lot of wraps around how strong they’ll be this year, and I’m sure they’ll be very good based on last year’s upward trajectory. But regardless, we will be looking for nothing less than a win to kick off the new competition.”
And while they are still a young side, their seismic achievements in 2018 mean there is precious little chance of Uni being underestimated this time out. As the old saying goes, they have gone from being the hunter to the hunted.
“The top six was what it was at the end of last year, but it was unbelievably tight and there were a few other teams that could have very easily pushed into that,” says Potter. “From what I’ve heard, all of the five teams that didn’t make it are making a pretty big effort to push into that top six this time around, so I’d expect it to be even closer.
“This time last year we weren’t really the team to beat in the competition, whereas there may be a lot of clubs saying that now. But I don’t think that should change how we prepare,” he continues. “Regardless of who we are up against, they are all going to want to come out firing when they play us, and we have to deal with that each week at a time. But we are all embracing that and looking forward to the challenge.
“We don’t want to get complacent. Everyone’s standards are higher this year and we all know that we have already won the Shute Shield, so the only goal is to go out and do it all again. If Rob [Taylor] can get a squad of players together that want to win footy games in the Shute Shield every week, and we can do the work necessary to do that, then we’re going to be a pretty good team again this year.”
Still just 21-years-old, his education towards a career outside of the game is what takes precedence over everything else for the time being. But should he put together another year of consistency in 1st Grade, and help Uni to back-to-back titles, that focus may just shift, whether by his design or others.
“I’m doing environmental studies at Sydney Uni,” he beams. “I certainly don’t have it all mapped out, and I’d love to take my footy further, absolutely. But winning Premierships at Uni is what makes me want to keep playing right now.”
Whatever happens, with a name like Harry Potter, he’s never going to be short of attention.
“It does have its ups and downs I guess,” he laughs. “But even if people think it’s quite funny, they always remember it!”