A Wombat Returns: Sandell going home as Uni meet Eastwood in Mudgee
Photo: Karen Watson
All roads to lead to Mudgee today as the Intrust Super Shute Shield country roadshow hits the Central West of New South Wales, with reigning Premiers Sydney University taking on arch-rivals Eastwood in the 7TWO LIVE match-of-the-round at Glen Willow Stadium.
An innovation that has also seen Sydney club rugby matches taken to Orange, Cowra and Bowral in recent years, will be warmly welcomed in an area which has significant links to the current Sydney University squad. Backrowers Mitch Whiteley and Rory Suttor hail from Wellington and Bathurst, while prop and vice-captain of the side Matt Sandell grew up in Mudgee itself, and still has family living there.
He also used to run around for the local team, the wonderfully-named Wombats, and has mates that are a part of the current side. Understandably, it promises to be quite the occasion for the local hero.
“For me personally, it’s amazing to go back and play a game there,” he told Behind the Ruck. “I haven’t played a game in Mudgee since I was a junior, and I haven’t actually played on Glen Willow since they’ve done up the field with the stand and everything, and I’ve really been looking for the opportunity to get a game out there.
“It would’ve been awesome to play a game on Jubilee Oval or ‘The Burrow’ as it’s known, which is where the Wombats traditionally play, but Glen Willow will still be great. It’s going to be awesome to run out again in my hometown, I’m going to have lots of family out there and friends from where I grew up, so it’ll be pretty special. I’ve really been looking forward to it since its been announced.”
Touted as one of the most promising young props in his state when he first emerged on the rugby scene, Sandell was on the NSW Waratahs books for the last three seasons. But he was cruelly denied a Super Rugby appearance after a horror run of injuries that would have broken lesser individuals.
However, he returned in bullish style last season to play a vital role in the Students’ run to their first Shute Shield title since 2013, and has been rewarded with a key role in the side’s leadership group as they look to go back-to-back in 2019. After a shock home loss to Eastern Suburbs in round one, Uni have bounced back emphatically with a 49-3 win over the Western Sydney Two Blues, and a 50-0 dispatching of Warringah on Good Friday that was brutally beautiful to behold.
They take on an Eastwood side bristling with themes of redemption after going down heavily themselves last weekend to Northern Suburbs, 44-14, having opened the season with two impressive victories. So not only is this afternoon’s clash a terrific opportunity to showcase club rugby at its best to an existing but oft-overlooked audience – as well as a potential new one, it’s also a pretty important meeting between two of the traditional competition heavyweights.
“This round is massive for us both in terms of the competition, and to be able to bring Shute Shield games out to the country,” Sandell affirms. “The Eastwood game is always a huge game for us every season, they always get up for it and want to beat Uni. They’ve had a similar start to the season as us with some good wins and losses, so we know we are in for a hard contest.
“They’ve got a very experienced forward pack that we have to match up to in the set-piece battle, along with some very dangerous backs. However, if we stick to our principles at set-piece and execute our fundamentals around the field, I believe we can get over the top of them.”
But the annual grudge match is only the star turn at the top of a day-long bill of footy and entertainment, with both team’s 2nd Grade sides also doing battle, and Sandell’s beloved Wombats also on show – both men’s and ladies teams. There’s also a coaching clinic run by players from both Uni and the Classic Wallabies, as well as NSW Waratahs Women’s and Wallaroos stars Emily Chancellor and Sera Naiqama. Plus there’s a jumping castle for the kids, and a Food and Wine Festival for the adults, and if you’ve never tried Mudgee wine then you’re missing out, as it is some of the best in the country!
Sandell has no doubts that his hometown is ready and waiting to put on a show.
“The Mudgee community has always been great at getting around sporting events that get brought out to Glen Willow,” he says. “A couple of years ago the Tahs brought a trial out there, the Eagles played there last year in the NRC, and there have been multiple League games including City vs Country. With all of these games the enthusiasm has been huge. The build-up to this game has been massive, the Wombats have been promoting it all year and making a huge effort to really get it off the ground.
“To be able to bring this game out to Mudgee is massive because we have lots of players at Uni who originated from the country, as well as many from the Central West area specifically. It allows us to give back to where we are from, and give back to communities who love footy and don’t get enough quality games out there often enough. More games in the country would be great. I know it is a big job for the clubs to do it with the organising and the logistics of it all, but they will always be rewarded with great crowds and a rugby loving community.”
Whether an event like this helps plant the seed for any future Waratahs, Wallabies or Wallaroos to come through the local rugby pathway, only time will tell. But it’s certainly another step in the right direction in correctly acknowledging, addressing and harnessing the level of significance that country rugby plays in the national game. You only have to look at the long, long list of ‘boys from the bush’ that have worn the green and gold jersey to know that the country is a rich seam of rugby talent.
“I think a lot is being done to encourage and support country players towards playing to higher levels, but there is still more that can be done,” reasons Sandell. “There are multiple rugby camps set-up in the country that are run yearly to help improve the skills at Junior levels, and to advertise the sport outside of Sydney, and after being involved in a couple of them you can see how much these kids love getting involved in it.
“Playing club footy and then going onto representative level such as Central West or the Country Cockatoos, is a great way to give more exposure to other players in your areas, particularly when you play in the Country Championship and State Championships. Bringing Shute Shield games out to the country is great as well. It has only started happening in the last five years, and it’s been a great initiative for growing the game.”
Congratulations must go to both Sydney University and Eastwood
for embracing, organising and implementing this wholly worthwhile initiative.
3.10pm – SYDNEY UNIVERSITY vs. EASTWOOD 1st Grade
1.25pm – MUDGEE WOMBATS vs. PARKES BOARS 1st Grade
1.25pm – SYDNEY UNIVERSITY vs. EASTWOOD 2nd Grade (back field)
12pm – MUDGEE WOMBATS vs. BATHURST BULLDOGS 2nd Grade
11am – MUDGEE WOMBATS vs. BATHURST BULLDOGS WOMEN’S
$10, U18s free
Tickets available online or at the gate
For the kids
Coaching clinic (12.15pm-1pm) run by Sydney Uni players and the Classic Wallabies. (booking essential)
Jumping castle, ice cream van, popcorn van
Food and Wine Festival
Sample the best of the local region by visiting the food and wine festival,
including tasters from four Mudgee wineries: Lowe Wines, Bunnamagoo, Burnbrae and Furlongs Wines