Jai Times Pt 1: From Steeden to Gilbert via Lebanon, Concord & Croatia

Photos 1 & 2: SPA Images

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Heard the one about the Lebanese/Croatian Australian leaguie that represented one country kicking a Gilbert, and another with a Steeden, won two Sydney club Premierships with a Man of the Match performance in one grand final, and a last-minute field goal to win the other, and hung up the boots last year to try his hand at coaching –  with one of the teams he took down in a title decider?

Well, unless you’re a grassroots footy fan that’s been sleeping under a rock for the last 10 years you probably do know quite a bit about Jai Ayoub. But not the whole story…

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It’ll be a strange old feeling for Jai Ayoub tomorrow afternoon, as he tries to guide his new charges Southern Districts to victory over Eastwood, a team with which he enjoyed unparalleled success as a player for seven seasons. Now the 2nd Grade head coach and attack coach for 1st Grade at the Rebels, Ayoub is just a few months into the often-difficult transition from a playing career on the field, to a mentoring role off it.

Given his CV of success in Sydney club footy, he could prove to be a shrewd appointment for a club that is chasing down the dream of a maiden Intrust Super Shute Shield Premiership title. But before we posit on his potential from his new position on the other side of the white lines, we’d do well to remember the impact he had when he was in the thick of the action calling the shots as one of the standout fly-halves of his generation, particularly given the manner of his retirement at the end of the 2018 season.

Not for Ayoub was the grandstanding early announcement about this being his last year, and hoping to go out on a high with the Woodies. Instead, the only person that knew about his decision to call it a day in the run-up to the 2018 finals series, was then Eastwood supremo and now Australian Women’s Sevens head honcho, John Manenti.

Indeed, his team mates only found out minutes after the Woodies went down to Northern Suburbs in the Qualifying Final at North Sydney Oval, an all-too premature and underwhelming exit, for such a fine servant of the game. As a result, he disappeared up the tunnel for one last time with little fanfare, no tributes, and scant recognition of his decade-long contribution to the best club competition in the country. Selfless to the last.

So in order to get a more accurate appreciation of what he might bring to the table as a coach, it’s time to put all that right with a look back on his achievements as a player, because it was one bloody interesting journey…

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The fact that he even ended up forging a rugby union pathway at all was a surprise. Born and raised in the inner-West, and hailing from a family with strong league connections – Dad Sam is a well-known player agent who oversaw the entirety of Johnathan Thurston’s stellar career – his only dream growing up was of a life in the NRL. But his academic journey soon dictated a reticent introduction to the ‘other’ code.

Adrian Lam_Roosters

Sydney Roosters favourite Adrian Lam was a childhood idol of Ayoub’s – and housemate!

“I was always a league guy from a league family, rugby union wasn’t a sport that we followed at all for a long while,” he explained to Behind the Ruck. “Dad had always played soccer but has been involved with rugby league as a player agent since I was about five, so I grew up going to footy and with footy players around the house because Dad worked from home a lot. Adrian Lam, when he first moved down from Queensland to play for the Roosters, actually lived with us for a year and we shared a bedroom, so he quickly became a childhood idol!

“Then I went to St Patrick’s College in Strathfield, which is obviously a rugby school, and that effectively introduced me to rugby. But it was only because they forced me to play it! I just wanted to play my club league on the side but they wouldn’t let me, so in doing that I kind of had to juggle union with school on Saturdays, and league with my club on Sundays, which was fun.”

But despite retaining a preference for the 13-man game, where he was a talented halfback, he clearly had an aptitude for both sports, and like a lot of boys at that age, just enjoyed playing footy no matter what. His selection for the school’s first XV however, was the initial suggestion that he may be able to make a go of it in either forms of the game.

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Representing NSW U16s against Queensland in 2002 – Photo: SPA Images

“I think the enjoyment I had at that time was playing with an oval ball to be honest, and obviously, I found similarities between the two sports,” he recalls. “I tested the waters at 9 originally, but I just naturally fell into 10, I think it was most suited to what a halfback was playing in rugby league. But league was what I watched and what I wanted to be a part of on weekends, union was just something I had to do. Then I hit Year 10 and made the first XV at St Pat’s, and that accolade really made me appreciate and enjoy the game more, and want to play at the highest level I could if I also had that opportunity.”

Nonetheless, when he left school, he was catapulted straight into a contract with the Bulldogs in the SG Ball competition, and his boyhood dreams seem to be well on the way to reality. Five frustrating years later, he was forced to reassess his options. And he’s refreshingly honest about his motivations for doing so.

“I thought I’d left union behind because my ambitions were always to play in the NRL, and I continued down that path for a good four or five years, playing Jersey Flegg at the Bulldogs before heading to Balmain for a year where I played reserve grade,” he explains. “I also had a year at the Roosters, where I was in the professionally-contracted squad for a season. But then they scrapped the NSW Cup and reserve grade to replace it with the new under 20’s comp, and I was 21 or 22 at the time and just missed out. It was at that point that I thought about giving union a crack.

“The main reason I went to union was to try and get a contract overseas, because I saw it as more of an international game, and it offered up different opportunities as a result. The rugby league thing hit me hard mentally, and the realisation that I wasn’t going to be a professional footballer in Australia. So playing for the Waratahs or in Super Rugby never crossed my mind, it was more a case of where could this game take me around the world. I felt like my professional dream was over, now it was about enjoying myself.”

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Taking it to the line against Manly in his debut Shute Shield season – Photo: SPA Images

First things first, he had to establish a reputation as a union player – and excel in doing so, before he could hope for any influential passers-by to pick him up from the shop window and ferry him to the promised land of Europe or Japan. To do that, he needed to find a team that could showcase his talents and offer a platform for success as a title contender, and back in 2009, West Harbour made plenty of sense.

“They’d had a really successful year in 2008 making the finals, and Stu Woodhouse won the Coach of the Year Award,” says Ayoub. “They were my local team because I was living in Strathfield with my parents at the time, and I’d had a little bit to do with former Wallaby and Pirate Stephen James through his time coaching schoolboy footy, and also Joe Barakat, who coached at both St Pat’s and West Harbour. So we met with them, they were pretty keen, and that’s how it all got started.

“I actually missed my first three or four games of the year through injury, and ironically, my first game in 1st Grade was against Eastwood at Concord Oval, where I came off the bench, and my run-on debut was the week after against Penrith.”

Watching Ayoub back then, he had an eye for the unusual and little fear of chancing his arm, even if it occasionally proved costly. There was an unpredictable excitement to his game, and he had joined a team, and indeed a club in Wests, that have a rich history of playing an entertaining brand of footy.

But while the style and approach to rugby taken by Stu Woodhouse was perhaps the perfect environment for a young talent who was, by his own admission, still learning the game, and with a youthful desire to express himself, ultimately it didn’t lead to the genuine challenge for silverware his ambition craved. As has been the case for too long for the Pirates, they lacked the consistency across a season to make good on all that attacking prowess with a trophy.

“It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve really taken a studious attitude to union, but through my high school footy career, and when I started out with West Harbour, I was pretty raw with the rules!” he admits. “But I was always hungry to try things. A good coach knows his cattle, and while Stu was always going to struggle to get structure into that team, he would encourage us to play where the space was. If you’re kicking first-phase because there’s space there, you’re doing it, it doesn’t matter if people are saying you shouldn’t be doing that.

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Clearing upfield in a classic club game against Souths in 2010, that featured Wallabies Lote Tuqiri and Timana Tahu Photo: SPA Images

“In my second year at Concord Oval in particular, we had one of the most unbelievable teams you could ever imagine in terms of where a lot of those guys are now. We had the Ma’afu brothers, Salesi and Campese, who went onto play for the Wallabies and Fiji; Steve Mafi, who has played for Tonga at a World Cup and carved a pro career out in Europe; Rodney Blake who played for Queensland, Melbourne and the Wallabies; and Rory Sidey, who played Super Rugby for three different Australian teams.

“We had some incredible games – I distinctly remember a couple of matches against Uni at Concord that were special. But we were also the sort of side who would lose to the lower teams in the comp as well, which cost us any real chance of being in the mix at the end of the season.”

Accordingly, after two years with the Pirates he felt like he was beginning to tread water, and was getting itchy feet for something new. A conversation with a trusted mentor confirmed his feeling that he needed to try and kick on elsewhere if he was to chase his dream, and if the sliding doors of life had opened at a slightly different moment in time, his pathway to the club with which he would eventually taste glory would have been laid much sooner.

“I was coming off a shoulder recon that ruled me out for half the 2010 season, and I was thinking of looking for a change,” he affirms. “I spoke with Joe Barakat, who is someone I hugely respect, and who, along with Stu Woodhouse, has had probably the most immediate impact on my rugby career. He told me that if I wanted a professional contract overseas, I had to be playing at one of the top tier teams in the comp. I had a coffee with then Randwick head coach Craig Morrison about any interest, and they probably offered the best opportunity to slide straight into a no.10 role, so I took it.

“Frustratingly in hindsight, Stu announced a couple of weeks later that he was leaving for Eastwood. Had I known that, I probably would have followed him and arrived at the Woodies a year earlier than I did!”

But instead of his move to the Eastern suburbs kick-starting him onto the next level, what followed was a year of footy that Ayoub would largely prefer to consign to the history books.

“I didn’t have a great season there,” he concedes. “It was a different set-up. I’d just come from West Harbour, where we were encouraged to play a certain style, but it was a bit more structural at Randwick. And I don’t know why, but I just didn’t fit in for one reason or another. You get that across all levels of coaching or playing, people that you just don’t see eye to eye with. It was a shame, and it was definitely a wasted year from my perspective.”

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Taking on future club Eastwood in the colours of Randwick, in 2011 – Photo: SPA Images

It was at that point that he decided to follow his gut instincts, follow the path trodden by his coaching mentor, and just get back to enjoying himself within an environment that he was fairly certain he would thrive in.

“I played the whole season at the Wicks, but I was jumping about a bit between 1st and 2nd Grade and ended up playing for 2nd Grade against Eastwood in a semi-final, which we lost. When it came to 2012, I was never going to get a professional contract playing 2nd Grade, and to be honest, the experience had bashed me around a little bit in terms of my confidence. I just wanted to play footy, so I contacted Stu Woodhouse at Eastwood and told him that I was happy to sit behind whoever in 2nd Grade and just play footy. And that’s what I did from 2012 to mid-2014, just played footy. When I look back on them now, they were hands down the most fun years I had doing it.”

Around the same time, another unexpected door opened with the opportunity to play international rugby on the other side of the world. With a Lebanese father and a Croatian mother, Ayoub is the perfect embodiment of modern-day multi-cultural Australia, but he had never considered the possibilities his mixed heritage would afford him.

Back in 2006, when he was trying to ignite his league career, he actually got to play a couple of tests for Lebanon when they toured the UK and Ireland, and a third against Malta back in Sydney. But when the chance arose to also represent his maternal bloodline on a footy field at rugby, he was as surprised as anyone that it was even an option.

“I was scanning one of those forum websites where they have contract offers online, and I saw an advert for Croatian rugby,” he says. “I didn’t even know they played it over there, but it turns out that back in the 1990’s they had a pretty strong period where they had a couple of ex-All Blacks go over and play for them. A few of those guys were back over there trying to revive Croatian rugby, and one of them lived on the Gold Coast. We made contact and he got me up to speed with where they were at, and next thing I was on a plane to Europe.”

Croatia montage

What he encountered wasn’t exactly a culture shock given the impacts of globalisation. But it was an intriguing challenge all the same, and one he feels matured him as both a footy player, and a person. And while the rugby was the prime motivation for his presence, it also acted as a conduit for an unrivalled holistic experience on a personal level, and one that he will never forget.

“When I first went there I hadn’t really travelled all that much, and I didn’t know anyone at all. The language was never a problem because everyone of my generation and younger, they watch English TV, and they learn English at school. But the standard of rugby and the technical know-how weren’t the best, probably similar to 4th Grade, and while Croatians have the physical stature to play rugby, they don’t have the instinctive skill levels when it comes to catch-pass, or the basics that we take for granted here.

“So myself, the kiwi coach and a few others, we all kind of took ownership of it and wanted to help take them to another level,” he continues. “We used to do clinics in schools to try and introduce the game to the next generation, and it was a lot of fun, and an exciting challenge. Everyone has to take time off work and sacrifice family time to be over there doing it, and I made friends for life over there. I’ve taken my family over there, all my kids have been there, so it’s a pretty cool thing to have under my belt for sure.

“I never got to play professional footy, but that was the best thing that I got out of it in my life, the fact that it took me back to roots I may never have gone back to. I don’t have lots of family living in Croatia now, most of them moved at the same time as my grandparents. But my grandfather was from a little fishing village that has about 1200 people living in it, and to go there and see the war memorial they have, and that the majority of names on it have the same surname as my grandfather, was an amazing experience. It gave me goosebumps.”

Such was the appreciation of his talents, and his affinity for the country, that he would go on to play 22 times in the famous Croatian checkerboard jersey. But more of that later. Now it was time to kick some butt back on home shores for his new team… Woods! Woods! Woods!

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In Part 2, Ayoub struggles to regain his confidence before finding himself back in the cut and thrust of 1st Grade footy, and thrives so much he becomes the fulcrum of one of the most successful club teams of the last decade. And then there’s that coaching switch….

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