Jai Times Pt 2: ‘Woods! Woods! Woods!’ and a Rebel apprenticeship

Photos: Serge Gonzalez / Supplied / Malcolm Chuck

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In Part One we followed Jai Ayoub’s journey from rugby league wannabe to a Shute Shield talent in search of broader horizons, and then the downturn that led to a reassessment of his goals, and a voyage of personal discovery that proved to be more rewarding than any professional contract he had been chasing.

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So it’s now 2012, and having returned from Croatia to settle in at his new club Eastwood, after a less-said-the-better stint at Randwick, he sets about rediscovering his love of the game. Now reunited with Stu Woodhouse, he arrived at a club that were clearly in a good place under the tutelage of his former coach, alongside head honcho John Manenti.

Having lifted their first Shute Shield title in eight years the season before, with a memorable extra-time victory over a Sydney University side that had dominated the club scene since 2005, they were preparing to defend their crown with a side chock-full of talent. All of which you would have thought provided the necessary sparks of enthusiasm and desire for Ayoub to re-ignite his career.

But clearly scarred from the previous year, he was more than happy to take a backseat instead. No more chasing the dream, no more pressure to achieve, just stay out of the Shute Shield bubble with a run in 2nd Grade and enjoy playing your footy. And that he did, for a season and a half. Looking back, he still thinks it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“That 18 months probably made me more successful at the back end of my career,” he reasons. “Everything around trying to crack it – especially in rugby league – was about what you did wrong and how you were going to get better, and I feel sorry for the kids coming through now because that pressure is coming on at an even younger age. As soon as I flicked the switch and I thought that it wasn’t going to be my career, my footy just improved, and I enjoyed myself so much more.

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Playing for Eastwood against Sydney Uni in the 2nd Grade grand final at Concord Oval in 2013 – Photo: SPA Images

“The culture at Eastwood was unbelievable. Like most clubs, 1st and 2nd Grade trained together, and I had the likes of Pierre Hola, Tim Donnelly and James Hilgendorf – all of whom had been great 10’s – to learn from. Again, I wasn’t looking at them thinking I want to take your job, I was just there for the fun of it. But I remember games between 1st and 2nd Grade backs on a Thursday night where you’d be facing Hola, Ben Batger, Tim Bennetts, John Grant, and we had a pretty handy 2nd Grade side and we were trying to go try-for-try with them. It was a competitive, but fun-natured group.”

He may well have stayed in that comfort zone had circumstances not dictated otherwise, and that old card called serendipity not been thrown across the table, and fallen right into his lap.

It’s late-May 2014. Having been smashed in the 2013 grand final, when a Super Rugby-laden Sydney University gained their revenge and then some for the loss two years earlier with an utterly dominant 51-6 victory, the Woodies are trying to rebuild and go again with another title challenge.

But after a decent start to the season that saw them win six of their opening seven fixtures, they have just been handed a surprise shellacking at the hands of Eastern Suburbs, 51-21. To make matters worse, former Tongan international World Cup star Pierre Hola is beginning to succumb to the punishment his body has taken over the years, and is out for the next match. Which just happens to be against Sydney Uni – their first meeting since the lop-sided encounter the previous September.

The call goes out to Ayoub to step up and take Hola’s place, and it’s at that point that the true fragility of his mindset, which had been laying dormant as he stayed out of the firing line in 2nd Grade, was suddenly laid bare.

“I didn’t have the desire to play 1st Grade week-in, week-out, because in my head I thought I was done in the sense of being competitive enough to worry every week if I was going to play, or if I was going to get dropped. I hated that feeling,” he reveals. “And we had a good 2nd Grade side that had gone to grand finals in both 2012 and 2013, so I was still playing competitive footy and challenging for trophies. But then Pierre began suffering a few injuries, and I got an opportunity around mid-season against Sydney Uni at home.

“I honestly thought I couldn’t get through the mental battle of playing against Tom Carter and whoever else Uni had that day, and I was questioning myself ‘What if I stuff up? How is my game going to be? I was a bit anxious about it. But I had a great relationship with Stuey and Johnny, and Timmy Donnelly, and they instilled a bit of confidence in me. They told me to play my natural game, to do what I do and play what I see, and that there was no pressure on me from their end. That made me feel much more comfortable.”

It proved to be a pivotal occasion.

“That was really it for me that day, it could have gone either way. If I’d thrown an intercept or let in a try and we’d lost, I’d probably be done as a footy player, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. But we had a great day at TG Millner. I set up a few tries and we played really well and beat Uni 36-15, and I just felt comfortable and at home again.”

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The coaching duo of Stu Woodhouse and John Manenti masterminded a period of success at Eastwood that brought four grand final appearances and three Shute Shield Premierships between 2011-2015 – Photo: SPA Images

That theory was tested just a week later, when Eastwood travelled to Manly Oval and were handed another thumping by the Marlins, 42-22. But the cognitive mettle had returned, and the mind games were not going to unravel him again.

“We were absolutely humiliated that day. But I’d played in a 2nd Grade side that didn’t lose much in that 18-month period, and there was a winning culture that ran through the club. There was less pressure on me because I only had to worry about my job, there were enough good players around me that would help us win games, and there were enough signs in the Uni game that suggested things were going to be ok with me running the ship if Pierre was out.” 

And they were, Ayoub keeping his place and steering his new charges around the park to an eight-game winning run and a second-place finish on the ladder. They wobbled in week one of the finals, undone by Southern Districts on their own turf. But given the lifeline of a second chance that a top-two position affords, they avenged the Manly defeat by knocking the Minor Premiers out of the competition at the Village Green, and earned another shot at redemption in the big dance against a Souths side who had upset Uni in their semi-final, to reach their second grand final in three years.

“They got us on the nose in the semi, which was probably the best thing for us because I think we had a little bit of arrogance about us going into that game, and that knocked us back into tune,” he says. “They posed a lot of threats, they were such an attacking weapon as a side with guys like Jed Holloway and Paul Asquith. But we knew that if we could just stun them early, which we did, we could probably come home.”

Not only did he walk away with a Premiership medal around his neck following the 33-13 triumph, he also picked up the Man of the Match honours for his performance. Some turnaround for a player that wasn’t sure if he could still cut it in 1st Grade. And it was the completeness of his effort that day that was so impressive.

Some of the old mercury was still in the fingertips from his early days, but it was now complemented by a burgeoning game management that would become a hallmark of the rest of his playing career. If it was on, he played it, and if they were behind he knew how to chase it. But when the team were under the pump, the forwards needed a breather, or they were up with 10 minutes to go in a tight one, his ability to pull out a pinpoint touch-finder and play the territory game was uncanny.

A year later he was back at his old stomping ground of Concord Oval yet again, to contest a second successive grand final against Manly. In the period between that pivotal encounter with Uni that ushered in his re-introduction to top grade, and the 2015 title decider against the Marlins, the Woodies lost just five games out of 33. Not all because of Ayoub of course, this was a finely coached team with talent right across the park. But it was a decent record to hang your hat on as chief playmaker nonetheless, and he was now a fulcrum of the most successful team in the competition.

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Ayoub takes to the air in the 2015 grand final against Manly – Photo: AJF Photography

That 2015 campaign had been a hard road to travel. With a target on their backs as champions, every game became a cup final for their opposition as the hunter became the hunted. But what that also meant, is that by the time they lined up against a Manly side aiming to create their own slice of history with a first title since 1996, they were well and truly battle-hardened. As it turned out, that was exactly the preparation they needed.

Some observers later derided the try-less final as the worst in memory, as a tense, tight, nervy and brutal contest of body and mind ensued. But for the purists it was manna from heaven, with two sets of forwards bludgeoning themselves to a standstill, and momentum only swinging in 3pt margins towards what seemed an inevitable period of extra-time with the scores locked up at 12-all. Enter stage left, Jai Ayoub.

“They were a bloody good team, just big and strong and with plenty of great backs waiting to hurt you,” he remembers. “We knew they were going to be up for it, so we just had to weather the storm and stay in the fight. We did a lot of attacking in the second half with a breeze behind us, and I remember being frustrated that we couldn’t score because we created so many opportunities. But we thought we had them and we just had to stay patient.

“We got a penalty to win it from about 22 out with about two minutes to go, but unfortunately Ben Batger had one of his worst moments on a footy field and missed it! But we got back down there again shortly after and got another penalty, and playing the advantage I called for the ball because we had a free shot at a field goal, and luckily it went through.”

Jai Ayoub_Eastwood v Manly 2015 GF

Sinking to his knees after slotting the match-winning field goal – Photo supplied

After successive titles achieved with a Man-of-the-Match performance and a match-winning drop goal respectively, it was always likely to be tough to sustain such a golden run. And some significant personnel changes at the club ahead of the following season made the task that much harder.

“2016 was a tough year at Eastwood, because we’d just lost 400-odd games worth of experience with Hugh Perrett and Ben Batger’s retirements, and then you lose x-amount of experience in Johnny Manenti’s coaching when he moved to a Director of Rugby role,” says Ayoub. “It was a difficult transition to go through, especially when you’re in such a competitive comp. Winning back-to-back finals is hard, but just making the finals in the first place is a challenge, you’ve got to be so consistent across the season.”

They regrouped well under the circumstances, and did enough to achieve that aim at least over the next two years. But their challenge faltered in the finals both times at the hands of Sydney Uni (2016), and a rejuvenated Northern Suburbs (2017).

That 2017 season was played out largely with the absence of their star pivot, who suffered a nasty broken ankle while away on international duties with Croatia early in the year. So when he returned to the fold for 2018, he did so with a point to prove, and lost time to make up for. Little did anyone know that it would turn out to be his swansong, let alone himself.

“The ankle injury was one of the worst I suffered in my career, and I had to rehab for a long time to get back and prove to myself that I could still play. But I hadn’t thought about packing up,” he asserts. “And even during last season when I had a few problems – I fractured my cheekbone and then dislocated my shoulder, I never thought about it either.

“But when I missed the last round against Manly because I couldn’t quite nail the rehab, I was at work the next day and thought ‘You know what, this is taking too much toll on my family and my business’. I was grumpier and more sore after every game and every session, and I just didn’t think that was fair anymore.

“I told Johnny leading into the last round that that was the plan, and we kept it from the team because we didn’t want people to think that it might be my last game, and encourage any thought of losing. I hoped we’d get through the next couple of weeks and then tell all the guys leading into a grand final, but it didn’t work out that way.”

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In the thick of it against Manly in his final season as a player – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

A 16-10 loss to Norths in wet and wild conditions at North Sydney Oval, was not the fairytale ending he was hoping for. But he has no regrets.

“Johnny actually told the guys in the dressing room afterwards, and said some really nice things, and then I tried to address them, which was hard because I’m a fairly emotional person! But I’m glad that I got to do it that way under my terms, and savour that last walk off the field and being in the sheds for the last time.”

Except, it wasn’t actually the last time he walked off the field. He still had a prior commitment to honour in his second home on the other side of the world, and this time he got to go out a winner – just!

“Even though I’d technically hung the boots up with Eastwood, I’d committed to one last campaign with Croatia last October,” he explains. “They compete in the annual Rugby Europe tournament, and had games against Bosnia, Cyprus, and Israel, and we ended up winning all three, the last one against Israel on the hooter.

“It was the first time I’d ever been involved with a campaign where we’d won every game, so I was just really pleased with how it all ended. And that last game also happened to be my first time back on the ground where I had severely broken my leg, so there was a bit of redemption and pride involved. I stayed in the sheds in my kit for a good 90 minutes afterwards drinking beers and soaking it all in!”

Not only did he end up playing 22 times for Croatia, he also finished up as the country’s all-time leading points scorer with 162! But that was most definitely that, a terrific playing career had come to an end, and it was time to turn his attentions onto the next phase of his rugby journey.

Initially, his focus fell understandably onto the young family that he felt he had neglected for too long, and then onto his burgeoning business empire. The Coffee Emporium cafe that he runs with wife Leia and Mum Helen, has been doing a roaring trade down at Miranda mall for over five years, including every Saturday morning on game day – even before a grand final!

He has also recently set up a VIP events packaging venture with a couple of business partners, Two4Seven, that is gaining plenty of traction in the marketplace, and is an area that he is keen to continue to grow. But while you can take the player out of the game, you can’t always take the game out of the player, and it wasn’t too long before the footy bug began to bite.

“Coaching is something that interests me, and I really enjoy the tactical aspect of rugby,” he says. “Obviously, physically I wasn’t blessed with some of the things that other players were, so I had to be tactically better than most to survive. And I’d always thought that coaching might be an option, especially at the back end of my career when I spent a bit of time on the sideline, because it was naturally something I was doing anyway. So while those last two years were frustrating on the field, they probably gave me a bit of a headstart from a coaching perspective.”

The obvious next step once he’d decided to give it a crack, was to get involved back at Eastwood, a club that he knew inside out. But as has been a persistent strand running through this story, fate decreed otherwise, and an intriguing alternative hove into view.

“Eastwood may have been an option in some capacity, but there was a feeling that I may need to step away from the club for a year or two and draw the line between being a player and a coach, which I respect,” he says. “There are a lot of guys there that I played a lot of footy with, so it would have been difficult to have some tough discussions with them just a season after running out alongside them.

“I actually live down in Cronulla, and I’ve known Michael Black, who is the assistant coach at Southern Districts, for a number of years. He initially contacted me about a possible return to playing, but I told him I was as retired as retired can be! But I also told him I was interested in coaching, and after a few weeks of discussion, they offered me the 2nd Grade head coaching position, and an assistant role looking after the attack with 1st Grade.”

It’s proven to be a role that he clearly relishes, offering a little bit of everything. Through the week he’s at training and doing all the game analysis ahead of the weekend, and on game days he dons the coaches hat in the grandstand for 2nd Grade, before putting the boots back on to run out as the eyes and ears of the 1st Grade coaching team – Black and head coach Don Mackinnon – on the field as an over-qualified water boy.

He also plays a role in overseeing and identifying the bevy of young talent that is coming through the ranks at the Rebels from a development aspect, as well as getting hands on with the star-studded backline in 1st Grade. There are a couple of flyhalf/fullback/kicking proteges in Bayley Kuenzle and Christian Kagiassis in particular, that can only benefit massively from the advice of someone who has been there, done it, and got a couple of Premiership medals to show for it.

“There’s 30 players that have come through from colts this year, so a lot of what I do is about trying to develop that raw talent into 1st Graders and building a bit of depth at the club,” he explains.“I’m trying to bring that experience that I have to these young kids, and helping them through that transition. There’s a lot of similarities between where Souths are at now, compared to where Eastwood were sitting back in 2013. And I love the fact that I’m coaching 2nd Grade because of the fond memories I had of playing 2’s, and how it made the player I ended up becoming. “

Bayley Kuenzle and Jai Ayoub

Ayoub’s experience and game knowledge could be invaluable for young stars like Bayley Kuenzle – Photo: Malcolm Chuck

When you watch him out on the field now, doing his thing and offering advice to the backline as to their next play, or imparting his game management nous, you can’t help but wonder if he misses not being in the thick of it all. But he’s found a new way to get his rugby kicks.

“We’ve really found the grind at the back end of games to be a weakness so far this season, and that’s difficult to watch at times because that was something that we managed really well when I was playing at Eastwood. So you’re looking at the game thinking what needs to be done, and trying to impart that to the players that are actually out there because you’re not anymore. But I don’t have any regrets about retiring at all.

“As a player, it’s about executing what you’ve worked on at training, and standing back thinking ‘Yep, we nailed that’. But as a coach now, I’m enjoying the tactical side of things and trying to find a weakness in a defence. When we find that, and the players execute it, it’s a really pleasing thing to see it work out. I love being out there on the field with 1st Grade, relaying messages and imparting my own thoughts as if I was playing. I still feel as emotionally attached to it as I did when I played, I just don’t get the soreness the next day!”

All of which brings us to this afternoon’s meeting with…Eastwood! Going up against his old team mates and a club where he enjoyed so many fine seasons as a player, was always going to be an emotional occasion for Ayoub. But given that Souths are currently on a five game losing streak after winning their first three, there isn’t much time for any sentiment or historical reflection around who they are playing. Today he is coaching a team that simply need to win a game of footy.

“I’ve got some life-long friends in that group, including the coaching staff and management, and I devoted a lot of time to that club over the last eight years, so it’s going to be strange sitting on the other bench,” he admits. “But I’m excited about it because our group has shown so much improvement over the last few weeks, and I’d like to really see them put it to a top side and show that they can do it for 80 minutes.

“We were in games that we probably should have won with better execution this year, but it’s a young team that is just struggling a bit to find those consistency levels that are needed in 1st Grade. But what we keep looking at is our effort areas, which are amazing. That is stuff that you can’t coach as easily that are already there, so it’s just a question of improving that execution, discipline and game structure that you need for 80 minutes when you come up against sides like Eastwood, Uni and Norths.

“We’re not looking too far ahead, we’re looking at right now, and albeit we think we’re getting better, we’re not getting the results. We’re hoping that big win is around the corner, and it’s going to change our season if we get it against Eastwood, not only from a confidence perspective in terms of beating the side at the top of the table, but to help us build towards the back end of the year.”

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If you mention the name Jai Ayoub to most rugby people in the know, they’d wax lyrical about this mercurial little flyhalf who could put it on a dime, manage a game like few others, and was a two-time Premiership winner. But as you’ve heard, there’s a journey that has to be taken to get to those heights, and in the end, this is the tale of a guy who came through adversity, disappointment, and self-doubt, to write his own success story.

And something tells me he ain’t finished yet…

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