‘Big Sam’ Mk II hoping Rats maintain winning momentum

Photo: Karen Watson

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It was the look of shock on their faces that told the story. Billed as a grand final rematch and a chance for Warringah to exact revenge for the heavy loss in last season’s title decider, the round three clash between the Rats and Sydney University at Uni Oval No.2 in April, had just finished an incredible 50-0 in favour of the reigning Premiers. 10 weeks later however, and the Rats sit five points clear at the top of the ladder, having won nine in a row and downed the Students in the return fixture at Rat Park last weekend. Now that’s a turnaround worth exploring further…

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Mention ‘Big Sam’ from the Rats, and you’d forgive most people for immediately thinking of the burly, bustling, brilliant talents of loose forward Sam Ward. But at 6ft 6in and 115 kilos, there’s been another rather large Samuel quietly going about his business on the northern beaches in recent times, with lock Sam Thomson proving to be equally as important to the fortunes of Warringah since he arrived in mid-2017.

Born in Edinburgh, the 25-year-old spent time gaining invaluable rugby experience in New Zealand with club side Southbridge, and in France with Perpignan, before making a couple of appearances for Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 12 at the start of the 2016/17 season, only to suffer a dislocated shoulder.

Wanting to get some game time under his belt as he continued his rehab ahead of the next season, he headed Down Under to look for a suitable club in the Shute Shield. He emailed all the top sides and spoke to each one, before heeding the advice of his coaches at Glasgow, who just happened to be Scotland legend and former Warringah Rat Gregor Townsend, and Aussie-born defence coach Matt Taylor, who had a strong connection with then Rats head coach Darren Coleman, and duly rocked up at Narrabeen.

Having initially suffered a setback with an injury to the same shoulder, Thomson worked his way into the starting XV halfway through the 2017 season, and didn’t look back. He became a mainstay of the side as they defied all the odds to overcome the tragic loss of Ward’s younger brother Lachie, and lift their first ever Intrust Shute Shield Premiership title with an emotionally charged victory over Northern Suburbs at a packed North Sydney Oval.

Sam Ward celebrates_Warringah v Norths_2019 GF_SA

Warringah’s emotion-packed title win in 2017 was a day to remember for the Rats on the field, for their passionate Hillbilly fanbase off it, and for the Ward family in particular – Photo: Sean Ascroft

A year later, he was back at the same venue helping the Rats defend their title, only for a superbly drilled and hungry young Sydney Uni side to take them down with an impressive performance on the day. But what he has become used to more than most since he landed in Sydney, is winning games of footy.

In reaching both grand finals in the two full seasons under Coleman, Warringah won more matches than any other side in that period, with a 73% winning ratio. And of the few losses they had experienced, it was the 45-12 humbling at the hands of Uni in that final that was their only blowout. So finding themselves staring at the dressing room floor in shock after conceding half a century of unanswered points to the same side some seven months later, was an unwelcome, and particularly galling, new experience.

Given it was only their third match under the guidance of new head coach and club legend Mark Gerrard, and the revolving door of players the club had experienced since their last meeting with Uni, there were some mitigating factors at play. But given they also came into the clash off the back of a solid 37-14 win on the road against Eastern Suburbs, who themselves had thumped Sydney University in round one, the manner of defeat was even more of a surprise.

But 50-0??

“There was always going to be a teething period, because we were very much in a transition phase and still getting to grips with the new team and coaching staff,” offered Thomson when Behind the Ruck caught up with him this week. “We lost 15 or so players from last year’s top squad, with half of those being senior players retiring. So it was always going to be a tough start.”

The key to such a loss was not dwelling on it, or questioning the direction they were heading in. But using it instead as a tool for progress, and drawing a line in the sand.

“Uni just wanted it more and we got bullied up front, which really set the platform for a bad day at the office, and it was probably a good wake up call,” he reflects. “Hamish Angus spoke in the changing rooms afterwards about effort, and said that he doesn’t ever want to see boys giving up and rolling over like that. I think that message really hit hard, especially coming from him. It was definitely the worst result most of the boys had been on the end of in a Rats jersey, and we wanted to make sure it never happened again.”

Their first challenge in righting the ship came in the form of a Gordon side, who were in the process of being rejuvenated by the very same coach who had overseen their success of the previous two years. Not only was Darren Coleman a man on a mission to turn the Highlanders around, and quicksmart, he also happened to have the insight on a large number of players in the opposition dressing sheds.

Sam Thomson_Jordan Goddard scuffle_Warringah v Gordon_2019_AQ

‘I’m the only here who can wear tartan!’ – Thomson discusses Highlander heritage with Gordon skipper Jordan Goddard – Photo: Karen Watson

A rather large banana skin lay in the Rats path as a result. But they recovered from 13-12 down at one point in the contest, to run out relieved 25-13 winners.

“The return of DC was always going to be big, and it was definitely one of the games the boys were looking forward to,” affirms Thomson. “It was pretty obvious how big an improvement Gordon had made under him already, and you could see from some of their results that they weren’t going to be a pushover. But we got back to winning ways by grinding out a win, and it was DC’s first loss at Rat Park in over a year!”

The controversial removal of Penrith from the competition last season, did bring with it some unavoidable but perhaps much-needed relief – depending on when they land – through the introduction of bye rounds. And having bounced back to some extent from the Uni embarrassment, the Rats then got a week off to take stock, recalibrate, and rest some battered and bruised bodies, before hosting Randwick in round six.

Again, they encountered a side that was seemingly on the way up under new head coach Hadley Jackson, and contained another couple of ex-Rats returning to their former home in the shape of Tom Preece and Tom Halse. Forced to come from behind three times, they eventually edged home 35-27, thanks in part to 15pts off the kicking tee from the ever-reliable Angus.

“The bye was a good chance for the boys to have a little break and get away for a couple days, but we knew we still had a lot of work to do to get to where we needed to be,” says Thomson. “I wasn’t involved in the Randwick game (he was called up to play for the Brumbies A side in Canberra). But I know the boys were really fired up, especially considering this match saw the return of Tom ‘The Animal’ Preece, and Halsey. Preecey had made no secret of his desire to put some shots on, so it was great to watch the game back and see him getting a taste of his own medicine courtesy of ‘Slammin’ Sam Ward!

“We’d copped a lot of injuries over the past few games and had a lot of enforced changes, and while we definitely hadn’t put in an 80 minute performance yet, we were finding a way to win.”

Shute Shield 2019

Wes Thomas bags one of his three tries against Souths in round seven – Photo: Karen Watson

But things were definitely starting to gel, and a 38-7 dispatching of Southern Districts the following week was the first real glimpse of a team warming to it’s task. They trailed 7-0 early on, before romping home off the back of a hat-trick of front-row specials from hooker Wes Thomas, and Thomson admits that this match was the one where momentum truly began to swing their way.

“Souths was a great game for us, we knew how much firepower they had, and we were prepping for a really tough game. They definitely left some tries out there, but luckily for us things went our way that day. It definitely felt like everyone now understood their role, and we had a bit of a spring in our step.”

The timing of which was perfect given that next up was Part One of the annual ‘Battle of the Beaches’, against arch-rivals Manly at the Village Green. It requires little for anyone of a Rat or Marlin persuasion to fire themselves up for this clash, and with Manly unbeaten at home and looking to kick-start their own charge up the ladder, Warringah travelled south knowing they would be in for a tough day at the office.

However, they probably hadn’t expected to be staring down the barrel at 25-3, as the Marlins ran riot and took advantage of a below-par opening stanza from the visitor’s. But in a pattern that is clearly emerging as we run through this winning streak, the ability to hang tough, not panic, and turn a game around in their favour, was a burgeoning trait.

They scored 28 unanswered points in the second 40, with a late try from the enduring finishing prowess of Josh Holmes sealing the deal to cap a memorable comeback, and ensure bragging rights remained with the green half of the peninsular divide.

“It was actually my first away game vs Manly, and I can definitely say that the derby match is so much better at Rat Park!” Thomson quips. “The boys were really up for this one, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see why. Form goes out the window in derby matches, and it really just turns in to who wants it more. It’s got to be the best club rugby derby match in the world.

Shute Shield 2019

The evergreen Josh Holmes dives in to claim the derby spoils – Photo: Karen Watson

“I think we all knew how much of a shocker we had in that first half, and when that penalty went over early in the second half, it would have been easy for us to have rolled over. But I think the strength of character in the team really came through there, and we showed how far we had come since that thumping from Uni.

“Young guys like Benny Marr and Benny Woollett were fearless, and guys like Harley Attwater and Luke Vescio really stepped up and put in huge shifts. We knew the momentum would change and we backed ourselves to win it. It definitely felt like we rattled them that day. Not many Rats teams have gone to Manly and won, so to go and do it in the way that we did, it was pretty special.”

A week later, they were at it again at table-topping Eastwood. And l think in a season that seems to have so many potential title winners all capable of beating each other, that was perhaps the first time that a lot of people around clubland actually sat up and took notice, and realised something pretty impressive was happening at the Rats.

Again they trailed, again they fought back, and a last-minute try from Wes Thomas levelled the scores, before Hamish Angus stepped up to add the extras from out wide and claim win number five on the bounce.

“Rats teams generally have a poor performance the week after a derby match,” Thomson notes. “It is hard to get yourselves up for another huge game after how much energy is invested into the weekend before. But we spoke a lot about moving on from the Manly game and backing it up against Eastwood. The Rats hadn’t won at TG Millner for a long time, and we felt like we had the team that could do it.

“I feel like Eastwood didn’t show us the respect they should have by choosing not to take three points in front of the posts with four minutes to play. Instead they went for the corner, but four minutes later we scored. Throw in a touchline conversion to win it from iceman Hamish Angus, and it was a great day at the office. The belief was really starting to grow in the group, and that weekend really made everyone believe that we can definitely go on and win this comp again.”

Shute Shield 2019

Hamish Angus strikes the match-winning conversion against Eastwood – Photo: Karen Watson

Further wins over West Harbour (30-24) and the Western Sydney Two Blues (49-24) followed, but the context of the unbeaten run becomes even more impressive when you consider the number of players that were injured over this period, and the number of changes that Warringah had to cope with.

Sam Needs, Hamish Angus, Tyson Davis, Harry Jones, Esera Chee-Kam, Maclean Jones, Max Girdler, Charlie Tupu, Matt Foulds and Jack Hayson have all been missing at one point or another, but the promotion of players from lower grades has been seamless in terms of it’s impact on results.

“I think it just shows the strength of the club and the culture, we have a real squad mentality,” Thomson agrees. “The coaches have just given young guys opportunities and they’ve stepped up and grabbed them with both hands. You look at our team and a lot of the players were playing 2s or 3s last season and even this season. But when they’ve been given a shot, the boys get around them and they step up big time.

“Flava (Faavae Sila) has been a rock up front and has put in some huge shifts, including a number of 80 minute matches. Harley (Attwater) is playing some of the best rugby I’ve seen from him, Marrsy and Ben Woollett have been awesome, Guy Rees has come in and been on fire, and Wes Thomas was a wrecking ball earlier in the year. The best part is that we probably have five or six 1st grade players still working their way through the rehab group, who are all hungry to try and fight their way into this team.”

Now seven wins to the good, they hosted a Super Rugby-laden Eastern Suburbs side in round 12 a fortnight ago, and ran out impressive 36-19 winners, which again, indicates the togetherness of a squad shorn of the glittering array of professional talent now festooning other outfits. But perhaps the biggest test – maybe mentally more than anything else – was last weekend against Sydney University.

Not only were they facing the team that had put them to the sword in last year’s Grand Final, they were also the side that had humbled them just 10 weeks earlier. Oh, and they arrived with the added bonus of Waratahs Jake Gordon and Chris Talakai, and Melbourne Rebel Matt Philip, for good measure.

“We back ourselves against anyone, especially at home,” says Thomson. “The fact these teams can stack themselves with Super Rugby players is great for the game. You always want to test yourself against these guys, and I think it gives us even more satisfaction when we win. The Rats have had made back-to-back finals with only one Waratah, and again this year we only have two players who’ve played Super Rugby. So I think that shows the unity of this squad.”

Shute Shield 2019

Sporting a decent shiner, Thomson celebrates a landmark victory with team mates Rory O’Connor, Guy Rees, Ben Woollett, and Harry Jones – Photo: Karen Watson

Guess what? Yes, they came from behind against the Students – three times in fact – with a penalty from the in-form Harley Attwater not only cementing win number nine in a row, but also exorcising more than a few demons from that previous encounter. Suffice to say, the feeling at full-time was a myriad of positive emotions.

“There was definitely a lot of pride,” Thomson smiles. “It was a huge result for us, and a monkey off the back getting the win over them. It was great to really dominate them up front as well, and beat them at their own game.

“The crowd that day was insane, definitely the loudest and best we’ve had at Rat Park outside of a derby day. The buzz around the place afterwards was electric, and the bar was pumping afterwards. It was a great feeling. Full credit to the Uni boys for sticking around as well and enjoying a beer. It might surprise some people, but Nick De Crespigny is actually a half-decent bloke off the field!”

At the time, that 50pt loss looked like it might be an indication of a team that would endure a difficult season as they adjusted to a high turnover of players, and a new coaching regime. Looking back now, it appears to have been the mother of all wake-up calls, and in a weird way, exactly what the Rats needed. Especially given the potential Thomson believes is slowly being unleashed.

“It was definitely a good wake up call,” he says. “We knew from that point on that we would need to be much much better if we wanted to compete this year. I feel like we have a stronger team than the previous two years, and we haven’t even played at full strength yet. The belief in the group is huge and confidence is high. It is a really exciting time to be involved in the club.

“I think Gerrardo (Mark Gerrard) is doing a pretty good job so far, as well as the rest of the coaching team – ‘Tree’ (Cameron Treloar), and ‘Rivo’ (Michael Ruthven). One thing they are doing really well is positive reinforcement. They don’t focus on the negatives, and instead just tell us what we’ve been doing well. Our video review of the Easts game was just watching 10 minutes of us defending our own line and not conceding. They have given our leadership group a lot more responsibility and want things to be a lot more player led, and we drive the standards around training.”

Shute Shield 2019

Rookie head coach Mark Gerrard is enjoying an impressive debut season at the helm – Photo: Karen Watson

While their incredible run of form has built them a healthy five-point cushion at the top of the ladder, a brilliant competition that is so tight that just 10pts seperate 2nd place from 7th, brings with it a challenge of the highest order every time you pull on the boots. And that scenario is borne out to the max this afternoon when Warringah take on the only other side to have ended up on the winner’s dais against them this season, Northern Suburbs, who triumphed at Rat Park all the way back in round one.

“‘Rivo’ has spoken all year about resilience and mental toughness, and I think it’s something this group has in spades,” Thomson closes. “One thing that the last two weeks has shown is that we never give in, and we will keep playing for the 80 minutes. We are very aware of our position in the league and know we will have a target on our backs, but we also know we still haven’t even fully shown what we can do yet. This last month going into finals will be huge in terms of building momentum, staying injury free, and playing good rugby.

“We all enjoyed the win over Uni, but it has been straight back to business this week ahead of a huge clash against Norths. We know where we want to be at the end of the season, and we want to keep this momentum going, and keep building the confidence and belief within the squad. Anybody can beat anybody in this competition, so we know that there is still a lot of rugby to be played this season, and I know everyone is excited about what lies ahead.”

When you’ve got a player in your line-up who can boast a whopping winning ratio of 86% (37 wins from 43 games), and two grand final appearances in two seasons since he first pulled on the club jersey, you have every right to think that further good times may be just around the corner…

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