The Final Word: Exclusive Grand Final preview by Darren Coleman
Expert analysis on the title decider from Darren Coleman. Having guided the NSW Country Eagles to an NRC grand final in 2015, Coleman led Warringah to back-to-back Intrust Super Shute Shield grand finals, and lifted the Premiership in 2017. He is currently overseeing an incredible revival at Gordon, who have risen from 9th to 2nd on the Club Championship ladder since his arrival.
Sydney University: The proof is in the results. 16 consecutive Club Championships, a well conducted, cutting-edge High Performance Football program – from facility to staffing to recruitment, no-one does it better than Sydney University. The challenge for the rest of the Shute Shield is to ‘catch it’ – not ‘bag it’.
Warringah: If Uni have got the ‘on-field’ right, then the Rats have nailed the ‘off-field’. No club gets the community buy in and integration like they do. From supporter groups like their FOW’s and Hillbillies, to the game day experience at Rat Park. Clubs look on with jealousy at the passionate following they have.
What will definitely affect the result is the number of passionate fans there on the day. Will the lower grade participation that Uni has on the day overpower the buses of supporters contemplating the extra travel from Pittwater this year, and provide that last boost in the dying stages of a tight battle?
Robert Taylor: Has a record the envy of any coach, with four from four Minor Premierships, three from three major Premierships, and two undefeated seasons across his time in both Colts and the Shute Shield, and a win percentage well into the 90’s – amazing. A genuine ‘rugby nerd’ who has a very clear picture on the game, how it should be played to get results, and then coaches it with great detail.
He is very ably supported by Joe Horn-Smith, who has turned the Uni scrum and maul into the single most destructive weapon in Shute Shield rugby.
Mark Gerrard: In his first year as a head coach, he stated from the beginning that he wanted to empower the players, allow them to lead, and to make significant decisions on the direction and strategy of the team. It takes a man comfortable in his own skin to do this, and although it took some time to get moving it has worked a treat. His team led the Minor Premiership for the majority of the season, and play with the flair and an impulsiveness that Mark himself was famous for as a super talented outside back for the Wallabies.
Mark is also well supported by the lineout guru Cam Treloar, and the detail and planning of his backs coach Mike Ruthven – both of whom were successful Rats players and leaders in their own right.
ROAD TO THE FINALS
Uni have trod an almost identical path to last year, with a tough first week against a hungry 6th placed side in Manly, before blowing away Norths in the semi-final to send them into the big dance as genuine favourites.
The Rats have done it comfortably, strangling Norths in the first week at Rat Park and then grinding out a tough win over the Woods last week. The most pleasing aspect would have been the scrum dominance over a Woods pack that was touted as potentially the only scrum that could handle Uni.
It all sets up for a classic match-up. The calculating, well drilled precision of the Uni machine, versus the unpredictable flair and defensive grit of a Rats team hungry for 2018 revenge.
Now I’ll attempt to break down how and where the various battles will be fought to win the war.
Uni will not stray from what has made them so successful this year, they score a significant proportion of their tries from two very similar patterns.
First mode: A midfield-ish scrum, leading to dominance and a midfield penalty, then a pin-point touch line kick from James Kane that brings their lineout drive into play. If they don’t score direct from the drive, their pack gets into a dynamic pick and drive rumble, or Jake Gordon rolls them around the corner consecutive times getting off his hip with great ruck speed. If the maul, the pick and drive, or the forward carriers off #9 don’t get ya, then Jake will get out, break a tackle or two, and score himself. If all that doesn’t work, the defence will have to compress so much to stop it, that they’ll pass over the top and score untouched on an edge through an outside back.
Secondly, if you somehow end up with a 5-10 metre scrum on your own line, again it’s proven almost impossible to defend. The tight five get to work and if they can’t drive you over direct from the scrum, the ref may take you under the sticks. Or what regularly happens, is your backrow have been drilled so hard to stay on and contribute to the counter drive, that again Jake Gordon will pick it up and stroll over seemingly at ease.
A testament to the Students confidence in their A Zone attack was that they kicked only four penalty goals in the whole season, and none in the first quarter of a match, which is traditionally a settling in period where teams are happy to take the 3pts and re-set. They scored an incredible 57 tries from first-phase in the regular season.
What Uni don’t get a lot of credit for is their direct carry to offload game – they led the competition in this stat also – from their big backs, started by good backline shapes from quality set-piece ball. Harry Potter and Guy Porter have been two of the best at this. You need to really get your shoulder on to stop them, as both are very strong through the hips. And even if you do stop the tackle break, they have the dexterity to offload to a linking forward or a Wallaby halfback. Add recent addition James Dargaville to this strong carrying midfield, and you really need to muscle up to hold them.
Ben Hughes stands incredibly flat, and has done since having Tom Carter outside him all those years screaming at him. He doesn’t take on the line too often, but the flatness means you have to stick on him, and this brings his centres or blind winger closer to the gainline. Nor are they afraid to go wide from their own end, while the back three of the defence protect the backfield. They led the competition with an average of 13.4 linebreaks per game.
To lead the Shute Shield in offloads and linebreaks per game, but be at the bottom in all the other possession stats, proves they have great clarity on when and from what they want to attack, and they don’t hold the ball for the sake of having it. No ball and field position is better than bad ball.
How and where the Rats configure their backs defenders will be intriguing. Hamish Angus doesn’t spend a lot of time up in the front line, while Harley Attwater, who has played more there lately, can tackle, as can the physical front-on defence of Tyson Davis. This seems to be the best two ways of stopping it.
The Rats on the other hand get you in other ways.
Their strike attack off turnover, and their multi-phase play that seems to be going nowhere, is extremely dangerous. It lulls your defence into a false sense of security, and is hard to defend when it clicks.
It invariably features a deft kick ahead from Attwater, Ben Marr, or Angus, and a regather from Liam Windon, Harry Jones or Benny Woollett. Or a chip on the edge from Jones, with a bounce that many think is lucky but happens too often to be luck, followed by a freakish one-handed offload again from Marr, Windon or Woollett, that ends up back down ‘old man’s alley’ up the middle, where No.9 Josh Holmes lives.
Surprisingly, the Rats had the least number of linebreaks per game over the regular season at 9.6. But what that shows is that their ability to finish them is deadly. All the Rats need is for one of those Uni offloads to not stick, and it’s ‘go time’ for the best counter-attacking team in the comp.
The season summary stats also show that the Rats didn’t maintain ball well throughout the course of the year. Their ruck percentage was the worst in the competition at 95.26%, whilst their opposition forced 8.2 turnovers per game on them – again, the highest in the comp. If the Rats are errorful in their attack against the Students, they will be punished.
The lineout drive for the try itself is also a real weapon for the Rats, but more on the lineout battle later…
Both teams have different defensive strengths and weaknesses, and both are capable of causing turnovers at will.
For Uni – who play without a genuine on-ball #7 – it comes from linespeed and aggression in their defensive line. They contest less than most teams at the tackle, give away minimal penalties, and rely on numbers on their feet to generate intimidating linespeed into error.
Rohan O’Regan, Dave McDuling and Josh Kemeny can all hit, while Nick De Crespigny and Lachie Swinton are just genuinely mad. Ball in air with long passes for the Rats attack can really hurt you, particularly if the preceding ruck wasn’t quick. Harry Johnson-Holmes, as he showed all Super Rugby season, will get on that ball quick if you do fall near him.
The Uni backline are all solid tacklers, so there are no major deficiencies there. How Jake Gordon defends from scrum can be a strength and weakness. He pivots and does his best to cover both sides off scrum, depending on how the scrum battle is unfolding. If you can drag him one way with your #9 and play the other off your #8, there may be some opportunity down 15 metre blindsides and centre scrums. But it’s dependent on a solid scrum, and great combination between Sam Ward and Josh Holmes.
The Rats are the opposite in that they have so many great on-ballers to choose from. Boyd Killingworth, Luke Reimer, Tom Connor, Ru MacKenzie, Max Girdler, Rory O’Connor and even Rob Kelly will get down over ball. If the Rats can chop well on first-up tackling and bring Killingworth and co. into the game, and if we have a referee that likes to pay the contest, it could really stifle the Uni attack ,and we’ve already spoken about the dangers Holmes and the Rats possess off turnover ball. Whether the referee prefers to let it play out to the steal, or reward surviving the cleanout with a penalty, the Rats lineout and counter attack should be good enough to capitalise on these possession sources.
The Rats are comfortable in defence. It’s proven that you expend less energy in defence than attack, and they lead the competition in total tackles made per match at 134 per game. So it stands to reason opposition teams would spend excessive time and energy trying to break down their defence, and when they couldn’t and the Rats forced a turnover, they hurt you through their strike power. Will the Students fall into this trap? Their strategy and trends to date say they won’t mess around with the ball and risk exposing themselves on turnover.
Where the Rats position Hamish Angus in defence, and how Benny Woollett handles the numbers and decisions down his 13 channel from time-to-time, will go a long way to decide the strategy Uni employ in attack.
THE SCRUM BATTLE
If had to pick two teams that could potentially handle the Uni assault it would’ve been the Woods or Rats (at full strength). Without the injured Rob Lagudi, and the injection of Sam Needs in the second half, last week’s semi-final saw the Rats get the dominance on a Woods pack which hadn’t been dominated all year. Uni, as expected, drove regularly through, over, and around the Norths scrum.
The biggest tactical decision for Mark Gerrard and his coaches will be whether he starts with scrum specialist Sam Needs, or continues to keep faith with the much-improved Faavae Sila. The issue with the Uni scrum is that when Chris Talakai and Johnson-Holmes tire, they bring on Angus Bell and Matt Sandell, and the damage increases.
People will immediately think of the Uni demolition of the Rats scrum in last years Grand Final. But I don’t think all things were completely equal on that day, and the Uni depth of fresh props had the biggest impact.
Rob Kelly is the strongest scrummaging hooker at the Rats and he didn’t play in this game last year, nor did Sam Needs. Rory O’Connor has spent the last 10 months scrummaging daily against Chris Talakai at the Waratahs, and would have a clear strategy. The intrigue will be around what tighthead prop the Rats choose to start with, and how the battle unfolds into the last 20 minutes when fatigue creeps in for the front-rowers still out there.
There is no doubt Uni go in as favourites to dominate this. But if the Rats can hold firm and stay square without disintegrating early, and it brings the ref into play, who knows what way the arm will go up? As mentioned earlier, if Uni can’t get the regular number of scrum penalties they get, then they can’t exit with ease or enter the A zone so regularly.
THE LINEOUT BATTLE
Cam Treloar and Sam Thomson are great tacticians here for the Rats, and they have a consistent thrower in Kelly to start the game, and multiple jumping options in Thomson, Matt Foulds, McKenzie and Ward. With the former three being great along the ground and quick into the air in defence.
Uni on the other hand have the experienced McDuling to steer the ship, with Swinton and O’Regan all legitimate options. The best way for the Rats to defend the Uni maul is steal the ball or disrupt its quality before the maul is set. It will be interesting to see if the Rats adopt any of the tricks on how to defend the Uni maul that were introduced by the innovative Billy Melrose from Manly in the Qualifying Final.
If early in the game, one defensive lineout can get in the head of its opponent. It starts affecting the calmness and option taking of penalties. Then you may have to defend more of the quick tap game from Jake Gordon/Nick Phipps, or Josh Holmes.
I believe the scrum and lineout battle in this game to be even more significant than a normal match, as both teams launch so much of their play from it.
Dependent on the lineout battle, it will affect how teams decide to kick. But all things being equal, I imagine both teams will start with their regular kicking plans.
Uni kicked the ball the 2nd most in the competition across the regular season. A key late exit from their own end is a lineout drive to a traditional contestable box kick from #9. Both Gordon and Phipps are professionals and very consistent with this, so expect this to continue, particularly early.
What Uni do better than anyone is grubbering kicks down edges. Whether it be the #9 getting out down his right-hand side and punching into a corner, or most notably on an open-field attack by their backs, which sees the defending fullback having to come up and defend on the end of the line, and a nice deft kick in-behind to isolate the covering blind winger. These have led to many a fumble or shanked kick into touch over the last two years ,gifting Uni field position and the ability to exert pressure through set piece.
The Rats generally kick long off Holmes from the base. Angus doesn’t have the biggest boot but is calm and composed, and generally finds grass or the touchline when needed. Of late, Harley Attwater has added a very astute positional kick into the corner, which can be hard to defend.
Fullback Liam Windon on kick return is sure to test the Uni back field with a high punt and contest. I believe the Rats have an advantage in the aerial contests with Windon, Woollett and Marr all freakish in the air. So expect some crossfield kick passes off advantage play, and also some contestable kick-offs to these three.
The goal-kicking of Hamish Angus and James Kane should see them cancel each other out. But whether Uni knock back kickable penalty goals will go a long way to showing their state of mind. If Hamish doesn’t play, this could become a factor.
Sam Needs / Faavae Sila vs Harry Johnson-Holmes / Angus Bell
How, when, and against whom each opposition is paired, will be intriguing.
Rory O’Connor vs Chris Talakai / Matt Sandell
Rory regularly plays 80 minutes for the Rats.
Will he be able to handle Talakai’s power early, and Sandell’s fresh legs late?
Lachie Swinton vs Sam Thomson
Swinton’s blunt force physicality versus the late footwork and lineout prowess of Thomson.
Sam Ward v Rohan O’Regan
Both add very similar attributes to their team – consistency, leadership, calmness and physicality.
Both are jumping options and both will carry, tackle and cleanout till they fall over. Who does it with the best quality and error free, will help their team the most.
Boyd Killingworth vs the Cleanout
Boyd has been averaging 2-3 steals per game. Will the Rats tackle quality enable him to get on-ball and have an impact? His speed off unstructured play is an undervalued resource to the team, and he’ll be fresh from the weekend off versus Eastwood in the semi.
Josh Holmes vs Jake Gordon / Nick Phipps
A tough assignment, but if Josh can pull out one of his better days he can definitely match it.
Phipps’ try-saving ability is worth as many points to Uni as Gordons’ try-scoring.
Guy Porter vs Tyson Davis
Both direct, hard running, hard tackling centres, with the footwork and power to make breaks.
Harry Jones’ defence has improved, and he’ll need to tackle well against the strong running, tackle-busting Harry Potter, who’s been the best outside back in the Shute Shield this year. Jones has a unique ability to do something to get you easy points.
THE FINAL VERDICT – HEAD OR HEART?
My head says Uni. The consistency in which they have been doing what they do, says the odds are they’ll do it again.
My heart says Rats because everyone loves an underdog. They have an uncanny ability to win a game in the dying moments, and have been doing it regularly all year. Uni have rarely been troubled in the back stages of the last two seasons, will their composure hold up against the passion of the Rats?
Either way it’ll be a great day, and a great contest between two teams that have been genuinely the best over the 18 + 2 weeks of the season.