2020: The Big Kick-Off – Southern Districts
Original photo: Malcolm Chuck
The new man in charge at Forshaw Park is the highly-credentialed Todd Louden, who returns to the Shute Shield from the Melbourne Rebels for what is his fifth stint in the competition, having previously coached Sydney Uni (twice), Randwick, and West Harbour. With a CV that also includes a Super Rugby final with the NSW Waratahs, a Super Rugby title with the Bulls in South Africa, and several successful seasons in Japan, he assumes the reigns of a club that had been consistently knocking on the door of a maiden Premiership across the last decade, before missing out on a spot in the finals for the last two seasons. A foot back in the pointy end of the season has to be the first hurdle to overcome, but could he be the key to that elusive title…
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Rebels adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“We’ve had a bit of a mantra around ‘It’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do’. So we’ve applied that to everything to build a bit of resilience, which we needed to. Like every club we’ve had a lot of boys training from home and sending in their results and a lot of screening – both physical and mental, so we’ve actually got through a lot in the break. Then coming back to training with groups of 10, we’ve used that period predominantly to ensure that our fitness is up where it needs to be, and now we’ve got them in groups of 20 it’s even better. But I definitely think we’ve adapted pretty well and used it as a resilience-building period.”
While we’re all keen to talk rugby again, there’s also been a man-management aspect to all this away from the field as well hasn’t there, in terms of the emotional stresses of dealing with the pandemic itself, and the potential employment ramifications that came with it?
“I’ve spent more time supporting the human as opposed to the rugby player in the last few weeks, and that’s taken up a lot more time than it would if it was just a standard season. There’s definitely been a lot more Zoom meetings, a lot more phone calls, and a lot more one-on-one’s – probably 95% dealing with the human side and 5% the rugby. It’s been a challenge but we’ve just knuckled down really.”
Has it affected player retention or acquisition?
“Funnily enough, acquisition’s been better because no-one can go anywhere! Also, one thing that Souths do well is that once you arrive here they’re a very accepting club. and that keeps players here. But getting the balance right between the social side of things and the performances on the field has been part of my job this pre-season, and I think we’ve got that balance quite well.
“In terms of losing players, obviously some of our lower graders have decided not to play this year, but we’ve recruited young – deliberately. We believe we’ve put together a good program, and we wanted to recruit players that want to be in that program and develop, and not just be here for a year and then take off so we have to start again.”
You’ve amassed a healthy amount of experience and success in the game for a few years now. What made you choose Souths as your next project, and what can you bring to the table for a club desperate for the success to rubber stamp their progress over the last decade?
“It was an accident, first off. I moved back from Melbourne after leaving the Rebels and was living in Wollongong, so it was my closest Shute Shield club. I knew some people here and had some contacts and I just reached out to say that I was happy to come along and do a session from time-to-time. The next thing I knew they were sitting me down and interviewing me for a job! I had every intention of slowing down a little bit and taking some time away from the game for a while, but now I’m up to my eyeballs in rugby again!
“What I do love about club rugby is that I’m developing young men, and that’s the teacher in me coming out. Whereas on the professional side of things, I’m a bit of a performance junkie. It’s a lot more rewarding seeing young blokes come through the club and develop into men, and they’ve got a lot of young talents here, and five junior clubs, so just putting in some principles of play and principles of performance is what we’re working on this year.
“To be fair, it is a cultural change for them. But it’s within the way they operate naturally, so it’s been a good mix. The people I met here were crying out for some performance standards and performance values, and on getting that balance right, and they’re just good hard-working people. I’ve just had to show them a slightly different way, maybe a more modernised way. The players are such a good group of people and remind me a lot of my two times at Sydney Uni, so I very quickly felt a part of the club and felt at home. I’m loving it here, it’s a great club.”
They’ve been to two grand finals in the last decade, but Souths are yet to taste Premiership success. Is that a burden of history that weighs them down and makes your job harder, or something that drives you on to break the mould?
“It drives me on, I love a challenge like that. Even when I was at Sydney Uni the second time, I know they’d won Premierships but with what I inherited I had to basically bring through a whole load of colts who went on to Super Rugby eventually. It is a burden to some of our older club members I think, but for this group of players it’s not. It’s easy to sit in front of a group and say ‘Hey, you guys have won nothing so the only way is up!’
“There’s a reason why they haven’t won a Premiership, and that’s because I think there’s been a little bit of a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. I remember Sydney Uni beating them in 2012 just because we had such strong systems, but in that grand final they actually had a better team. They had a lot of Super Rugby players out on the park, and a big forward pack with some pretty handy backs, but we just had better systems on the day. Systems are just processes and an understanding of the game.”
Was it a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, or looking at what they’ve done well in recent years and adding to it?
“We wiped the slate clean totally. Every player has been told they have to fight for their position, and I don’t care what’s happened in previous years, it’s what we do going forward. They’ve come off the back of two pretty poor years, so we’ve totally reinvented the way Souths play, and the way we train. We’ve mixed some new training methods in with some good old hard yakka, and our players are now at a stage where they’re lapping that hard yakka up.”
Was that something you identified when you got there, that they were behind in terms of the fitness required in order to play the game you want to implement?
“Massively. We’ve worked really hard on our fitness and conditioning, and we redeveloped our game model to the players we thought we had, but more importantly to the laws of the game. We had a look at what’s going on in the competition and we felt that a lot of team’s were playing very similar rugby, so we wanted to change that totally and dare to be different. To do that we also have to get ourselves fit, and that’s not just running fit.
“We’ve implemented an equivalent to a Super Rugby program as best we can for amateur players, and they’ve really bought into it. We’ve put some really high standards in and we’re getting there, but we’re probably only at sixty percent of where we’d like to get to so far. We’ll be very confrontational in some of the things that we do, that’s the plan. We’ll be difficult to handle because we’ll play very differently to the way other Souths teams have played in the past.”
Looking at your player movements, you’ve lost a bit of experience with De Wet Roos heading overseas and Apo Latunipulu semi-retiring to run around with his brothers in lower grades. But there’s a bevy of promising new talent coming onboard, some familiar faces, and you are boosted by the return from injury of skipper Marcus Carbone. Happy with the overall balance?
“I’m really happy with the squad. Waldo Wessels is playing 10 at the moment. He’s played there before and I think he’s got a really good rugby brain. And Ben Connolly is back from the States as well, and he’s a good right-sided winger, so we’ve got some depth in the backs.
“Liam O’Connor is an ex-Newington College lad who came through the schools system and is your typical tenacious, chirpy halfback. He’s played mostly in lower grades so far but has a couple of first grade games under his belt and is starting to shine with what we’re doing. Sam Harris is coming back from injury and offers plenty of speed, Cooper Chambers is a very good young talent who is still a colt and the future of the club, and Kyle Brown is another young guy coming through who was a Gordon junior and has been playing overseas in England, so there’s plenty of competition for the nine jersey. Kyle arrives with his two brothers, Jordan who is a lock, and Nick who is a flanker.
“Phil Potgieter is a big raw-boned lock from Queensland Country and is an asset, and Andrew Tuala, who I had at West Harbour, is going to start at loosehead as I feel he plays his best rugby there. We’ve also got a lot of good young props coming through our system, and what we’ve really focused on is retaining and recruiting young talents that we know we can drive through for the next three years. Whereas in the past, I think Souths have been a little bit guilty of trying to recruit a first grade team and haven’t gelled. So I guess we’ve got both a short-term and mid to long-term plan in place at the moment.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“Nathan Lawson is absolutely turning heads at the moment at outside centre. He played most of last season at six or eight, but we just feel that his natural athleticism gets diminished somewhat in the backrow because he’s in the thick of things. He’s so quick, I haven’t seen him get run down yet, and having played in the backrow, anyone in his channel he’ll be over the ball really quickly, and that gives us multiple threats. I think he’s got the potential to be very special, there’s not many good thirteen’s running around like that.
“‘Boner’ (Marcus Carbone) has actually developed a new body and a new capacity and capability this year. Someone said ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ well, you can. So I’m excited to see him go around, although as with everyone else, he has to earn his position. I expect Christian Kagiassis to have a very good year, he’s one of our key leaders, he’s got himself very fit and he’s in very good form, and Harry McLennan is looking fantastic too. He had actually gone to the Newtown Jets and was doing some good things there, but when Covid began he came back to us, and I can’t wipe the smile off his face. He’ll play seven and he’s just an assassin!”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Jordan Brown is 19-years-old and already over two metres tall and 118kg and he’s athletic too, and they don’t grow on trees. And Liam Moseley’s a 10 and this kid is something special. He’s a Brisbane boy who went to Nudgee College, and at that time he was in the Reds Academy, the Brisbane Lions Academy, and the Brisbane Broncos Academy – all at the same time! He ended up choosing rugby and I’ve been tracking him for a number of years, so it’s great to have him down here with us. He’s an excitement machine and very unpredictable, which is the way we’re playing, so I quite like that.”
It’s obviously a shortened season, so less wiggle room to slip up perhaps if you want to play finals footy. Does that make this a ‘sprint for the line’ scenario compared to other seasons?
“Yeah, it’s a sprint for sure. And that may suit older, more settled teams but what also comes into play is that whilst it’s a sprint, attrition rate is going to take it’s toll, simply because we haven’t been able to do any contact work. We’ve got two weeks to do that before round one, and if you look at the NRL and European soccer, players are picking up injuries at double the rate of a normal season because they aren’t fully prepared. So those first grade teams that can keep their best players on the field are going to do better.
“I also think there will be times at the back-end of the season where sides will be out on their feet with injuries and depth, and we may see interesting results off the back of that. I know it’s a cliche but it’s one game at a time really, and you want to try and win them all. Sometimes that has a polar effect on teams because they think ‘We’ve got nothing to lose’, so I think it’s going to be a very interesting competition.”
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2020?
“Most Shute Shield comps go down to the wire but this year it’s a real mixed bag for a lot of reasons. For me, the front-runners would have to be Eastwood, they’ve recruited really well. Obviously, Uni have got some pretty good development structures in place and will be there or thereabouts again but they’ve had a change of coaches, so Eastwood are the team to beat for mine just because of the depth in their squad that Ben Batger’s been able to put together.
“West Harbour are saying they’ve got a pretty good team as well, so the pressure’s on them to perform and they might surprise a few people. Norths is a bit of an unknown at the moment really with a new coach, and the Rats will be up there again. But I expect the big improvers to be Eastwood.”
What is a pass mark for Souths in 2020 – to get back into the finals or do you harbour loftier ambitions?
“I would have said that before Covid hit we were in very, very good shape. But since it arrived and disrupted everything, some teams have bolstered their group – Eastwood being one of them, and we’ve generally stayed the same. A pass mark for us is getting back into the finals, and if you look at the last four years in particular, just doing that is no mean feat because there’s usually only a couple of points that separate three, four, five, six and seven.
“If the pandemic hadn’t have come along, I would have said that without doubt, finals is a minimum. And then next year it’s a step up again with what we’ve been building from the ground up. But I’m reluctant to say too much now because there’s so many unknowns, and one player comes down with Covid, the whole comp could shut down. So for me to go out and say confidently that we’ll make finals, under these circumstances in the world, I can’t say.
“Our biggest thing is competing hard, and becoming that club that everyone hates playing. We want to become the hardest side to play, and if we do that we’ll win more games than we lose and that sets the platform up for us in 2021. I’m certainly not discounting this year but it’s just too hard to say for certain. What I do know is that if we win it, geez, the Shire won’t stop celebrating for six months!”