2020: The Big Kick-Off – Manly
Original photo: Adam Mac Photography
For a team that has proven to be so consistent in terms of performance across the last decade – only Eastwood have won more Shute Shield matches in that time, the empty space designated for another Sydney Premiership in the Manly trophy cabinet since 1997, is a stark reminder of their inability to convert that form throughout the regular season into finals-winning footy. Charged with finding that missing piece of the jigsaw is new head coach Matt McGoldrick, who has Marlins blood running through his veins after previously serving as a player, assistant coach, Director and General Manager at his beloved club. Now finally in the role he has coveted for years, he has plenty of fresh ideas on how to go about achieving both short and long-term success at the Village Green…
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Marlins adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“We were very lucky because we went to our council with a plan about six weeks ago about how we could train in 10’s safely or 9’s safely, and they’ve been really good. But to be honest, we’ve kind of left everybody alone a little bit. I would check on them individually but a lot of guy’s lost jobs, so football was a secondary thing. We’re back full steam now and stepped up to groups of 20 last week so training is almost back to normal.
“The info for the teams is already in them, it’s now about getting them physically up to shape and making sure they’re contact ready. The actual structures and the type of knowledge we want to get into them, they had that in March, so nothing’s changed on that front. It’s just whether we can be right to start contact without a whole heap of injuries.”
Has it affected player retention or acquisition?
“Yes and no. We had Connor Davidson over in the UK, and he was unlikely to be back until the end of the year but he’s come home because of Covid. We had Van Stewart over in the US and he’s come home, and we were looking at possibly one other from the UK but that was only because Van wasn’t here, so it’s sort of swings and roundabouts in that sense. We had a couple of kiwis that had come out under their own steam but had lost their jobs and felt it was probably best to go home and into isolation before NZ went into lockdown. But we’ve been really lucky, touch wood, and most of our guys are local anyway.”
You’ve served a number of roles at the Marlins over the years, from player to assistant coach, director and GM – now you’re in charge of all on-field matters. As someone who bleeds Manly that must be an exciting opportunity, but does it also come with a degree of trepidation as the performance buck now stops with you?
“Nah, it’s football mate! Look, I’m not concerned about me, I just feel that it’s good to finally be able to piece together all the things I’ve done. We’ve been really lucky with the guys that have come on board, like Julian Huxley who I’ve got with me this year as an assistant running the attack. He’s a really smart guy who knows his stuff and he’s been fantastic, so it’s more about pulling everyone together and moving the boat in the right direction.
“I’ve been so lucky. I’ve come in and Sam Lane is back, Jimmy Ohmsen is back playing, Denis Pili-Gaitau is back, there’s Mick Adams, Kotoni Ale, ‘Cecil’ Hilterbrand, Harry Bergelin, Dan Alley, Alex Dalzell – these guys have played so much rugby together and are so experienced that all I’m trying to do is create an environment for them to improve.”
Had it always been a target to be the head coach at Manly at some stage?
“Yep, it was always something I wanted to do. I’ve got two kids now but they were very young when I stopped coaching at the Marlins before because I was twenty-four-seven rugby. I was GM, I was coaching first grade with Phil Blake, and it just got to a point where I needed to be at home and I was starting to get a little bit burnt out. But I always knew that I wanted to come back.
“I was at Riverview for a year helping out the firsts, and I really enjoyed that, and then I came back and did third grade at Manly and really enjoyed being back. That was two years ago and then last year I was helping out Billy Melrose in first grade again. Maybe around 2011 or 2012 I thought I was ready to step up as head coach but looking back I probably wasn’t, I wasn’t mature enough and I probably didn’t have the people skills more than anything to do it. The football skills are sort of secondary I think, it’s often the people skills that you need in this job. So I went away and got some life experience, and I’ve come back full of beans and ready to go.”
You’ll have played under a fair few different coaches at Manly and worked alongside both Phil and Billy, but what will Matt McGoldrick bring to the table as a coach – a little bit from all of them or are you ready to unleash plenty of your own ideas?
“It’s a little bit from all of them, and that’s life isn’t it? You pick the best parts of the people you admire and try and make yourself be your own person. I’m very different to Billy and I’m very different to Blakey, but there’s various things that both of them were really good at that I’ve taken on board. And like anything, there’s also things that you think you can do a little bit better your own way. I’m a delegator, I like to give people the opportunity to have their own ideas within what we’re trying to do.
“So with Hux for example, I give him an allotment of time. We talk a lot about where we’re at and where we’re trying to get to so we’re on the same page there, but I trust him enough to do what he needs to do. I’ve had coaches that say ‘You’re going to do this drill, for this long, and you’re going to coach it this way’ and that’s not really my style. I want people to feel like they’re a part of it.”
Without revealing any game plan has there been any specific tweaks to what has been a reasonably successful formula in recent seasons?
“We’ve had a big focus on our defence more than anything. We’re a club that can always score points, and we’re going to have a very strong attacking mindset as always. But if we’re being honest about it, we made the final last year against Uni and they put forty points on us having put forty on us a week earlier the year before, so it has to be a bit more about grit for us. Scoring the tries is wonderful but stopping them needs to be just as big a priority, so we’ve had a fair focus on that.
“With our attack, we’ve just been working on flattening up and getting our skills better under pressure, that’s been a theme from day one. It’s not so much prescribed stuff, it’s being able to flatten up and play with line speed against you but still execute. So that’s something that we’ve been working really hard on.”
The elephant in the room for the Marlins is obviously the lack of a Premiership since 1997, and the fact that you’ve knocked on the door more than most without breaking through over the last decade, with one grand final loss, three Minor Premierships, and more regular season wins than any other side except Eastwood. How do you convert that consistency into a title?
“I think for us you can look at it in one year cycles, and we’ve traditionally looked at it too much in isolation. We’re a bit of a recruitment club rather than a development club, and I think for us to get to where we need to go we need to start producing more players, that are Manly players. We need to improve our system, so our system gives us long-term success, not our players, if that makes sense. We’re working really hard on developing a Manly IP that flows through our whole club. We haven’t done that traditionally very well, and when we’ve fallen short we’ve thought that recruitment is the way for us to improve. But essentially all we’ve done is limit our long-term growth. My philosophy is that we don’t need to do that, we need to work out what is coming through the colts, who within our group is better, and how do we continue to improve.
“I sat in a meeting a couple of years ago where our then captain stood up and said ‘We’ve just got to work out a way not to stuff it up at the end’, and I just feel that that’s been a bit of an attitude with us, that we can go through the motions, get to the end and maybe be ok. But we actually haven’t built any resilience through the year to maybe get us to the point where we can win. I don’t really care about winning at the end of the year I want to win in round one, that’s all I care about at the moment. It’s about Tuesday night, then Thursday night, and then our Saturday session, that is it, and I’ve told the players that is our focus. I don’t give a s**t about October, it’s literally all about winning our first game on July 18th, and then we’ll worry about our second game.”
So in terms of recruitment, the small number of ‘In’s clearly reflects that new philosophy to build from within?
“Yep, we haven’t really recruited, we’re really pushing hard from within with our colts. We could have in our round one team this year, twelve guys that played colts with us, and the other three have been with us for three years. That’s what I want, that has to be our model, and that’s what we’re looking to build from now on. I guess when you asked me earlier what were my taking’s from my previous roles, this is it. We have previously been so good in our colts, and had guy’s like Mat Philip, Rory O’Connor and Lalakai Foketi, but these guys are not at our club anymore, so that’s a concern for me. If we’re producing good players, they need to be good players that stay at Manly, so it’s working through how do we keep those guys and keep producing more and more of them.
“If they get picked up by Super Rugby, that’s essentially what we’re here for, we’re a production line for that. So when you get to the end and you’re playing Uni and they have two or three guys drop back from the Waratahs, we have two or three guys drop back as well but they’re our guys, they’re our players. We had Max Douglas in there, Jack Walsh – who’s just signed with Exeter was in there, and then you’ve got Michael Hooper. He’s our guy, not someone that’s just dropped in from New Zealand that’s maybe here on a rental for a year. I don’t want that anymore, and I don’t think our club wants that anymore. I don’t expect us to regress, but I know that if it’s taking one step back to take ten forward, the club’s prepared to do that and I’m prepared to do that.”
Does that mean that this year is a bit of a reboot to build the foundations for sustained success moving forward?
“No, don’t get me wrong, we’re playing to win this year. I hate that sense of ‘it’s a two-year plan’, we’re not rebuilding anything. Sam Lane’s back and looks as good as ever, Denis looks fantastic, Harry Bergelin’s been really good and we’re training really well. The attitude of the senior guys has been unbelievable. We talked a lot about what culture actually means and we have a culture, we just don’t like what it is. You can’t just say you’re going to change your culture, this is our culture and to be frank, it hasn’t been something that we’re proud of and we’re working really hard on that. Work hard, be a good team mate and don’t care who gets the credit. It’s getting the little things right, and that’s essentially how I try to coach. We’re going to be a good team, we’re going to be fine.”
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?
“It’s going to be a really hard comp to win, I know that. I can see that injuries are going to play a really big part, and if you get to the end in some sort of shape, whoever gets there in the best condition will certainly go a long way towards who does well. Rotating squads, depth of squads, selection depending on when the Waratahs play – all that’s going to matter.
“Continuity is going to be important too. Warringah turning up with their guys, they’re going to be really good because the early rounds are almost going to be won on cohesion, that’s the way I see it. Teams will get better as the season goes, but teams that have had a big changeover of players will maybe take a little bit longer than others to get into gear, so it’s about banking those wins early. We’ve got around half a dozen players that have probably played a hundred games together, and we sort of feel that that’s a good points start.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“I think Warringah and Uni. Warringah, even though Hamish Angus has retired, they’re just in a good position with Josh Holmes, Tyson Davis and all those guys that have been around the club so long, and with ‘Rivo’ (Michael Ruthven) coming on board as coach there’s a bit of continuity there, so they’re going to be hard to beat. Uni will be good again and Easts, I’m hearing around the traps that they’re looking good and have really strong numbers apparently, and I also think Wests could be a bit of a smokey.
“Results can sometimes mask what’s actually going on, and if you look at Wests last year they finished ninth but I thought they were bloody good. They were a prickly team to play, and I think they’re going to be really hard to beat out there and they’ve added a bit of class now, so I think they’re going to be good too.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“I think Jimmy Ohmsen is going to have a really big year. He was really good for us last year and I think he’s only just scratched the surface of what he could be. I think he’s a pro player in a year or two, I really do. Denis looks really good as well. He came back at the end of last year from France and he’d enjoyed it, put it that way. But he’s such a hard trainer and he’s really ripped in. Kotoni Ale looks really good too, he’s found a bit of a new lease on life and I think he’ll go well too.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“There’s a couple of young guys out of the colts, Yool Yool and Harry Hayward. I don’t know whether they’ll play a full year in one’s but they might, and they’re a couple of outside backs that are showing a lot of ability at the moment. I don’t know if Max Douglas will be available to us from the Waratahs but he’s only just turned 20, and when we beat Uni at Uni last year he was – and in some good company – probably the best player on the field. He’s unbelievable and a real talent. If he gets any game time with us he’ll be good.”
What is a pass mark for Manly in 2020 – a grand final appearance or is it a Premiership and nothing else?
“We finished sixth last year so anything above six I guess, but it’s so hard that question. If everyone says ‘win a grand final’ then there’s twelve teams that have failed!”