2020: The Big Kick-Off – Eastwood
Original photo: Serge Gonzalez
Club legend and record points-scorer Ben Batger made a pretty good fist of his first full season at the helm of Eastwood, steering his side to second spot on the ladder and one game away from the grand final. But a raft of retirements and departures in the off-season has necessitated a changing of the guard at TG Millner, and Batger’s challenge in 2020 is to successfully coalesce his handy looking squad quickly enough to sustain another run to the finals, and hopefully one or two steps further…
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Woodies adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“Probably like a lot of teams – a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of WhatsApp messages, and by putting a lot of faith in the boys actually. We knew it was a difficult time for everyone, so we didn’t want to overload them with rugby stuff when we knew there’d be a lot of personal, job-related issues. We put it back on them and split them into groups based on their geography. There was a Castle Hill group, an Inner West group, a ‘coastie’ group, and a northern beaches group, and they all kept each other accountable. They had to send in videos of all the work-out’s they were doing, and we tried to have a bit of fun with it along the way too.”
There’s also been a man-management aspect to all this as well away from the rugby, how did you handle that side of the ledger?
“Yeah, that’s been a big challenge actually. You feel for some of the guys that are struggling with things, or their family are struggling with things during this period, and that’s probably another reason why we didn’t hammer them so much on the rugby stuff. It was more a case of ‘We don’t know the exact time that we’re going to be starting a competition but we do know that we have to be there, and we know this is what we have to do to still be a quality football team.'”
Has the situation affected player retention or acquisition?
“Very poorly! We had a couple of guys from overseas, a New Zealand lock who headed home and a halfback as well. We also had two Welsh guys – another lock and a backrower – that were coming in and couldn’t, so most of the work that I did in November and December disintegrated in front of my eyes, which was frustrating.”
This will be your second season in charge, how much better prepared are you as a coach having gone through last year?
“I guess it’s the same with everything, you learn from experience don’t you? I’d like to think that I pick up things pretty well on the run, and there’s a couple of things that I probably didn’t do right last year that I’m looking to rectify this year. And hopefully we get to repeat the stuff we did well because you don’t want to forget that stuff either.
“I’m learning as I go and trying to upskill but it’s hard in this environment. So I read a lot of books on coaching and I’ve got Johnny Manenti and Chris Hickey to call on as well. It’s about upskilling as much as I can because if I stay stagnant, I’ll fall behind.”
I assume you may have had a bit more access to John’s knowledge and experience than you expected lately given the unfortunate hiatus in the World Sevens Series?
“Well, he’s obviously with Rugby AU and they’re not exactly in a great place at the moment, so I feel bad asking him about stuff because he’s got his own issues as well. But he’s always been a good help to me, and I don’t think it matters whether the Sevens program is in full-swing or not, he’s always there for me to give him a call. He’s always been a great supporter and he was up at training the other night helping out and it’s good to have him there.”
They say if you stand still you’re going backwards, so without revealing your game plan has there been any specific tweaks to what was a fairly successful formula in 2019?
“Yeah, there has been. We were very good at what we did, and maybe I was limited by the personnel we had, but I thought we got a bit predictable at times last year. We had a big pack and we kept to our strengths, but I think we became a bit of a one-trick pony towards the end. So we’ve been trying to add a bit more variety to our attack, and become more aggressive in our defence, rather than just holding teams out. Using defence as a weapon, which we saw South Africa do so successfully at the World Cup.
“There’s a lot of talented backs here but they were getting three or four touches a game because we were too forward-orientated. The forwards did a good job. but at the same time they were probably getting gassed as well, and that’s why we were one of the poorer teams in the final twenty minutes of games. Connect the dots, if you use the forwards for sixty minutes they’re going to get pretty tired. That’s a balancing act between utilising all your strengths, and maybe last year I only utilised two-third’s of the team rather than the whole fifteen.”
Has that informed your training regime going into the season around how you want to play, or is it also a case of earlier rotation of those forwards on game day?
“No, it’s definitely affected the way we’ve trained and prepared. That’s come out of necessity as well because I’ve lost half of that forward pack from last year through retirements – James Neale, Rhys Allen and Dean Doumbos – they’re all gone. So there’s a lot of new personnel and we’ve got that flexibility where we’re a bit of a younger squad and a fitter squad I’d say, so we can change the tempo of how we play as well.
“You probably find with older guys that they can get into a bit of a routine, but with the younger guys coming in and having rejuvenated the squad a little bit, they’re all really keen to put their best foot forward. The older guys were doing a great job, but they were doing the job they’ve been doing for five years, so it was maybe time to just spice it up a little bit. So I think there is some advantages to the level of turnover as well.”
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?
“You definitely don’t have time to ease into the season. In an eighteen week comp most teams are trying to peak towards the end, but this time you’ve got to be hitting your peak a month or to into the campaign and then trying to ride that for six weeks. So I guess you’re right, you’ve maybe got a little bit of wiggle room at the start but then it’s game on. If you lose a couple of games at the start then you’re playing knock-out football from round four.
“I actually think it’ll be a really good comp being shorter. I remember playing in the split comp around 2007 when you had the Tooheys New Cup and the Shute Shield, and that was a really high quality comp. So I imagine this will be much the same.”
Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season and enable them to hit the ground running?
“You’d have to think that the teams that have got a high number of their squad back from last year have got an advantage. With a team like ours that’s had a reasonably high turnover, it’s a case of how quickly I can bring them together. That’ll be one of the big keys for us.”
As you mentioned there’s been quite a turnover of players, with some significant names hanging up the boots, and some quality strike players in Tayler Adams and Pama Fou moving on to the next level. Are you happy with the balance you have for the new campaign?
“Yeah, really happy. We got lucky with a couple of the new guys and I feel like we’ve recruited some of the best young talent in the competition to sit alongside a few older heads. Getting flyhalf Tane Edmed across from Randwick is a quality pick-up, and also fullback Harry Wilson from Sydney Uni. They’re both really good young players who have come straight out of colts and are training full-time with the Waratahs at the moment. Lachlan Shelly and Charlie Cale from our Colts program are also ready to make the step up after being involved in the Waratahs Academy.
“You complement them with the Shute Shield Rookie of the Year last year in Michael Icely, a new Super Rugby player in Ed Craig, an explosive back in Enoka Muliufi, Barton Picone – who held out Jack Maddocks in a Shute Shield semi-final, and then combine them with old heads like Jed Gillespie and Pat Sio – who’s the best no.8 in the comp for mine, then I think we’re shaping up pretty well.
“Also, in the final against Warringah last year, Fabian Goodall wasn’t playing and Atieli Pakalani wasn’t playing, we were well short on troops by that stage. But both of those guys are back from injury. So it’s still a very exciting squad and top two has got to be the goal.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“I reckon Michael Icely can only get better. Physically, he’s probably the fittest and fastest in our squad and he’s a backrower. You also look at someone like Ed Craig, now he’s had a taste of Super Rugby with the Reds, you’d imagine he’s going to become a really dominant Shute Shield player. Pat Sio, I don’t know how he hasn’t got a Super Rugby contract, and I think he’s got the attitude to show everyone this year and ask the question ‘Why aren’t you picking me?
“I’d throw in Fabian Goodall as well. He was outstanding last year but tore his pec in round three, but he’s back and about the fittest I’ve seen him right now. He’s a real point of difference for us – how many 120kg wingers are there running around in Australian rugby? And Jed Gillespie had a bit of a funny year last year. He missed the first six rounds and was sort of playing catch-up the whole year. But now he’s had a really good pre-season and he’s one of the core leaders of the group, so I’m expecting a really big year from him as well.”
You’ve lost both starting halves from last year in Mick Snowden and Tayler Adams. But you’ve got the talented Matt Gonzalez back from injury and a couple of interesting young fly-halves as well. How do you think their combinations will blossom through the year?
“On his day, ‘Gonzo’ is one of the best halfback’s in the competition. Everyone forgets that he won a Premiership when he was just 21-years-old, leading us to victory in 2015, so he’s a very good player. Unfortunately, he’s just had three seasons of injury, but he’s got a big opportunity with ‘Snowy’ hanging up the boots and he’s been preparing himself really well. At 25 or 26 now he should be peaking with all his experience behind him, I’ve got high hopes for him this year.
“The battle of the five-eight’s should be really good. I mentioned young Tane Edmed, everyone is saying he’s a future Waratah and future Wallaby. But a little smokey is a guy called Chris Bell who we picked up from Subbies. He’s an Englishman who’s been out here enjoying himself and playing a bit of footy, but he’s been outstanding at training and in our trial earlier this year. The halves are very important and obviously it’s going to take time for them to gel because they haven’t played together. But at the same time, all three of those guys are very hardworking.”
Any other new players to get excited about?
“Charles Granger. He’s a hardworking lock that played second grade for most of last year, he’s had a really good off season. Sammy Dolores is a really class winger. He played for Italy in Rugby League surprisingly, but he was one of our second grade winger’s last year and is a really good finisher with plenty of ability. Another guy that’s impressed is Ratu Tuiese. He’s a centre/winger but he’s the best pilfer in the club, he’s just amazing on the ball. Against the Western Force in our trial he was just running through blokes and I think he got four steals in twenty minutes. We don’t know much about him other than he’s Fijian, and we’re not sure where to play him yet either, but he looks good!”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“I see Wests have recruited quite well and it seems like ‘Guddo’ (Mark Gudmunson) has done a really good job there, so I’d expect them to improve again. You can’t write off Sydney Uni although, this whole Covid thing will actually make it very interesting because it’s sort of brought everybody back to the pack. Those team’s with all the facilities and all the time, that all got evened out because everyone had to train by themselves. I think Warringah have got a lot of their squad back again bar Hamish Angus, so you’d imagine having a stable team would have to help them, so usual suspects are Uni and the Rats with Wests as a bit of a smokey.”
What is a pass mark for the Woods in 2020 – one step further into a grand final or will anything other than a Premiership be considered a failure?
“I think we’ve got to go for the Premiership. We can’t do the same as last year where we just slipped, so we’ve got to improve, which means make the grand final and from there, bang, bang, you’re on. Make the grand final and then all bets are off.”