2020: The Big Kick-Off – Gordon
Original photo: Andrew Quinn
Covid has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have Gordon adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“I’d like to think, like everyone, that we’ve done our best through it. Whether our best is the best you don’t know, but I couldn’t be prouder with the work ethic and the way our team has stayed engaged. It puts some pretty tough dents in your psychology when you go through a tough pre-season like we did, play one trial and then the carpet gets ripped out from under you. With all that uncertainty around when we’re going to get back on the field, and then the rumours and stories start that you may not, it’s hard to keep guys training. So I’m just very proud of the group for the way they trained and the way they stayed engaged. They got in fitness scores, they got in injury reports, and they got in their training logs. They were outstanding.”
What about the man-management aspect to all this away from the field as well, dealing with the person and not the player?
“Everyone deals with it in their own way, and we put some things in place around our coaching group to set-up little groups that the players could check in super-regularly with. I checked in with our top forty players quite regularly, and I guess that’s the beauty of being full-time having the time to do that, and we’ve been pretty lucky. We lost a few boys who went back to New Zealand, and one or two lost their jobs and a couple of those found new jobs so we weren’t immune to it. But overall it could have been worse, we got through relatively unscathed on that front.”
Has it affected player retention or acquisition?
“We lost some guys that had been here for a year or two and got through the whole pre-season, but Covid made them go back home, whether that be to Perth or New Zealand, and we won’t get them back. We lost probably five or six that way. But by the same token, there’s two or three that popped up that I wasn’t expecting. Harry Rorke for example, went over to New Zealand to play a bit of club footy and then into ITM Cup but ended up back home. So we’re a half dozen down and a couple up, it is a bit of swings and roundabouts.”
This will be your second – and as we now know – final season at the helm with the Highlanders before heading to the US for a pro gig. What did 2019 teach you about how much further they have to travel to make the finals and be a genuine contender this time around?
“I’m probably looking at it through biased eyes but I felt we were as good as most of those teams that were in that play-off series last year. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we were a Premiership team last year. But I thought we were a play-off’s team, we just took a while to actually realise that. We had a shaky up and down start but I don’t hide from the fact that I felt we got to a pretty good place pretty quickly last year, and we just weren’t clinical enough to sneak into the play-off’s. We had some serious momentum heading into that time of the year – we’d smashed Norths and we were unluckily beaten after the bell by Easts – but we just missed out by a couple of points. So anything other than play-off’s and going deep in the play-off’s will be a failure in my eyes this year.”
You came in last year and activated a sea-change at the club, changing the mentality, structure and belief across all grades, and the results were there for all to see. Now that bedrock is in place, how much more confident are you of hitting the ground running in 2020?
“You only have to look at the way the group talks and what we talk about. Last year was about getting credibility back and respect from our opposition, now it’s about winning. That’s at the top end, but in lower grades, pre-Covid I thought we had the strength in depth and through our colts that we were really excited to go from second in the Club Championship, which was a monumental effort from all at the club, to being hell-bent on winning it. We wanted to be Club Champions.
“Covid has upset that a little bit, and like most clubs, I don’t exactly know what the lower grade picture looks like because you can’t keep your lower graders as engaged as your top grade. On a whole club perspective, I know that for our firsts, seconds and colts ones, which are the teams that have been locked in, winning will be a high priority and is something that I think we can do. I still think our lower grades and lower grade colts will be strong, there’s just a little bit of guesswork in that because we haven’t been together as a group. Some of those third and fourth graders for which rugby isn’t as high a priority, it hasn’t been of late, so it’s a little tricky on that front.”
Without revealing any game plan has there been any specific tweaks to what was a reasonably successful formula last year?
“The positive of having such a big break is that we haven’t had a competitive game since the Two Blues at Lidcombe last August, so that’s an eleven month off-season! That’s a big break, and in that time you get a lot of time to think about rugby. We did a really exhaustive review of last year, and I got some things wrong in how we attacked the game and what we emphasised in the game, and what it came down to in the end is that we just weren’t clinical enough in the A-Zone. Whether that be our maul execution to try, or our play after A-Zone entry to get to try.
“Also, tactically I got spooked, and we took way too may penalty goals. We had a really amazing goal-kicker in Sean Kearns and we took a lot of three-point options, and I think in seven games we ended up on three tries. You knock back a few of those penalties and in those seven games you bag that extra try in a couple, there’s the two bonus points that we missed out on that we should have got. So we’ll be a lot more aggressive in chasing four-try bonus points, and we’ll be a lot more aggressive and clinical in the A-Zone, which I’m hoping will be the change we need in the team to go from just out of the finals to just into it.”
I think there’s a bit of a buzz around Gordon and what you did last year and could do this year. Do you revel in that added expectation or are you happy to still fly under the radar a bit?
“Well, we can’t control what other people think of us. I’m not sure we’re under the radar anymore, people who saw the moves we made last year can form their own opinions on that, but I don’t think it changes anything. I think pretty early in the piece last year we established what we were about. We went within a try of Southern Districts in game one, then we beat the Two Blues by fifty in game two, and beat Sydney Uni in round four, so even if we were under the radar going into the season, by a few rounds in people could see we were the real deal.”
You’ve brought in Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose, a veteran of Shute Shield finals campaigns with several clubs, and from the outside looking in it appears to be a heavyweight coaching team with a red hot pedigree. How’s that partnership working out so far, and what can Billy add to the mix?
“Billy’s role in the team is to be a traditional backs coach and he’s also doing some of our defensive system. I’ll still drive the team attack but we both cross into each other’s areas, so I’ll see things in Billy’s part of the game that I’ll want to have input on, and there’ll be parts in our team attack that Billy will give me his opinion. When you’ve got so many opinions on doing things I think that’s good because you’ve got more chance of finding the right answer, the key is how many messages you deliver to your players. Rugby is a pretty simple game and footballers are pretty simple animals, so you’ve got to make sure you’re not confusing them. We’ll have discussions and whiteboard sessions behind the scenes and then be super united when we come out and deliver our messages.
“Billy’s definitely a great acquisition, but I don’t want to undersell the value of my other assistants. Liam Winton is one of the best up and coming coaches there is. He’s a great lineout coach and he does all our contact work, he’s awesome. Paul Hardwick and Riley Carter – ex first grade coaches at Parra – have key roles within our top squad, and then we have Cam Blades who comes in and does our scrum. So I’m comfortable with saying that we’ve got the best coaching team in the Shute Shield.”
You’re taking up a well-deserved opportunity in the USA at the end of the year. Does that visible finishing line with Gordon, and indeed the Shute Shield for the foreseeable future, spur you on even more to produce something memorable before you leave these shores?
“One hundred percent. I owe a lot to Gordon, they’ve let me leave the third year of my contract to take up this opportunity, so I’m indebted to President Matt Glascott and the board because that wasn’t a given. I had to ask permission and they’ve allowed me to go off and do something that I want to do. They’ve been great to me and my family in my time, and I feel that I’ve delivered on my side of it to get them back to credibility and competitiveness in one year. But I’d love to leave with a Premiership more than anything, not just for the club but for that group of guys that have worked so hard for me.
“We’ve got the core of that group back from last year and they’ve been a great bunch of guys to be around, it’s a good team atmosphere. There’s some really staunch, rusted-on Gordon guys in the group that just two seasons ago were getting ninety put on them by some teams. So if we can get guys like Harry Rorke, James Lough, Jordy Goddard and Jack Maguire winning a Premiership, I reckon that’d be an amazing thing and I’d love to deliver that to them.”
You’ll also get the chance to lock horns with your brother Scott (Bubba) Coleman when Gordon take on Newcastle. I guess there’s already a ring on the calendar around the August 22nd clash?
“Yeah, we’ve already organised a family gathering at Bubba’s house up there in Newcastle for that match, and that’ll definitely be for bragging rights. We’ve clashed a few times at Sevens tournaments, and believe it or not his Hamilton Hawks beat my Eastern Suburbs Sevens team in a pre-season tournament three years ago, so at the moment he has the bragging rights and I’m looking forward to getting them back off him. As soon as the draw came out, the Newcastle team manager sent us both a message and told all the pubs in Newcastle to close down for the night, so I reckon she’ll be a good drink at the end of that one!”
They’re a complete unknown in this comp, and maybe a bit for Bubba too given it’s a rep side he’s putting together. How do you reckon they’ll go?
“I know a bit about them because I go up there so often, because I follow the Newcastle comp having lived there, and because Bubba has been in it for fifteen years and a lot of the player’s are from his club. So I think what you’ll get is a lot of committed players that are really excited to compete against Shute Shield teams, and they’ll be a well-drilled hardworking team.
“They don’t have the luxury of any Super Rugby players or ex-Super Rugby players dropping back in, they’ll be a tradesman-like competitive team that I think will surprise a few people up in Newcastle particularly. There’ll be some challenges, some days where depth will get them or they’ll be off mentally because it’s hard to be on your game for twelve games straight. But the ones where they’re on and they’re really fired up, you’ll have to be careful. I really hope they go 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?
“No, I don’t think so. If you do the math, we’ve got twelve matches and last year we had sixteen – they called it an eighteen round season but half the teams had two byes. So if you do the percentages on it you’re only playing twenty-five percent less than normal. I won’t attack it any different way, you want to be playing good footy at round one and you want to be playing your best footy at round thirteen. It just means that every game has got more importance, and that every game is one-twelfth of your season instead of one-sixteenth or seventeenth.
“I’ve chatted to a couple of coaches from other teams and asked them if they won it this year would it have an asterisk next to it, and we all agreed that it wouldn’t as long as the comp had its integrity of everyone playing each other once. If you look at it, it hasn’t had that in recent years with some teams playing others once or twice or having one bye or two, so this is actually a fairer comp.”
Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season – combinations etc, and enable them to hit the ground running?
“Again, that’s not something I subscribe to. Combinations are important, I do get that and I’ve been the beneficiary of that. From 2017 to 2018 at the Rats I enjoyed the continuity of that squad, but I think if you’re a coach and you have new players you just work harder on the combination aspect. I’ll back myself at round one that my team’s going to be better organised and more cohesive than my opponent’s, and if they’re not, I don’t blame it on new players in the team, I blame it on myself for not having coached well enough.
“It’s like when coaches talk about three-year plan’s because they want three years employment. I won’t be making excuses. We’ve got a reasonable turnover, something like twelve In’s and thirteen Out’s, but if I look at my starting fifteen I’ve probably only got three or four new guys. If I look at what I think will be my starting forward pack, seven of the eight were there last year, so that’s at the low end of turnover. Probably the new halves will be the biggest change-up.”
Well, let’s look at that. You’ve lost Jake Abel to the Western Force but have picked up a handy replacement no.9 in Harrison Goddard, while Robbie Coleman is off to the MLR and points machine Sean Kearns has gone back to Ireland, so have you settled on a new flyhalf yet?
“Yet to be decided but there are a few leading candidates. There’s Reece McDonald from New Zealand and Rodney Iona from Melbourne who’s an ex-Brumby, they’ll be the two favourites to take that jersey. Harrison is an interesting proposition. He was an absolute genius schoolboy player that got a full contract down at the Rebels and with the Australian U20’s but again, and it’s a blight on the Australian system, he just didn’t get to play any footy. He got stuck down in Melbourne as the third-choice halfback, and has effectively lost his Super Rugby contract purely because of the fact that he didn’t get to play any rugby.
“We were blessed to have Jake last year, who I thought was one of the best one or two halfbacks in the comp, and we’re really lucky to be able to replace him with Harrison. They’re different players, Jake was a physical running and tackling halfback but his pass and kick weren’t his strong points, whereas they’re the best parts of Harrison’s game. So it’ll be interesting how that all looks.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“I think Charlie Abel will. He had a great season for us last year and then went on and played NRC for Sydney, and then did a full pre-season with the Waratahs and has dropped twelve kilos, so he’s due for a big one. There’s a kid called Tom Silk, who was the star of our colts two years ago and played three or four first grade games last year and the rest in second grade. He can play six, seven or eight and I see him becoming a genuine regular starting first grader. Tautalatasi Tasi only played five games for us last year and in every one of them he was a big impact player, so I think teams will have their hands full with him too.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Harrison’s got a point to prove so he’ll be good, and Lucas Price is an interesting one. He was a Knox boy that had a good rugby pedigree but went to league out of high school. He’s had two or three years at Manly and the Tigers and is now back in union, so I think he’ll be one to watch as well.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“I think if I had to put teams in an upper echelon just now I think Easts – their coach always finds a way to fit them under the sombrero, and I think Randwick will improve as well. They’ve done really well out of the Australian Sevens program shutting down and releasing every player back to club rugby. They’ve picked up four players from that I think and they were all Randwick blokes anyway, and they’ve added some front-row power too. Sydney Uni will be in there as well, so if I had to pick them right now I’d say Easts, Randwick, Sydney Uni, Warringah – although a few of their veterans are getting long in the whiskers and grumpier, and the Woods. I think Randwick and West Harbour will be the big movers.”
What is a pass mark for Gordon in 2020 – making the finals for the first time since 2009 would be a welcome achievement but as you said earlier, you have designs on a bigger prize?
“Yeah, as I said I felt we were a play-off team last year and we just didn’t get rewarded for it, so the first step is to make the play-off’s. That’ll give us a pass I think, but only just. Then it’s to go deep in the finals. If we can get from the six into the four, then you can control your own destiny into the two. I can’t wait to rip into it.”