2020: The Big Kick-Off – Sydney University

Original photo: AJF Photography

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Having won two Premierships in a row, the odds on Sydney University being in and around the pointy end of the season again in 2020 would be pretty short. But they do come into the new campaign with a few unknowns. Head coach Robert Taylor was preparing for a third tilt at the title when Covid-19 put a halt to proceedings, but the hiatus gave English giants Leicester Tigers the chance to swoop in and offer him a well-deserved chance at the next level. That led to a coaching reshuffle, with Taylor’s assistant Joe Horn-Smith and Uni’s Director of Rugby Michael Hodge handed the co-coaching reigns for the revamped season.

Given the pedigree of success and the production line of talent coming through the ranks at Camperdown, you wouldn’t back against them continuing their recent dominance. But just how the fledgling combo fare with a team shorn of many of last season’s crown jewels, and with the distinct possibility that they won’t see any of their traditional Super Rugby talent return, is an intriguing prospect, particularly given the fact they have been forced to prep their new team from either side of the Tasman. Horn-Smith explained all to Behind the Ruck this week…

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Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Students adjusted and coped with those challenges?

“We’ve got better at communication and formalising our communication methods with some good team Zoom calls. We had to modify our training to make sure that it meets all the requirements outlined by the government, starting with groups of nine like everyone else and staggering the times guys have been coming into sessions. We’ve been doing a lot of one-to-one stuff in terms of giving feedback to guys as well, and organising personalised training so they could train at home throughout Covid, and that forced us to get creative.

“We did stuff like using a running app to map all of our running routes, and then uploading them all to a group chat for a competition to see who could run the fastest three kilometre time trial. It’s been a logistical challenge with guys dispersing all over the state, but it’s just been important to keep constant communication with everyone in our group. That’s been the big thing, making sure we’re all connected with one another.”

Obviously, with one of the player’s testing positive after the Australian Club Championships and the subsequent enforced quarantine for pretty much everyone present on the day, Uni as a club were made aware of the ramifications of Covid from the off?

“We were, and that was a bonding experience in itself because we had around thirty guys going through this quarantine together at the same time. After the game, there was a bit of an awareness that rugby was probably going to stop for a while, and that we needed to make the most of the time together as a group. But from there it was all about staying in contact and helping each other through it. The isolation thing is not the end of the world, but it’s not a very nice experience actually.

“I personally would call all the forwards, and the conversations were generally more about life than rugby, because guys were missing the camaraderie. So in many ways, even though they were physically further apart, some people in the group have probably grown closer to each other. It’s given time for people to realise how much they miss rugby, and whether they really love it or not. Having been in New Zealand when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked-off, and how much the public got behind it over there, I hope rugby in Australia will be the same because the rugby community can’t wait to be back around each other.”

Joe Horn Smith_Sydney Uni_coaching_2019

A former Uni prop, Joe Horn-Smith was assistant for the last two Premiership wins before stepping up as co-head coach this season

You mention being in New Zealand, and as I found out when I called you, you are still not back in Australia, so you have an understanding of the travel impact of Covid more than most. Can you take us through what’s been a pretty fraught last couple of months?

“Well, the Monday after the Club Championship game before everything started to be shut down, I flew to New Zealand to get a connecting flight onto Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, because I have family over there and I was going to spend a bit of time with them while the rugby was off. Before I got the connecting flight I got the notice telling everyone who was involved in the Club Championship to self-isolate, and as I didn’t want to run the risk of infecting anyone in the Cook Islands, I put myself into self-isolation in New Zealand at a friend’s house. While I was doing that, Australia closed it’s borders to anyone returning, and because I don’t have permanent residency in Australia yet I wasn’t allowed back in, so I ended up being stuck in New Zealand for fourteen weeks!

“I applied for an exemption visa based on having lived in Sydney for the past ten years with my wife and three children and having a job there, but they declined it. The family ended up joining me in New Zealand because I couldn’t go back and they’ve been here for a couple of months as well , and then I found out I’d lost my job, which was contracting work, outside of the coaching I do at Uni and Newington. If you’re not there you can’t get paid for contracting work, but I’m in a lucky position where that side of things should be fine because we’d worked to a position where I could just do rugby full-time. 

“After fourteen weeks in New Zealand the Cook Islands borders reopened without any quarantine from NZ, so we have since headed there. The visa situation is now sorted and I should be back in Sydney this weekend, but then I have to quarantine so I’ll miss round one of the competition. It’s been a tough time full of tough decisions, none more so than leaving the wife and kids behind in Rarotonga to avoid them having to quarantine. But we have a great support network there and the kids love the lifestyle. So it’s been a challenging time all round!”

Covid hits, the season is put on hold, and Robert Taylor lands a fantastic opportunity to further his coaching career in the UK with Leicester Tigers, which gives yourself and Director of Rugby Michael Hodge the opportunity to step up in his absence. Assuming a lot of the program was already locked in for the season before he announced his departure, has it been a case of continuing what was already in place, or have yourself and Hodgey taken the opportunity to put your own stamp on things as yet?

“A lot of what was in place for the 2020 season, myself, Rob and actually Hodgey had worked collaboratively on, with Hodgey taking the under 20’s and Rob and myself with first grade ourselves for the last two years anyway. So there’d been a huge number of hours of planning done already, and with all of our agreed input. So the fact the three of us had already worked on all that for three months as a group and Hodgey had been heavily involved in pre-season, was really beneficial as he had been around the playing group a lot. What we’ll be doing is largely a continuation of what we had planned with a few twists here and there.

“Mike’s a very good coach and he’s done a great job with the under 20’s, they won last year having not qualified for the finals the year before. So he’s got the trust of that group of young guys coming through, much like myself and Rob did in 2018 when we came through from colts. I think he’s going to do a really good job and he has ambitions to progress in rugby, as do I. We’re two young-ish coaches and we’d like to see how far we can go in coaching.”

You’ve clearly had bigger fish to fry in terms of simply getting home and getting your life back into some semblance of normality. But I have to ask how that whole situation has impacted the pre-season program at Uni. Were you in constant contact with Michael and/or the players?

“I was talking to Hodgey on an almost daily basis, and I’d already taken the boys through pre-Christmas until February with all the stuff around shaping the season ahead. I talked to them daily as well so I did everything I could online and over the phone. It’s actually been a really healthy exercise in that it gave me the time to put together loads of documents on coaching, and it’s been a good opportunity for other coaches to upskill around Uni through working with first grade while I wasn’t there.”

Michael Hodge_Sydney Uni coaching_2019

Former Waratah back Michael Hodge will perform the co-head coach role in tandem with his Director of Rugby duties

They say if you stand still you’re going backwards, so without revealing your game plan has there been any specific tweaks to what has been a very successful formula?

“It’s a lot about being better, just keep on getting better than we were before. Get fitter, get faster, do what you’ve been doing well but do it better. We’re very much into the philosophy of everything we do at training is about getting better and preparing for a game. It sounds obvious, but we make the most of every minute we have on the field to make sure it’s all pointing to what we want to achieve in a game.

“I can’t really say what other team’s are doing, but I would think everybody’s training hard. All I know is that we train very hard and with very high intensity, and that it is very competitive with our lower grades being quite successful over the last few years. That helps elevate the top grade team.”

You’re listed as co-coaches, so will the partnership with Michael work simply along the lines of you being in charge of the forwards and him in charge of the backs, and who will make the selection calls and replacement calls on game day?

“We’ll both naturally pick up what we know and what we’re good at – he’s very knowledgeable around attack and back play and I like my forwards stuff. The rest of it we’ll work out as we go! Me and Mike have known each other for year’s, we played together at Uni in 2010 and 2011 and we also worked together doing personal training back then as well for extra income. So we’ve been mates for a long time and it’s not going to be new or challenging working together, we get on 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?

“Yeah, one hundred percent it does. It means that you’ve got to start from minute one of game one at a hundred percent. In previous years you could look to taper your preparation and build up as the season went on. But this year it’s got to be full-on from the start.”

Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season – combinations etc, and enable them to hit the ground running?

“Yeah, probably, that’s an interesting way to look at it. It’ll definitely favour teams with continuity from previous years, although there’s not that much of that at club level because there’s so much movement of players and coaches. Even if you look at Warringah, they’ve got a lot of the same players but they’ve got a new coach. I think it will favour the teams that are the fittest, because there’s not going to be a time to build up your game fitness and improve. Some club’s play themselves fit as the year goes on and get better and better, so it just means you’re going to have to be really competitive at training leading into round one.”

Sydney Uni Ins and Outs

As is usual with Uni, you pay a happy price for your success with the loss of a lot of players to the next level, while looking to replace them from within. Are you happy with the balance you have for the new campaign?

“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the lower graders and colts step up. For us, guys going up to Super Rugby is as much a measure of success as winning trophies. Getting player’s to the next level is a huge part of what we want to achieve, and I personally take great pride in seeing guys that I’ve coached for a long time push on and be dominant at the next level. It’s a nice feeling.”

It still seems to be up in the air as to if and when club land will see any of their Super Rugby stars back at any time this year, and historically Uni have been able to call upon a few at the pointy end of the season. Is that a potential eventuality you’ve planned for?

“They’re effectively ring-fenced and we have no access to them until further notice, so as it stands at the moment we’re preparing as if we’re not going to have them. But if we get them back it’s a great bonus. We’ve actually got fewer than in previous years, and lots in the same position – there’s about five or six front-rowers! But we’ve also got lots of good front-rower’s coming through so we’re not really over-thinking that, we’ll just crack on with what we’ve got. It’s going to hurt other club’s worse than it’s going to hurt Uni I think, based on the fact that there’s key playmaking position’s that other club’s have at Super Rugby level.”

It’s one thing climbing the mountain, it’s another to stay there, but this Uni side is going for what would be a three-peat of Premierships in a row. Do you get the feeling amongst the group that their motivation is as strong as ever to go back-to-back-to-back?

“We actually lost quite a few players at the end of last year, and there’s guys coming in that want to be better than the player’s they are following on from, so it’s probably stronger. At Uni it’s about the jersey, not the person that’s in it. You’ve got to always do that proud and elevate yourself to that level, so that’s what we’d look for, hope for and expect from the guy’s coming in. So I don’t think motivation is something that would ever be questioned.”

Which existing players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?

Nick CD Crespigny_cropped_Sydney Uni v Souths_2019_AJF

Nick Champion De Crespigny is on the cusp of pro footy – Photo: AJF Photography

“Nick Champion De Crespigny and Rohan O’Regan were outstanding last year, and I’d really like to see those two go onto Super level. I really think they’ve got the capability and they just need a chance. In our backline you’d like to see Will McDonnell get another chance. I’m no expert in back play but I’d like to see him get back to his best form.

“There’s other guys in there as well like Matt Sandell, he should be Super Rugby contracted. And Tim Clements is probably another guy deserving a chance at the next level. He’s a bloody good player who missed a lot of last year through injuries but I know Rob Taylor loves him and thinks the world of him in terms of his quality, and he’s a pretty good judge of talent.”

Give me a few new players to get excited about?

“Ofa Manuofetoa. He absolutely lit up the second grade grand final last year and he’s been very good for us in pre-season, and Nathaniel Tamwoy could be anything he wants to be. He’s a really good player but also a very hard trainer and leader amongst the group, so he’s a really positive influence. If he gets his chance he could go very well. The guy I’d really like to see kick on is Lincoln Whiteley. He was the first colts captain two years ago but hasn’t quite got it right off the field and needs a good pre-season. He’s very talented.

“Also, the other Angus Bell! Unlike his namesake at the Waratahs he’s nominally a fullback who was contracted to the Aussie Sevens set-up, but because of Covid has come back to us. He’ll be around and he’s a very talented young player. Darcy Breen the tighthead prop from the Aussie under 20’s, he’ll be in and around first grade, and Luke Porter who is a lock. He played third grade last year and then played in our first grade trials and in the Club Championship game before Covid. He’s six foot-eight or nine, well-built and athletic, and I think he’s going to come in and make a bit of a splash.”

Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?

“I would say Warringah will be very good again. Gordon got much better last year and they’ll be better again this year, and Darren Coleman has a track record of success. You can’t rule out Easts because they’ve got an incredible squad of players. Again, they might not get their Super Rugby players back but they’ve recruited guys underneath that I think will be quite good. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a smokey like Manly come out of nowhere, and Eastwood are always good. They come up with guys each year that you’ve not necessarily seen before but they’re always good, and Ben Batger is a good coach too. He just gets that club and he really harnesses that knowledge of it and uses that to motivate the guys around him.

“Todd Louden will have an impact at Souths as well, he’s a good coach and they’ll be much better. If you look back at 2017 I think it was, their colts were bloody good, a very talented group. They haven’t done as well yet as they should have done, but they’ve still got a lot of those guys at the club. I was coached by Todd at Uni so I know what he’s about. He knows his stuff and he really knows how to motivate people as well. But having said all that, I always think everyone’s going to be tough and I prepare accordingly!”

What is a pass mark for Uni in 2020 – anything other than a Premiership considered a failure?

“To be blunt, yes. There’s no expectation or entitlement there, but Uni as a club have high standards and if you start a race you’re only in it to win it.”

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Sydney Uni Draw

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