2020: The Big Kick-Off – Randwick
Original photo: Ric McLallen
For a club with the stature and history of Randwick, it’s been pretty slim pickings in terms of the Shute Shield in recent seasons when it comes to tangible signs of a title challenge. Having fallen in the first week of the finals three years in a row from 2015-2017, they have failed to reach the knockout stages in the last couple of seasons, and a record of seven different head coaches across the last decade is a fair indication of the inability to transfer the obvious improvements made as a club from Colts to lower grade, into consistent levels of high performance at the top of the pyramid.
Charged with ushering in a fresh and successful era at Coogee Oval is new man at the helm Ben McCormack, already boasting a CV that belies his years and includes roles as a head coach, assistant coach, Director of Rugby and Development Officer spanning both Brisbane and Sydney, and incorporating schools, Premier grade and rep footy. Club coach at the Galloping Greens last year, his knowledge of the players at his disposal and of the culture he has already begun to implement, should hold him in good stead as he goes in search of his stated goal of a top four finish at the very least.
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Wicks adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“I think we’ve coped exceptionally well, and my Head of Performance Jacinta Mattingly has been outstanding during this whole thing. We’re lucky enough that we had some GPS units and were able to track the boys running while we were away, or a fair chunk of them, and Jacinta’s been doing a great job monitoring all that. She also had a team builder set-up, which allowed her to track all the programs and what the boys were lifting and how often they were lifting.
“But the main thing I think was that it wasn’t too arduous, it wasn’t too time consuming, and we weren’t riding the boys throughout that time. We all felt like there were probably some more important things going on than footy, and some of the boys were struggling around job security and things like that. So it was important to keep that front of mind throughout the process because it can be very easy to just focus on footy. I felt like we did a good job through that period and I was really happy with the way we’ve come through it, and how the boys came through it. To all get back to training in the nick they’re in, they did exceptionally well.”
How did it affect player retention or acquisition?
“We’ve probably done a little bit better than some clubs. We don’t have a heavily recruited first grade side, we like to rely on our colts generating the quality of our player base, so in terms of retaining imports as such we don’t really have any. Being in the heart of Coogee we get a fair few backpackers who are here for a year’s holiday and turn up looking for a game, and we had a couple of those boys who came down in pre-season and then disappeared for obvious reasons. So, we’re down a little bit on our lower grade internationals, but as far as first grade went we were pretty lucky in that sense.”
You’re moving from the role of club coach to head coach. Is that a fairly comfortable shift given your knowledge of a lot of these players from a more generic position last season?
“Yeah, it’s been quite a smooth transition, and I’m lucky to have some really good people around me. Garrick Cowley is staying on, who was involved in the first grade set-up last year. Matt Bowman, who is a legendary scrum coach and all-time Randwick legend, he’s staying on. Morgan Turinui has come in to take my old position as the club coach, and we also have Peter Dumbleton as the full-time Colts Director. They’re all very good at what they do, which makes my job a lot easier to be honest.
“Gaz (Cowley) is a very smart operator. He was a professional halfback in his day playing in New Zealand and over in Europe, so he’s got some really good experience from a playing point of view. But he’s also a good man manager. He’s very direct in his communication, he’s very honest, and he’s great at holding the boys to standards, and that’s not an easy part of coaching. Morgan is a great sounding board for me, he’s not overbearing and he lets me do my thing. But he’s there if and when I need him, and he’s got a great rugby brain so I’m always chatting to him. I’ve got a really good crew around me.”
You’ve amassed a healthy amount of experience and success in both Queensland and NSW at a fairly young age, and been in and around the Shute Shield in different roles for a few years now. Did you feel this was the right time to take up the head coaching challenge in Australia’s best club competition?
“Yeah I did, I’ve done that Director of Rugby role a few times, I’ve done the assistant’s role, and I’ve been head coach at a Schools first fifteen and Colts level. Head coach is not something I have to be, I feel like I play an assistant coach role well. But it depends on the group you’ve got and the environment you’re in. I certainly felt like in this scenario I could add a lot as the head coach, so I was happy to do it and grateful Randwick afforded me the opportunity.
“I came with some pretty hefty goals around where I want to get the club to, and the type of club and culture that I want to create here. Last year, while it was a good starting point, I probably didn’t get as much traction as I was hoping for. This year I’ve got a bit more of a licence, and I think we’ll do some really good things. I’m loving it.”
When you arrived at Coogee last year, you were keen to talk about the junior and colts base being integral to Randwick’s future success. Is that internal development the cornerstone for progress in 2020 and beyond?
“I’m a big believer that it’s the cornerstone in any sustained successful program. You can buy a team and win for one year or maybe even two, but you can’t have sustained success year on year just by buying players, and the club can’t sustain a healthy balance sheet if you’re just importing players every year. Randwick as a club, we want to compete and we want to finish in the top four every year, and that’s in every grade. So, the only way to do that is to develop your own and have a program that kids can come into and develop as footballer’s, and keep them coming through year after year.
“Some people get a little bit upset when they recruit a player into Colts and they spend time and effort in developing them, and then the kid goes off and earns a contract and the club hardly sees them again. But that’s part of our core role as a grassroots club. By consistently developing players you’ll continue to attract more talented kids, and when those guys are available to come back and play for you they will and they’ll add plenty. Randwick have a good history of that happening too.”
“They put a lot of emphasis on their Colts, this was started years ago when Nick Ryan and others were at the club. They established the relationship with UNSW and also established relationships to help kids get apprenticeship’s and work opportunities when they were coming out of school, so they’ve given the club a massive head start there. I don’t have to jump in and do that leg-work, but ‘Morgs’ (Turinui) and I can tweak and assist and maybe refine that process so that we can keep it going and make it better as well.”
The club hasn’t lifted a Premiership since 2004, and hasn’t competed in a grand final since 2010. Is that a burden of history that needs exorcising, or do you focus on the here and now rather than anything that preceded your time in the hot seat?
“I’m aware of it, and I think it’s very important to be aware of your history, but it definitely doesn’t burden us. I’ve got a really healthy respect for the work ethic and the quality of program that’s required to do well at this level. I’ve seen it first hand and been a part of program’s that have won competition’s and competed in grand finals pretty regularly, so I know that we can do it. We’ve just got to focus on making sure we get our program to a level where we can do it consistently.”
Without revealing any specific game plan have you made any notable tweaks to the Galloping Greens formula to get them back up that ladder and challenging for titles?
“I think you’ll see us take a little bit of risk this year, which I’m looking forward to. As a coach it’s a little bit risky giving your players a lot of decision-making powers, but I think it’s the only way for them to actually develop. If I sit down and tell them ‘On this phase you’ve got to pass here and you’ve got to pass to him, and then after that you’ve got to pass to him’, then I’m not actually developing the mind of the player. So for me it’s about giving the boys some basic shapes and ideas around how we want to play the game, and then allowing them to make decisions based on what they see in front of them.
“It’s then my job to put them into an environment at training where they’re consistently making those decisions, and then we’re assessing what they saw, how they did, what their execution was like, and then repeating the process in as close to a game environment as we can create. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, and our pre-season was very much game based. I’m trying to develop their skill-sets so that they can apply the right skill in every situation, and then it’s up to them in terms of decision-making.
“Hopefully you’ll see a little bit of flair and you won’t see the same thing over and over, so you won’t be able to pick up a definite game plan by watching a game. You’ll see us play in tight, you’ll see us play in the looser areas, and you’ll see us offload. But then you’ll see us rein it in at times as well, and I think that’s all part of being an intelligent football side – knowing when to apply each skill.”
How much of that approach is conditioned by the cattle at your disposal – if you’re a bit light-on up front you may wish to play away from the set-piece a bit more and hold the ball for example?
“I’ll definitely use the ball, that’s the way I love to play football anyway, and I think the players, coaches and supporter’s enjoy it more when the ball is being used. So I’ll definitely be encouraging the boys to throw it around, not necessarily to always hold the ball, but attack with the ball. We’ll still kick when the opposition allows us to or when the picture is right, but you won’t see us up and down the tram tracks too much.”
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 does in some respects, but it’s only four or five games shorter than last year so it’s not a humongous difference. It definitely places a bit more importance on how you start. In previous years you may have been afforded a couple of mishaps, which you won’t be in this scenario, and it’ll be interesting to see how everyone approaches it.
“Our draw is an interesting one, we’ve got Newcastle at home first up and then the Rats at home second up, so we sort of go from an unknown into a tough game. Then I think in the last four or five rounds we’ve got Easts and Uni, and I probably would have preferred them a bit earlier on because obviously Super Rugby will be finished and those clubs in particular have a number of Waratahs that could come back. But a draw is a draw, you’ve got to play everyone once so you’ve just got to get on with it and do your best.”
Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season and enable them to hit the ground running?
“Yeah, no doubt. Cohesion is such a big element of rugby, in my mind anyway, and teams and combinations that have played together a lot before are just going to hit the ground running because they know each other already. That’s something in the back of my head coming into round one because I’ve potentially got five or six new backs in the backline, none of whom, if any, have played together before. That’s definitely going to hinder us a little bit, and the more I can get them gelling before that first match the better.
“If you look at teams like the Rats with Josh Holmes, Tyson Davis, Benny Woollett, Harley Attwater etc – they’ve all played a lot of football together, so that will be a big benefit to them. Even Uni and Eastwood too to an extent, although they’ll have a few new backs as well. I’ll definitely be high on talent in the backs and I’m really excited to see some of the guys we’ve got coming through. But in terms of combinations they will be a little bit light-on in that space.”
You’ve gained some interesting acquisitions in the off-season, with an influx of players from the adjourned Sevens program returning home. Are you happy with the balance you have for the new campaign?
“We could definitely be a bit stiffer up in the front row. I’ve got a couple of good ones there but I definitely don’t have the depth I had last year. In 2019 we were probably a little bit lucky because we had four or five guys that I felt could quite easily play at a first grade level. This year we’re a little bit shallower in that space, and it’s something the club are looking at from a strategic point of view.
“It’s definitely an area we’ve recognised and need to make amends, because if you look at all the best teams over the last few years it’s their scrum and their platform that allows them to do that. You’ve only got to look at what Uni have done in the last two grand finals, and I was a part of one two years ago with Warringah and they absolutely demolished our scrum, we couldn’t get anywhere near them. It makes it really hard when you get to the business end if you can’t win your scrum ball.
“The eastern suburbs demographic just doesn’t have those big bodies floating around. We’re great at producing a ten, or a winger, or an outside back. But we just don’t have those big boys that are local to us, so we’ve got a few irons in the fire and are working on a few things to try and get some of those bigger guys coming through more regularly.
“In terms of the Sevens boys I can’t give you much on them yet. I’ve seen Henry Hutchison play some fifteen’s and he looks the goods. Locky Miller, Maurice Longbottom and Dylan Pietsch are the other Sevens lads and they look supremely talented athletes, but if, where and how they fit, and how quickly they adapt back into the fifteen’s game I’m not sure yet. But I’m looking forward to seeing how they go for sure.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“I’ve got a fair few lads I’m excited about, hard to single out just a few. But Jackson Mohi is a winger, a really good young kid that came through Colts a couple of years ago and had a great debut season last year, but then got injured towards the back end of it. He’s an extremely high level of talent who works hard on his body, has great feet, great top-end speed and good awareness, and he’s just a competitor. He loves scoring tries and hates getting beaten, and he’s had a big off-season.
“And there’s a couple of my big boys. Firstly Tommy Nowlan, a big second-rower who’s still only 22 or 23. He’s only a couple of years out of Colts now but he’s still growing into himself, and those boys that are two metres-plus do take a bit of time. But he had a good year last year and was finally starting to throw his weight around and know how big and strong he is. That’s been great to watch but the longer he plays the better he’ll get, which I’m excited about.
“And Nathan Den Hoedt is another one, he’s a second-rower or number six who also played for us last year. He’s a Queenslander originally, and for a tall guy who’s an extremely good lineout operator he’s got silky hands. He can put people through space, he can offload and he’s got some really good skills for a tall body, which you don’t often see. So I think he’ll have a good year as well.”
Give me a few new players to get excited about?
“Oli Barden, who’s a hooker. He’s putting some real pressure onto our two existing hookers now, Adam Freier and David Vea. He had a big pre-season and is really pushing hard for that top spot, and at this point in time he’s got a red-hot chance to make that jersey his. So that’ll be an interesting battle to watch unfold over the next little period.
“An interesting one to see where he ends up is Blaise Barnes. He had a dabble in league when he first left school I think, and then he came down and was with our Colts program. He then got picked up into the Sevens program but got injured and has had eighteen months off. But he looks like he’s got plenty of talent, so it’ll be interesting to see where he ends up.
“Locky Miller or ‘Millhouse’, from the little bit we’ve seen, looks like an excitement machine. He steps off both feet, is explosive and good in contact. I think he’ll definitely have some fun this year.”
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2020?
“I think it’s the usual suspects to be honest. I think Wests will rattle a few cages, they’ve done some really good recruiting and they’ve got some big names and some big players going over there this year. But at the end of the day those consistent programs like your Uni’s, your Easts and your Rats, they’ll all still be there fighting it out, and hopefully fighting it out with us as well.”
What is a pass mark for Randwick in 2020 – getting back into the finals or do you harbour loftier ambitions?
“We’re not here to muck around, We’re here to win it and I’d be really disappointed if we don’t finish in the top four. Winning is a habit, and for anyone who has been in the habit it becomes almost unbearable to lose. If you do lose it’s enormously frustrating and you don’t want to be a part of it, so you uncover every avenue to improve so it doesn’t happen again. I’ve been really lucky as a coach, I’ve only missed finals once or twice and I don’t ever want to be there again and neither does my playing group, so we definitely won’t die wondering this year.”