2020: The Big Kick-Off – West Harbour
Original photo: J.B Photography
If your looking for a genuine smokey in this year’s Shute Shield competition, all fingers seem to be pointing towards West Harbour. An extensive recruitment drive that sees 20 new players putting their hand up for a place in the top squad, including a couple of familiar names with plenty of experience, has created a buzz around clubland that the Pirates might be about to turn the corner after promising so much for so long but not quite delivering.
Hoping to oversee a return to knockout football at the very least is head coach Mark Gudmunson, who is at the helm for a second season after taking some impressive steps in 2019 without getting the results on the board that his side’s performances warranted. Add into the mix the fact that they have to adjust to a temporary home at Drummoyne Oval while Concord Oval is given a makeover, and it all points to an intriguing season ahead for the Wests faithful.
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Pirates adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“It’s been quite tough. Early on it was pretty much a kick in the teeth because we’ve had this team building since last year and we had to lock a lot of them away again. It’s been frustrating having all these players on board and doing some great stuff in minimal groups, and then you’ve got to tell everyone ‘Don’t gather around, just go home’. You couldn’t even have a debrief on what you’d achieved.
“We were really excited to see how we could develop as a group going forward and suddenly, we couldn’t train, we couldn’t go outside our houses, and everybody got a bit of experience on Zoom meetings – but even with those you can only do so many! We tried to do one a week, and that was a quick little update on where things were at and what the board was trying to do behind the scenes. But it was more about guys just having a chat and seeing each other’s faces, and someone throwing a joke in every now and then. Sometimes we’d chat for an hour and we didn’t even talk about rugby, it was just about making sure everyone’s life was ok.”
That’s the thread that is running through a lot of these previews, the man-management aspect of this away from the rugby. How did you handle that side of the ledger?
“Having a couple of houses where guys all lived in together helped them keep going forward, but we had a few guys who had issues with jobs as well. And that side of coaching is probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the last few years. The first thing I ask a player before we even talk about rugby is ‘What’s work like? How’s your family life?’ and all that kind of stuff, because if they turn up to training and they’ve got issues with their job or they’re not switched on for whatever reason, then you’re not going to get anything out of them. As long as we can get those things right, the rest is just about how much they really want to put in. So it’s been a very interesting experience.”
How has it affected player retention or acquisition?
“To be honest, it hasn’t really had any negative impact. Obviously, we lost a few players that we were likely to lose anyway but they got professional contracts – Tiaan Swanepoel went to the Lions in Super Rugby and Tyler Fisher to Major League Rugby in the US, and that’s awesome. You wouldn’t necessarily want to do it, but if I had to build a rugby team every single year because guys were getting professional contracts then I’m doing my job. The only one we’ve really lost that went somewhere else is Rhys Brodie, who was in Ireland but I believe is back at Gordon now with DC (Darren Coleman). He’s playing with his brother I think and that’s fine, we weren’t really too worried about that one, so player loss has been minimal.
“In terms of recruitment, we started chatting with guys that had left the club, probably not because they wanted to but maybe they weren’t getting treated right or there was an opportunity that they were told about. So we tried to get those guys back to the club, guys like Sonny Satuala, who played all his junior and colts rugby here but went to Randwick for a chance to play first grade. We’ve added those guys in with a couple of quality players that we’ve been lucky enough to bring in as well, who will help kick the squad along.”
You started 2019 behind the eight-ball having seen a number of players leave the club. Given the way the side went on to perform last year – where a few close results go the other way and you maybe end up in the finals – and the recruitment in the off-season, how much more confident are you of hitting the ground running in 2020?
“It’s a totally different feel this year, within the coaching group, the board, and the playing group. Everyone looks around and sees the familiar faces, and also the ones we’ve brought in that are going to help the squad and hopefully turn those results the right way for us. The feel at the club is totally different and everyone is super excited to get out on the field.”
This will be your second full season at the helm of the Pirates, what learnings do you take from your 2019 experience into the new season?
“It’s been a massive learning curve for myself as a coach to give a bit more to others to do so I can focus on the little things, and I’ve got a great coaching team around me. Reg De Jager has stayed on with us, Lachlan White has come up from second grade, and we’ve got former Pirates prop Campese Ma’afu on board to add some experience. He’s had his time playing now – at least that’s what he tells me – and he wants to move into the coaching side of things. We’ve also got Kolose Feaunati in who was up at Gordon for a while a couple of years back, he’s doing some work on the defensive side of things.
“Dave Treweek has come back to the club to run second grade and brings plenty of experience with him, and you need that in second grade because not everyone is going to fit into the fifteen and you need someone who is either going to give players a bit of a pick-up or be pretty blunt with them and say ‘You’re not playing well enough’. Mick Debreczeni is also doing some skills work along with Mike Stubbs, and to have all those guys on the coaching staff and have the ability to chat to them on a Monday about what we’re going to do, means that I don’t have to touch base with them again. I can just let them run with what they’re doing and get a lot more of the stuff I want to do done. So the main thing I’ve learned is to get a good team around me and actually use them.”
Without revealing any game plan has there been any specific tweaks to last year’s formula?
“If you go back over the season it was our completion rates that killed us. We’d get into a position to score, and it would be a poor pass or a dropped ball that stopped us. So this time that we’ve had has really given us an opportunity to strip things back and get that skill level up. We want to turn those fifty-fifties into sixty-forties or seventy-thirties. We still want guys to chance their arm, but we also want them to understand that there’s consequences if they don’t come off. If we just take the carry and play the ruck, maybe it’s the next phase where it’s going to come together, so the skill base has been a massive thing for us. We’ve got the structures in place and we’ve got the players, we’ve just got to be able to improve those completion rates, that’s been a main focus of ours.”
A lot of clubs are talking about the recruitment at Wests and maybe looking over their shoulders a bit. Do you revel in that added expectation or do you prefer to fly under the radar?
“I’ve got no secrets and I’ve been more than happy to tell everyone who we’ve got. We want people to be scared of us when they come to play, not think that they’re going to have a challenge for the first twenty and then roll over us. We want teams to be fearful of us, that’s something that we’ve all chatted about. We want to go to a Sydney Uni or an Eastern Suburbs or whoever, and for them to be naturally fearful of what they know we can do – not what they think we can do, but what they know we can do. That’s something we do relish. Bring it on!”
You mentioned earlier that you were bringing in a couple of quality players, and when you see the names of Sam Wykes and Rod Davies on the roster, that’s quite a bit of handy experience to call upon too. How did they come about?
“Sam was a lucky one. He was meant to be in Japan but couldn’t get back over there to fulfil his contract, so he rang me up and said he was interested in playing. He’s got a couple of friends in Cam Betham and Pat Pellegrini who have come on board and he’s obviously played at West Harbour before, so we had a chat about what he can offer and what he wants to do and from the first session he came in he’s been brilliant. He’s still rehabbing an injury that he’s got but the value that he’s added in just being around the group, and the way he talks about rugby and life has been brilliant. Blokes just want to hear all the stories!
“Rod came about thanks to the connection with Cameron and Harrison Orr through the Western Force. He was with the Aussie Sevens and we didn’t think we’d see too much of him this year. But with Covid throwing that up in the air we’ll hopefully see a lot more of him because they don’t call him ‘Rocket’ for no reason, he’s clearly still got that speed. He’s a Wallaby and he’s won a Super Rugby title so he’s got some real runs on the board, and that’s great for some of our guys to be able to rub shoulders with him and ask questions about footy. He’s a great fella too and he’ll add some real value as well.
“That’s a big thing for us. I’m more than happy for any player who wants to come back and play or train with us. Pre-Christmas we had Allan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio at pretty much every single training session, Jack Debreczeni has been down with us while he waits to head back to Japan, and I’ve had Alofa Alofa and Kelly Meafua come along and have a laugh and just chat with some of the fellas, and the things that these guys can learn from them is invaluable.”
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’ll probably look at it and think that, but I suppose it depends how balanced the competition is. If the new teams coming in and the teams that were down the lower end of the ladder last year cause a couple of upsets, then you probably could drop a couple. But if you want to be playing finals football you’ve really got to be getting a good result in those first four or five rounds, and you’ll probably know where you’re sitting to be honest by that time. That may even work better for some teams if they drop a couple early. Some teams play better when things are on the line.
“Also, with Super Rugby coming back and them apparently not letting any player’s back into the club mix that are contracted, that could throw a big spanner in the works for some clubs. For us it only affects Carlo Tizzano at the Waratahs, but for other clubs it potentially affects five, six or seven guys.”
Given the shorter time frame, sides with consistent selection from the off may benefit. Does that make your job that bit harder because you’re trying to bed in so many new combinations etc?
“It’s definitely a possibility yeah, but I think that the guys that we’ve had have actually come together pretty quickly. I suppose it also depends on what football you’re going to play. I think a lot of teams, because of the fact that we were only able to train in groups of ten for a while, are not going to have too much time for team stuff before round one.
“So I think you may see some pretty basic, free-flowing, and potentially defence-focused games. If you can hold teams to under twenty points you’re probably going to be winning the majority of your games. You’ll see some restrictions I suppose, and in the first couple of rounds maybe a little bit of looseness. But I think we’re going pretty good actually, and I’m not going to use it as an excuse if things go pear-shaped.”
Another potential factor in Wests’ season is the move to Drummoyne Oval, where you will play for a couple of years while Concord Oval gets a reboot. How have you settled in there?
“It’s an outstanding field and the surface is probably better than Concord Oval to be honest. It’s run by the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust I think, and they look after it well. But the thing for us this year I guess is that due to the season starting late, does that affect how many games we can actually play there before the cricket season starts? If it’s owned by the Trust you’d imagine that cricket would take priority, and that’s all still up in the air. We will play our first three home games there but I’m not sure after that.
“We wanted to wait until we got team focused stuff down before we had a proper run out on the pitch just to get a few key indicator’s. But we had a night game there a couple of years ago against Gordon and it was a really good surface, and it’s a great venue in a great area, so we’re hoping to attract a few more fans that are in and around Drummoyne. The Dirty Reds play there in Subbies and there’s a couple of good function areas to go to that look out over the water, so there’s also the potential to get some high-end corporate people on board too.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“Dion Spice. He’s been massive working in the off-season here and is probably the fittest I’ve ever seen him, so I expect him to push on. Francis Ieremia has got professional rugby player written all over him, and if we can get our set-piece and our scrum right and him off the back of it with a bit of front-foot ball, who knows where he could get to as a player this year. James Turner, again if we can get a little bit of front-foot ball, he’s got to be close to a look-in at the next level. I think he’s in the mix for the Aussie Sevens squad for the next lot of contracts, which was going to be after the Olympics but who knows now? They’re three key guys that I’m looking to do some damage for us this year.”
Give me a few new players to get excited about?
“Conor Chittenden, who’s come down from Queensland is in the mix. He was playing for Norths in the Brisbane comp and got a bit of time with Queensland Country in the NRC. He’s a centre and he’s a big boy and very mobile, so I’m expecting him to have some really good time in first grade and go well. I’m excited to watch Cam Betham and Nigel Vaifale having a crack and a real go together in the front row, and then Navi Bolatagici, who snapped his achilles against Randwick last year and has worked so hard to get himself back and ready to go. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he goes at hooker as well. We also picked up Josh Coward from the Aussie Sevens through Rod Davies, and he is an excitement machine that I can’t wait to get on the field.”
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2020?
“I think DC will want to go out with a bang at Gordon. I don’t think he’ll want to leave not making the finals, so I think they’ll be strong. Uni will be a totally different kettle of fish with Rob Taylor gone and so many of their guys that they probably rely on in that wider Waratahs squad that won’t be playing, so they will probably have to rely on a few younger guys coming through again. Pauli (Taumoepeau) continues to get better with his Easts team each year, so I imagine they’re going to go well. So the usual’s will be up there, and I think because of how the season is that means it will be pretty close to finals football every single week, that those teams will get some benefit out of that.”
What is a pass mark for Wests in 2020 – simply making the finals for the first time since 2013 or do you have ideas beyond that?
“Finals is a minimum for us. We’ve got to start having that mentality that we’re a finals team. If we’re just playing for the sake of it then we’re just wasting our time, so finals is a minimum and then as people say, once you make finals it’s a whole new ball-game.”