2020: The Big Kick-Off – Eastern Suburbs
Original photo: SPA Images
This looms as a big year for Eastern Suburbs and head coach Pauli Taumoepeau at Woollahra Oval. Now in his third year at the helm, and with a very talented squad that has been improved upon every year, the pressure is on to deliver something for a club that hasn’t tasted Premiership success since 1969.
They’ve gone out in the first week of the finals in the last two seasons, and considering they haven’t won a title for fifty-one years, just going closer to the big dance would be a step in the right direction. But Taumoepeau is as driven and determined a coach as he was a player. He sets high standards, and he wants more from this season, much, much more…
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Beasts adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“We’ve just navigated through the restrictions – training in ten’s, no contact etc – so it was a lot of core skill stuff. But that did become a bit repetitive after a few weeks of repeating the same drills and just changing it every now and then. The energy at training has been really good and we’ve fed off that energy the players bring just by being excited to be back.”
What about the man-management aspect to all this away from the field as well, dealing with the person and not the player?
“We’d like to think that we do a good job with player welfare, and we present Easts as being more than just a rugby club. It makes sense that when the players need to lean on you and not rugby that you’re there to be leant on, and sometimes that means initiating that and putting your arm around someone. There were generic texts every fortnight hoping everyone was ok and encouraging them to reach out and chat to other people, and I’d get texts from the boys to say ‘I don’t think this person is doing very well’, or ‘I just heard this guy lost his job’ or whatever, so you’d then touch base with those people.
“Our board are very proactive and have some good connections around the community so usually, if you find out that a player loses his job you can say ‘Mate, all good, can you call this bloke tomorrow and he’ll give you a couple of days’ etc. But because no-one was hiring it was really tough, so in that situation it’s just about making sure that person is mentally ok and checking in with them. We were lucky, we didn’t have to deal with many of those types of stories. But it’s hard when you’re not physically seeing players to read their body language.
“We weren’t the only club to be doing that because I did call around other coaches to see if there was a way we could do this better. And that’s the magic of rugby right there. As soon as I called another coach and told them why I was calling, everyone was awesome in offering suggestions. There were times there where I hung up the phone and felt proud to be a part of this rugby family, and this Shute Shield family in particular. We’re all there for each other, it’s just a shame that it takes something like that for us to realise it sometimes.”
Did it affect player retention or acquisition?
“Acquisition-wise, yes. We had a couple of props that were going to come down but for Covid reasons that hasn’t been able to happen, and a second-rower from the Mitre 10 comp that went back to New Zealand when there was no end in sight, which was understandable. He tried to come back a couple of times but it hasn’t been possible, so we agreed to take a rain-check on 2020 and hopefully get him back here for next season. So we’ve taken a bit of a hit, but I’m not going to say for a second that we’ve been the worst hit, I think other clubs have been impacted more.”
This will be your third season at the helm of 1st Grade. What did 2019 teach you about how much further the Beasties have to travel to lift that elusive title?
“I think I took most of the learnings, just around how I deal with certain situations that present themselves. Usually, I think of a way to react to something and then I don’t go with that, and then end up saying ‘I should have gone with my gut!’ So I think I need to trust what I’m thinking and back myself a bit more.
“In terms of what Easts has to do, we’ve got to fix that set-piece, well, just the scrum really as we had one of the best lineout’s in the comp last year in both attack and defence. We just need to make sure that we’re drilling that scrum down, and also making sure that that is reflected in the way that I train, or the time that I give to the scrum, because I don’t think that I was giving those guys enough time. I always think that I’ve got to cross off so many things at training, rather than focusing on what is the most important thing or what is the biggest threat to us, or what is our biggest weakness, and then planning the session that way.
“I don’t think we’ve got that far to go, but at the same time, it’s such a hard competition and you still need a bit of luck and a lot of things to go your way. I think we’ve got everything we need to do it, but in saying that, there’s still a lot of work between winning that Qualifying Final, getting to a Semi Final and figuring out how to win that, and then getting your team right with as few injuries as possible to present your best fifteen for that grand final.”
Without revealing your game plan, has there been any specific tweaks to what was a fairly successful formula in 2019?
“Yeah, and I think there has to be because it’s my third year at it and I assume the space quite heavily here at Easts. I’m the head coach, I do a lot of talking, and I’m also the Director of Rugby, so the boys hear from me a lot through those two hats that I wear. And whilst we have seen improvements we haven’t won, so I’m mindful of doing the same thing without much success.
“Whilst we have made the play-offs, we haven’t really cemented it until three rounds to go and there’s been a little bit of stress there. So there has to be a bit of a change, and we have tweaked a few things here and there which gets the creative juices flowing again. I definitely didn’t want the guys coming in and being able to read exactly what we were trying to do, I want them coming in and learning.”
The elephant in the room is obviously the lack of a Premiership for the club since 1969, and the increased hope and expectation that the progress you’ve overseen in the last couple of years brings with it. 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?
“No, because we want to be part of the history and we don’t hide from it. We actually use the ‘fifty-one years since 1969’ thing. If there’s reps in the gym we do fifty-one, our gym time is at 5.51pm, we use the hashtag #51, and we have a clip of the last fifteen seconds of the 1969 grand final, so we don’t hide from it. I don’t for a second tell the boys it’s their fault that it’s been fifty-one years or punish them for it. But we do say to them ‘Sometimes you’re born into a family that is successful, sometimes you’re born into a family where you have to work hard to make it successful, and this is the family that you are now in.’
“I also think that any pressure or expectation, especially over the last three years, comes because the team is doing so well. That’s pressure that we’ve brought onto ourselves and I think that’s good pressure. You certainly don’t want it to be the other way around and people saying ‘We don’t expect much from these guys’ or ‘They’re losers’, I’d much rather have that expectation.
“In saying that, the stubborn person in me is very internally driven, I’m not externally driven. If you’re in the circle with the guys working here at 8pm on a Tuesday night when it’s six degrees, and the lights turn out early and you’re running around in the dark, that’s what you’re a part of and that’s what you care about. So the external pressure is great because it’s an acknowledgement of what this group can do. But does it change the way we think or operate? No, it doesn’t.”
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?
“One hundred percent, definitely. There’s pressure now to get that selection right in round one – not that you try not to, you always aim to pick your best fifteen – but there are certainly times when you think ‘Let’s give this guy a shot, and give him two weeks to get into it and build a combination’, and you’re not going to have that.
“What makes it harder is that our lead-in time to round one is shorter, and with just one trial, so I haven’t had the time I’d like to find out what my best centre pairing is, or play my two best ten’s off against each other for example. The opportunities to find out who’s stronger in each position is limited, and that’s hard for the boys as well, because some of them are probably thinking ‘Geez, I’ve only played second or third grade since Pauli coached me, and now I’ve only got one game to show him that I’m good enough to play first grade’.
“What will be interesting is the mindset of the coaches once they’ve picked the team. Do you stick with that combination, or do you risk chopping and changing and that not working, and having to change again? It’s another learning curve.”
You’ve made some interesting acquisitions in the off-season with a revamped backline to the fore. Are you happy with the balance you have for the new campaign?
“Yeah, definitely. We wanted some dominance up front and we’ve been working hard on our scrum as I said, and the lineout balance is really good, so I’m liking what we’ve got in the forwards. One of the things I’ve been most pleased about at Easts since I’ve been first grade head coach is that we’ve been able to attract players like Tom Staniforth and Lalakai Foketi in the first year, and Sam Shires, Will Harris and Jordan Heyer last year from other clubs, and now this year we’ve got guys like Richard Woolf, Nic Holton and Jordan Jackson-Hope. So I like the balance, we’ve just got to be able to execute things well because there is no excuse now.”
You’ve obviously lost a bit of experience in the shape of Rowan Perry, Tim Buchanan and Cody Walker. Do you have faith in some of those younger players stepping up to the breach to be leaders of the side?
“I did before Covid hit, and I definitely do now because of how they’ve dealt with the long lay-off. During that period there were opportunities to really have some one-on-one time with players over Zoom or through groups, and I could isolate the nine’s or the back three and then focus on their roles specifically. So I’ve been able to give them the pictures that they might have to deal with before it happens, and then ask them how they would deal with each situation.
“The big thing is letting them answer, because the Dad in me tends to answer for them a lot and I don’t realise I’m doing it! If I felt that there was a bit of awkwardness or anxiety around the question then I’d tend to answer it for them, whereas this way I was really able to relax, ask them a question and then debate their answers. I think that’s been beneficial to some of the younger guys in their decision-making, and hopefully their leadership out on the field. So I’m confident that the boys can step up.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“Henry Patterson. We had a late injury leading into Souths last year, and we picked Henry because he’d been in our colts system and our program should promote this. So we gave him an opportunity and we were taken back, he killed it. He ended up keeping that spot and went on to have a breakout year in terms of leading and finding out what he can and can’t do. We’ve told him to take the shackles off and not be worried anymore, just play, but this year is the ‘no excuse’ year for him now. He’s really got to go on with it.
“We’ve got Dan Donato as well, who is another colt to come through and just grows with confidence. He’s been here for three years and played in three grand finals in a row, but lost them all – 2017 first colts, 2018 third grade and 2019 second grade. But for someone like Dan, his experience grows from both the highs and the lows. He’s built resilience, he’s getting confident around the group socially and is a very popular figure within it, and that brings some confidence too. So we’re hoping that translates into how he plays the game and what he can demand from other players.
“Those two in particular are players that have come through our colts system, snuck into first grade, stuck in there and kept getting picked through their efforts. They’re proactive enough now to drive standards around the team, and to kick-on individually.”
Getting Sam Shires back after missing the majority of what was his first season at the club through injury must be like having a new player as well isn’t it?
“He’s running around like that as well – both him and Woolfy! I was an older player myself, and I’ve just had to say ‘Guys, you don’t have to be bouncing around all the time, it’s a long season’ etc, but their enthusiasm is hard to contain. Before Sam got that injury in round nine last year against Norths we’d had a terrible game against Gordon out at Orange, and he was the one that really led the charge that week leading into the match at North Sydney Oval. We were leading in the game and he was putting in a true captain’s knock but unfortunately damaged his foot, and he’s only just coming back now.
“He was the one that, after games when I walked back into my office at Woollahra or back to the car after an away game, that Easts supporters would ask me ‘Who is your no.8?’ or ‘How’s Sam going?’ because they were so impressed by what he was doing for the team. We missed the type of player that he is, and while we were blessed with the leadership that the guys showed after Sam, having that guy that throws their body around and has such a motor on him was a big loss. Everyone loves that guy, the one who is prepared to put his head in where no-one else wants to, and then he has a shower and comes out looking immaculate, which really annoys some of the boys!”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“I’m mindful of mentioning this guy because I don’t want to put any added pressure on him, but Charlie Smith is a great player. He was the gun kid coming out of school and made the Australian Schools B team and the New South Wales twenties, but was always told he was too small. He’s an openside that only weighs about eighty kilos, but he’ll run into contact and he’s always the last one standing. He’ll pilfer, he’ll tackle, he’s just amazing at what he does, and his brother Billy plays for the Roosters so he’s coming out of some good stock too.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“I expect Uni to do their thing because they’ve got a great program that just keeps churning out talent. Rob Taylor was great for them, he did an unbelievable job, and the two coaches that they’ve appointed make sense because they are the guys that have been in and around him for the last couple of years, so there’s some continuity there. The Rats are a team that you’ve just got to keep watching out for because they’ve got the same nucleus of players, and the coach they’ve brought in in ‘Rivo’ (Michael Ruthven) has been around that group, and if there’s anything new to bring in I think they trust him enough to go at it. Everything there just seems to gel.
“So, probably the usual suspects again but I’d add Gordon to that group as well because we know what DC does and what he brings as a coach. Wests have made some interesting recruitments and ‘Guddo’ (Mark Gudmunson) seems to be the right person in charge right now. He’s got the right mix of who he is and what he’s done at the club, and he’s got a good rapport with the boys and has their respect too. They’ve brought a lot of new guys in but playing for someone like that would be pretty easy because he’s a good guy.”
What is a pass mark for Easts in 2020 – simply going a week further into the finals, reaching the club’s first big dance since 2007, or will anything other than that elusive Premiership be considered a failure?
“It will to me. I think if you ask my bosses, they would like to see us get into a semi-final but do well in a semi-final. I think that would be a pass mark for them. But the club’s building. We’ve built the off-field program, the rugby program’s doing well, we’ve won Premierships every year since 2018 across the club, and pretty much every side except first grade has been in a grand final…”