2020: The Big Kick-Off – Penrith
Original photo: Stewart Hazell
Invited back into the Shute Shield after an almost two-year hiatus, Penrith’s biggest challenge in 2020 is doing enough to warrant a more permanent status in the competition beyond this Covid-enforced shorter edition. Taking up that challenge is former Parramatta Eel enforcer and Wallaby defence coach John Muggleton, who is on board for his first coaching gig back in Australia since 2016, when he led the Western Sydney Rams in the NRC.
Putting together a team virtually from scratch is a thankless task as it is, but doing so with such a reduced preparation time and so little contact work is the toughest of tough gigs to undertake. As a result, there are perhaps understandable concerns around the ability of this new generation of Emus to remain competitive across thirteen weeks, and against such strong opposition. But Muggleton is nobody’s fool, and certainly isn’t about to lay out the welcome mat for anybody. For the good of Penrith as a club, and for the health of the game and its future in western Sydney, we can only hope he is able to pull something tangible out of the fire.
First things first, how and when did the Penrith opportunity come about?
“Basically, I came back from Japan and wasn’t doing anything, and the club contacted me and said that they’d been given the opportunity to come back, and would I be interested to come down and help out and run the show. After a bit of thought I said yes, but nobody’s kidding ourselves out our way about how difficult it’s been and how difficult it’s going to be over the next twelve weeks or so. It’s not an easy task.”
What enthused you about the role – was it simply a chance to get your feet back into the domestic game after being overseas, or an intriguing challenge to take on what’s historically been one of the toughest gigs in Australian rugby?
“Well, I shot my mouth off when I was the Rams head coach in 2016 that nobody was doing anything for western Sydney rugby, and then after that Penrith were kicked out, which was one of the feeder clubs for the Rams. The Rams were then sold off and no longer exist in western Sydney, so when Penrith asked me, on the back of what I’d said, I was pretty well honour-bound to back that up if I wanted to maintain any credibility or hope of not being seen to be a hypocrite. You’ve got to back up your statements, so that was one of the main reasons.
“Secondly, I like a challenge like this. Putting together a side in this way is pretty similar to the Rams, although the player availability is far more difficult because our Penrith players that were signed with other clubs are not going to be allowed to come back even if they want to. With the lateness of the decision to invite us into the comp, a lot of our ex-players who would have come back have signed with other clubs.”
One of your assistants at the Rams for that NRC season was former Wallaby Jeremy Paul, who had spent the previous club season in charge of Penrith. Did you chat to him about the difficulties you might face before you took the role?
“No, but we had a lot of talks about it back then, and some of those problems still exist. Obviously, distance-wise and opportunity-wise for a start, we can’t offer a person a spot at Sydney University or UNSW and the chance to live in or near the city, whether that be on the northern beaches or southern beaches, and that’s a lot. There’s nothing wrong with the west, I’ve lived here all my life. But for a young bloke growing up, to get that offer of an education and to be paid for what you love doing, which is playing rugby, it’s pretty difficult for western clubs to compete with.
“There have been a lot of efforts from Parramatta, West Harbour and ourselves to knock on the door of Western Sydney University to try and equalise that, because a lot of players over the years have travelled and still travel from Penrith to the eastern suburbs clubs to play and train and on a weekend, and that’s four to six to nine hours of their life they’ll never get back.”
Talking to the other coaches, they’re finding it hard enough to prepare an existing squad for the upcoming season given the reduced time frame, but you’re bringing a squad together entirely from scratch and trying to make it competitive. How have you managed that challenge, and the ramifications of Covid as well?
“Yeah, Covid’s made it difficult, because in teaching what we want to teach, and playing the way we want to play it’s based on decision-making, and when you can’t run opposed sessions it makes that very hard to do. We’ve been working on micro-patterns off the number ten and formations off nine, but a lot of that was unopposed for a while with no contact, which made it difficult.
“What we found was that the first pieces of the puzzle came together because people arrived looking for opportunities from country, or from the junior rugby league competitions that aren’t running this year. But in the specialist positions there are holes which we’ve got to fill. There’s no real tall timber running around as locks in the Shute Shield, but anyone who is of a real size has already been snapped up already so they’re pretty hot on the market. Hooker’s who can scrum and throw are in high demand and clubs need at least two or three of those, and we can’t even get the bloke who’s probably third choice hooker at Sydney Uni or Manly and says he wants to come to Penrith for a chance in first grade, because they’re enforcing contracts that were signed before this situation came about.
“We’ve got a squad, we can run on the field. But to be a team that is hard to beat you need a hooker who’s going to hit ninety-five percent of his throws, you need a bloke who’s tall enough and tough enough to win the fight in the air and deliver the ball off the back of it for the halfback, who’s then got to catch it and deliver to the ten who’s got to make the right choice. Those little pieces of the puzzle are the ones that are going to be really important for us.”
Did you have any base of players to walk into and start coaching, or has it all been about recruitment?
“There’s lots of people out Penrith way who’ve worked for many years and are working really hard behind the scenes, and it’s a credit to all those people that we’ve got enough players to meet the minimum requirement that we were set – we knocked it out of the park really.
“Some of our Penrith stalwarts are back, blokes that had basically given it away because Penrith wasn’t in the competition and they weren’t on other people’s radars to be picked up. We’re happy to have them because they’ve been there for a long time with this club, and as much as it wasn’t successful and it’s been a while since they’ve won a game, it’s still important to keep the spirit of Penrith alive – the good part of it, not any of the negatives. It’s good to have people coming back and saying ‘I want to be part of this new chapter’ and be a bridge between the old and the new, which is important.”
So, of the players you’ve got on board, are there any names that would be familiar to Shute Shield followers?
“Probably not no, and that’s what we’ve been searching hard for, some name players that we can hang our hat on. Cliffy Palu is right behind it and he would have jumped at the opportunity, but he’s going to be in Japan until January. But he’s been great talking to some of the Islander boys, giving advice and encouraging them to stick with Penrith. The first person to put his hand when I was at the Rams was Will Skelton. He was going to be sent to another Sydney-based NRC side but he said ‘No, I’m from western Sydney, I want to play for the Rams’, and I’m sure f he came back to play in the Shute Shield that he’d put his hand up again. But he’s doing his thing over in France with La Rochelle and good luck to him. So the blokes we’d like to hang our hat on that would help to attract other people are already contracted elsewhere.”
Not a nice question but I think it’s one that Shute Shield followers would want me to ask. Based on the obvious limitations you’re having to deal with, and the fact that there were certain criteria and expectations placed on both Penrith and the Hunter Wildfires around numbers and competitiveness just to get into the competition, will you be in a position to put out a team that isn’t going to struggle again to the extent that the club’s return is a regrettably fleeting one?
“We’ve got a good draw. We’ve got a bye first-up, which gives us an extra week to prepare, and then we’ve got five of the hardest teams after that. But then we’ve got teams that we should be competitive against. So what we have to do, and this is the art of coaching, is when we play those difficult teams, learn how to play for eighty minutes, learn how to play the way we want to play, and improve every week. If we go out and get frustrated in the first game against Norths, not only a Premiership winning team in recent years but a regular finalist, if we get a touch-up there it’ll be hard to build from that.
“One of the things about Penrith is they’ve never been a strong defensive side. I hang my hat on my defence, and I haven’t been able to do the defensive work we need to do because of Covid, so we’re going to be a bit behind. But in that first week when everyone else is playing we’ll have an internal trial with some situational defence and some opposed stuff, so we’ll have something on board for our first game. But I think we should be judged on how we finish the season rather than how we start it, and how resilient we are against the teams that you would say would be around our target area. If we’re competitive against them that’s what we want to be.”
Could it be a case of you managing to get a competitive side together for the first few weeks, but that the attritional rate of this truncated competition and perhaps some injuries as a result of that, will stretch your depth to a tipping point?
“Yeah, that’s a hundred percent what it is. And let’s face it, there’ll be some blokes in and around other clubs in second grade not getting a game or only getting ten or twenty minutes here or there, who by that stage of the season could be helping us out. That’s the reality of it. Our aim is to survive and to show enough that we can recruit on the same basis as everybody else next year. If we have a level playing field of recruitment, we feel that we can get people to come out here for the opportunity of playing first grade that they’re probably not getting at other clubs.
“We’ve got to show certain elements and we’ve got to show the prospect that we’re going to improve. We’ll certainly be working really hard at that and wont be taking any short-cuts, and we’ll be chasing hard to get our players fit, disciplined and well-coached, and that’s up to me to make sure those things happen.”
Without revealing any specific game plan, what can we expect to see from your 2020 version of the Emus?
“We’ll be very much like the Rams were, our aim is to be hard to beat. I think those players that played in the Rams learned over the first three weeks that if you play side-to-side footy, throw it around, kick poorly and give opportunity to counter-attack to teams that are generally fitter and have been together longer, you get punished and the only break you get is behind your own try-line.
“Penrith in nature have been competitive for more than a half and found it difficult at the end, and that’s from chasing wins. Jack Gibson used to call it ‘catch-up footy’, where you throw it around and instead of losing by five you end up losing by twenty. If we’re five behind we’re going to have a go at it, but we’ve also got to realise that we’ve got to play solid footy, get as much possession as we can, and use it as smartly as we can and make the opposition work to get it back off us.
“There’s nothing wrong with playing through teams, particularly nowadays when a lot of forwards think you can put a number one in front of a three and play like a thirteen, or a number five like a fifteen. They get a bit shocked when somebody keeps coming straight through them, so there’s nothing wrong with some old-fashioned footy. I was at Gloucester in the UK before I came back and did the Rams, and the philosophy there was that the forwards would win the ball, the forwards would use the ball, and the forwards will score the tries, while the backs will kick the goals and buy all the beers after the game!
“If teams are expecting you to go wide, they’re going to spread their defence and there’s going to be holes in the middle. Once they cram up to fill those holes then you can go wide because there’s going to be gaps on the outside. So make no doubt about it, we’re going to come at teams but we’re also going to do it with skill and with offloads, and we’ll play off the half and off the ten, and take the ball to the line and play with it. How long it takes us to get good at it, and that’s where the decision-making becomes a factor as well, is the key. But we’ll be working very hard to get good enough at it to be competitive.”
It’s great to have a local derby back against the Two Blues in Round 8. Obviously, they renamed the club from Parramatta to Western Sydney after Penrith were kicked-out of the comp in 2018 to appeal to the broader fanbase that was suddenly available. So does this clash also loom as a land grab or a re-establishment of territorial boundaries?!?
“Well, they’ve controlled it for plenty of years so that’s a good test for us and it’s going to be a big game. Penrith and Parramatta in rugby league or rugby union or whatever sport is always a competitive and emotion-filled contest, it’s like two brothers going at it. We’ll certainly go at it with them but I hope there’s no animosity between us, and we would hope that they were a big supporter of having us back in the competition. Rather than fighting each other we should be fighting together on the same side to get all those players from western Sydney back playing here, instead of competing over them.”
Mindful of the vagaries around recruitment and availability, can you still give me a few players to get excited about that we may see this season?
“I wouldn’t like to name any in particular because there’s some players that I’ve seen that are good, but there’s also a chance that some players I haven’t even met yet could be lining up for us in round two. We have picked up a couple of Fijians that we’re very happy to have in the backs, they’re fast and elusive. They’re not big boys so opposition fullback’s don’t have to worry about being steamrolled, they just have to worry about catching them.
“People in the Islander community are searching high and low for us, be that brother’s, cousin’s or Uncle’s, to help us out in general terms, which is great. If we can snare a few more that’d be great. But we really can’t say who we’ve got that is going to represent us, so everyone is preparing as if they are, and will then support whoever gets the jersey on the day – be that in first grade, second grade or first grade colts.”
What is a pass mark for the Emus in 2020 – just winning their first game since 2014 would be a milestone – but do you have bigger targets?
“We want to win games of footy. We’ve definitely got to beat Newcastle and we’ve got to take at least three other games well into the second half, if not get another one or two wins. You might as well not play if you’re not aiming to win, but that will depend on some of the blokes we pick up. It might be an awful round seven for us if too many blokes have been playing from round two to six, so we’ve got to be canny about what we’re doing. But there’s no excuse for lack of effort or switching off, so that’s what we’ll be drumming in because that’s what will win us a tight game in the last part of the season.”