2020: The Big Kick-Off – Warringah
Original photo: Karen Watson
Warringah seem to have mastered the art of succession planning in the coaches box more than most clubs in the Shute Shield. With the exclusion of Darren Coleman’s appointment from outside the circle back in 2017, the rest of the men to hold sway at Pittwater Rugby Park over the last decade have all come from within. And you can now add former Rats flyhalf Michael Ruthven to the list of names looking to guide their club to the pinnacle of Sydney club rugby.
Considering he takes up the reins of a side that has competed in the last three grand finals, you’d give the affable rookie a pretty decent chance of taking his new charges deep into the competition once again. But the absence of retired three-time Ken Catchpole Medal winner Hamish Angus, alongside a bevy of departed forward talent, will need to be sufficiently overcome if they have designs on another title. Exactly how they fill that vacant number 10 jersey could go a long way towards deciding their fate.
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Rats adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“We’ve got a really tight-knit group of players, and I think first and foremost that was crucial in adjusting to it in terms of guys dealing with their own personal situation around work and all the challenges they faced with that. Everyone felt a sense of security within the group. From a footy perspective, I really take off my hat off to our guys. We worked really hard all pre-season and I guess there was a fair level of resolve there to not let all the hard work that we’d done go to waste from a physical perspective, despite the uncertainty that we’d actually get back on the field.
“Our strength and conditioning coach Dan Tilly got really creative around some stuff that he was doing via Zoom with the boys. We went to the gym and got them as much equipment as we could get them so they could set up a home gym and keep going with their prep. But we checked in pretty regularly from a social perspective, again, just via Zoom, and I think all in all, the club as a whole have managed the whole scenario really well.”
There’s also been a man-management aspect to all this as well away from the rugby, how did you handle that side of the ledger?
“Yeah, absolutely. We had a number of guys who were impacted from a work perspective, and we had some guys who had to go home to various locations, whether that was within Australia or just within New South Wales, just due to those circumstances. So there was definitely an element of my time that was dedicated to making sure that they were all ok and still in a good headspace. It was definitely interesting.”
Has it affected player retention or acquisition?
“We came out of it pretty well off. We lost one player Luke Masirewa, who we’d recruited from New Zealand. He went home when everything shut down here and there was talk of New Zealand shutting their borders, so he obviously felt more comfortable heading back to be with his family, which is completely understandable. And with the way things have panned out since then unfortunately, he’s not coming back but he was really the only one that we lost.
“We were recruiting quite well pre-Covid and during the off-season, and outside of Luke the other guys we recruited were all on board through the whole shutdown and are still with us. We got lucky with Mungo Mason, who was at a loose end with the MLR shutting down and it just so happened that he was in Melbourne with family and and was looking for some footy and we were able to provide him with an environment to come to. So throughout the Corona period we came out pretty well unscathed.”
Mark Gerrard walked away from the head coaching role shortly after last year’s grand final loss to Uni, but you were working alongside him for what was another successful season that just fell short at the final hurdle. Had you felt you were ready to take that next step as a head coach before the opportunity presented itself to take over?
“Look, I suppose being an aspirational coach it’s always in the back of your mind, but was I ready? I felt I was ready to take it on, and I suppose it’ll be a reasonably good indication of whether I was or not by the end of October this year. Warringah’s always been home to me, and it’s a huge honour to be head coach of your home club and a place that’s given me so many good memories and opportunities. I was fortunate that there was some interests from other clubs, but ultimately Warringah was where I wanted to be, so it was a no-brainer when the job came up that I’d take it.
“As I said, I am an aspirational coach, I love doing it and I’d love to see where it can take me to. It’s a very big challenge for me and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m just looking forward to being able to get into some footy and seeing where we are at.
Having been an integral part of that run to the big dance last year and knowing the players you are working with, you also have the advantage of knowing the club inside out as a former player. Do you think they are key positives that will help you sustain the Rats as a title challenger in 2020?
“Absolutely. A familiar environment brings a sense of security around knowing the people, knowing the players, knowing the culture and having a really good rapport with all the volunteers that are so integral to helping you get to a grand final and winning a Premiership, which is definitely beneficial. But there’s some challenges around .
“For the guys who have been at the club through that successful period it’s about making sure they are still mentally stimulated for the challenge, and then there’s obviously the challenge of integrating the new ??? system that we’ve managed to bring to the club this year. So whilst the familiarity is a sense of security, there are some big challenges around that as well.”
I think one thing the Rats seem to do better than most clubs is grow their coaches from within, with a healthy succession plan of ex-players or internal coaches – Darren Coleman aside – promoted from within, which seems like a pretty healthy space to be in?
“There’s been a rich history at the club over a long period of head coaches being past players. You can go back to Rod Macqueen, Rick Black and Mark Holmes, and then in more recent times there’s been Sam Harris, Haig Sare and Mark Gerrard so yeah, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to follow in that tradition. But I think it’s great that the club and the board show faith in home grown coaches and give them the opportunities, so you’d definitely credit the club’s direction in terms of that history.”
They say if you stand still your going backwards, so without revealing your game plan has there been any specific tweaks to a successful formula?
“No, I’m a big believer in ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke’. I think the club is really comfortable with the style of footy they play, and having such a core nucleus of guys who’ve been there for a while, there’s not a great need to reinvent the wheel. For me it’s just about getting the right balance. We’ve got some really exciting young players who are coming through our system like the Ben Marr’s and the Ben Woollett’s, who’ve got a real uncanny vision around the game, so it’s a case of finding the best ways that you can integrate them into what’s already a pretty potent formula. And I think our forward pack is really skilful and can use the footy, so we’ve been working hard around that too. But yeah, there’s definitely no need for me to come in and try to reinvent the wheel.”
As well as having that nucleus of players who have been around the club for a while and already have a Premiership in the bag, you also have a pretty handy leadership group as a result of their experiences?
“I feel fortunate as a coach to have the likes of Sam Ward and Josh Holmes, Seb Wileman’s been around for a long time now and Sam Needs is very much a senior figure, and we are really lucky to obviously have Rory O’Connor back with us. So we’ve got some real hardened club footy players who have become accustomed to success. They know how to win and enjoy winning, and they drive really good standards amongst the group, so leadership is something we’re really fortunate around.”
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?
“A hundred percent it does. We’ve got a really tough start to the competition so we’ll have a really good yardstick of where we’re at early on. So I’m very focused on making sure that we get off to a really good start, because I don’t think we can afford to drop too many games that early. There are all sorts of challenges around that – the limited games, the fact that a lot of guys have been working hard for long periods of time. So I think if you start to get too many losses against your name early on, it’s going to be a real hard slog towards the back end just to creep into the finals. It’s going to be a really competitive competition, I really believe that. I don’t think there’s going to be any easy games.”
Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season – combinations etc, and enable them to hit the ground running?
“Not necessarily, I think the teams who can get their best fifteen out on the field week-in, week-out are going to put themselves in a really good position. It’s been a really drawn out period to get to this point, so I think the teams who can stay fit and consistently put their best side out will go well.”
The notable absence from the team sheet this season will be three-time Ken Catchpole Medal winner Hamish Angus, but I believe he is still on board to help out from the other side of the white lines. Do you have a ready-made replacement to fill those giant shoes, and how valuable will Hamo’s input be from the sideline?
“It’s really important that ‘Hamo’ was still around the group and he was keen to have an active role, which is fantastic. He’s so well respected at that club and got a huge amount of respect from the playing group, so just to have his knowledge and his experience around is hugely beneficial. He’s doing one night a week training with us at the moment and he’ll be there on game day. I’m not a hundred percent sure what that role will look like yet, but he’ll more than likely be on the side line running some messages and water for us.
“Do we have a replacement? Absolutely, everyone’s replaceable at the end of the day and we’ve got some guys who’ve worked really hard and are pushing really hard at the moment to secure that ten jersey in Harley Attwater, Tom Halse and Ben Marr. So we’re pretty blessed with them and we’ll be fine.”
Which existing players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“Definitely Ben Marr and Ben Willett. Both of those guys as I said before are freakish athletes, they’ve got a real uncanny vision to the game and they both had great seasons last year and did well through the NRC, so we’re obviously expecting really big things from them. Wes Thomas is a young hooker who has come through and had a big pre-season, and we’re really hoping that he has a big year this year. He’s a very good athlete, he’s very talented and he works hard. So, yeah, there’s some guys who have got an exciting future ahead of them.
“Then there’s a few harder heads who again have worked super hard in this pre-season. Tyson Davis, Wardy (Sam Ward) and Josh Holmes have all worked hard, and you just hope that they have really good years because they’ve earned it. If there’s one guy down at that club who deserves an opportunity at the next level it’s Tyson. His work ethic is second-to-none and there’s no player that works harder than him. You’d love to see a franchise – and it’s not even a case of taking a punt – you’d love to see a franchise give a guy like that an opportunity to put himself in a professional environment because I’ve no doubt he’d thrive.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Our recruitment was pretty strong this year. We’ve picked up Rory Suttor from Sydney Uni, which is a big bonus for us and has just given the backrow some depth that we lost at the end of last year. Esera Chee-Kam, a super exciting talent who’s had a really disrupted eighteen months with injuries. He’s back and fit, and I’m really excited for him just to be back on the footy field so fingers crossed he gets through the year.
“Mungo Mason is another really exciting backrower, as is Charlie McKill, another guy who’s joined this year who is a supreme athlete. He’s really aggressive and good around the footy and we’re expecting really big things from him, and Robbie Nelson is another really exciting prospect for us. They’ve all got a bit of Scottish heritage. Robbie’s born and bred and grew up in Scotland, but both Charlie and Mungo were born there but Charlie moved to Australia and Mungo to New Zealand.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“Having worked with DC (Darren Coleman) obviously and having a huge amount of respect for him, you’d never underestimate or write off a team that DC is involved in. Wests will be very interesting, there’s been a lot of chat around their recruitment this year so I’m expecting them to be really strong. I think Randwick will be very good this year. They’ve got so much talent and depth there and I think Ben McCormack will do a really job with them.
“Never write off Pauli at Easts. He’s a terrific guy and a great coach, and he’s had a good roster for a long time now so I think they’ll been strong. Matty McGoldrick at Manly, he’s another terrific guy and I think it’ll be enormous for them to have someone who played his footy there and has worked in a number of different roles at the club. He’s someone who really understands the culture down there, and I think he’ll do really good things.
“As I said earlier, I think it’s going to be a really competitive competition and I don’t think there’ll be any easy games. It’ll be on for round one and we’re just making sure that we are ready to go.”
What is a pass mark for Warringah in 2020 – would anything other than a Premiership be considered a failure given you’ve missed out on the last day two years in a row?
“I don’t think you could consider it as a failure. I’m a big believer in there being a lot of things that have got to fall into place, and a lot of things that have got to go right for you to win it a grand final. There are a lot of things that you can’t control. For me, as long as we put ourselves in the best possible position to be there on grand final day, I’ll be more than happy.
“I suppose when you’re at a club that’s been as successful as Warringah has over the last few years, they become accustomed to winning, and the supporter’s become accustomed to winning. So there’s no shortage of expectation or pressure and we’ll be making sure we put ourselves in a good position to be there at the end. Our boys are used to winning, they love winning, and you want to use that as a positive and something to aspire to keep doing.”