2020: The Big Kick-Off – Western Sydney Two Blues

Original photo: Karen Watson

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It was hard to get a true gauge on the Western Sydney Two Blues last season. A look at the results and final ladder position would suggest they were about where they’d been for a while, but some of their performances offered a more positive perspective. Head coach Joel Rivers certainly felt that two or three matches could have fallen the other way and put a better different spin on things in his first season.

Back at the helm for 2020, he has been busy trying to build on some of the foundations he put in last year. But perhaps the biggest challenge is fostering a belief and winning mentality amongst a playing group that hasn’t become accustomed to singing the team song in recent years. From the outside looking in, their target of a spot in the finals may seem lofty. But spirits are high inside camp, and some healthy recruitment, including the return of one of the Two Blues’ favourite sons, could see them cause more than a few headaches for their fellow top six aspirants.

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Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Two Blues is adjusted and coped with those challenges?

“It certainly threw up a lot of challenges, the biggest not being able to train as a team for so long. We got caught right in the middle of our planning during that pre-season period, but our strength and conditioning coach Lachlan Mackinnon did a great job putting together a program for the boys that could be done at home and rewound the schedule a few weeks to get them back on track. To their credit, the players really took it on board. They made a commitment at the start of pre-season last year to commit to the squad, to the group and to the training, and to our relief they did that, especially during Covid.

We also set up a WhatsApp group and a few other different social media groups where the extended first grade squad had to check-in, and we posted the programs on that. We utilised an app called Team Builder which held all the programs for each player, so we could monitor remotely what they were doing. We also filmed some videos around rugby-specific drills they could do at home themselves, whether that was speed drills or just basic core skills drills. I’d put them on and they would film themselves and send it back to us.

“We’d then – like everybody – try to meet up a couple of times on Zoom, just so the boys could see each other and catch up. That was towards the end of the real hard lockdown period for the players, and I think it helped them stay interested because they were really good for six to eight weeks at doing their work and checking in, but then the excitement wore off and the unpredictability about whether or not we were going to play again crept in.”

What about the man-management aspect to all this away from the field as well, dealing with the person and not the player?

I think we had one guy that was at Uni, the rest were working full-time. We were fortunate in that sense as many of the boys had jobs which were still deemed essential. We still had a lot that lost their jobs, and we had a few who weren’t sure whether they should go home to New Zealand or Fiji or Samoa and be with family at that time. Some chose to do that, and because of that they are still over there.

“It wasn’t until shortly before we were due to come back that we found out some players weren’t coping with the isolation or the change of circumstances very well. So then it was a case of trying to coax them back into normal life routines and not to be worried about leaving home, if they took the right precautions things would be ok. The whole situation was definitely a different side to coaching that was a new experience.”

Has it affected player retention or acquisition?

“Good question! It’s been negative in a few instances but there’s been some positives as well. The negatives are losing a couple of players that went home to be with family or because they’d lost their jobs, and that hurts a bit that they had to drop off. That’s retention, but recruitment has been difficult. We had a couple of guys lined up to come from overseas, and they’re still keen but they’re not allowed to leave where they are, so we won’t see them this year.

“On the plus side, we had a guy like Michael Zakhia, our fullback from last year who was looking to head overseas and we were going to lose him mid-season, who now can’t go so it looks like we’ll have him for the full season. It’s been swings and roundabouts but probably more swings – a couple more roundabouts would be lovely!”

Shute Shield season launch

Joel Rivers – Photo: Stu Walmsley

This will be your second full season at the helm. What did 2019 teach you about being a head coach, and how much further the Two Blues have to travel to at least make the finals?

I’ll be honest, not that I thought it would be easier to coach first grade than it is because it’s a lot of work, but I probably assumed that when I came in a couple of things would already be established that we didn’t have to do and we could hit the ground running, which wasn’t the case. There’s a lot more involvement with the players and what’s going on in their lives than I initially expected. That’s been a really good experience, getting to know these players very well. I have told them all I hope they go on to do as well as I know they are capable of and get the credit they deserve, because they’re all good football players and they’re keen to be coached. 

“Their self belief was non-existent, not self-belief in their own talent, but in their ability as a team to win. I remember we were up 10-3 at half-time in a particular game. They came in the sheds after playing what I thought was a really good half of football and having kept a very good team to just three points, and one of the questions was ‘What do we do now?’. There was a mentality that they weren’t expected to win, so they didn’t know what to do when they were in a position to do so.

“When you lose week after week after week, how many times can you say ‘Boys, you’ve got all the talent in the world but we just need to make better decisions, commit to training more, commit to each other more, and you’ll see some results’? There’s only so often you can say that before they tell you to go away! But it does take more than a year to get something right, and you’ve just got to keep instilling that belief in them. It was a learning opportunity for me about my own coaching, and what was effective or what needed changing to help the team improve. It’s sobering to take a look at your own coaching methods after a rough season.

“Any team that I’ve coached for a few years it’s usually a case of laying the platform in the first year, getting better in the second year, and in the third year they’re where you want them to be. I could really see that understanding improve as we went into pre-season this year, and I think they feel it too. They’re coming up with ideas and there’s a lot more player engagement than last year. Now we’re back at training, the guys are getting there earlier and doing their individual warm-up’s or skill drills before we actually start team training. There’s just a better attitude across the board this year.”

You were competitive in a lot of games last year, and claimed a memorable win on the road down at Souths. But an average of just 17pts per match was always going to make it hard to add to that sole victory. Has the team’s attack been a focus in the off-season, both in terms of upskilling the existing squad, and through recruitment?

“Yeah, it’s been a really big focus in our pre-season. Last year we were too one-dimensional in attack. We had a number of options running off our pods and our patterns but they just didn’t understand them well enough or didn’t give themselves enough space before they hit the gain line to do anything with the ball. So they just fell back into the pattern of ‘hit it up, clean it out, hit it up, clean it out’ and then try and strike wide.

“Their understanding of that is a lot better this year, and putting a ten into position that can control a game makes a difference. The guys that played ten last year did a great job but they weren’t natural ten’s, but we’ve got what I think is a natural ten who can run a game in Rory Garrett, who’s over from England.

“We’ve also got some guys who can kick this year, because last year we didn’t really have anyone who could place-kick, kick us out of trouble, play for field position and get us down the other end. No matter how hard we tried we were running it out of defence, which created a lot more issues because as soon as we’d turn it over we were straight on the backfoot. Bringing in the ten, a new winger and a new second-rower, will I think give us that little bit extra in attack, but also an understanding of our game and the control around it.”

Without revealing any game plan have you made any other specific tweaks to last year’s formula?

“Being able to use the ball better, rather than just hit it up and be predictable about what we’re doing. Also defence, because we’d defend well for three phases and then the opposition would go out wide and score, or having brain-snap’s and giving penalties away and walking down the field. So a general tightening up of specific defensive roles and decision-making.

“Also, being able to use our scrum as more of a weapon and more of a platform for our backs to strike off this year. But that’s been a bit of a problem with Covid and not being able to pack down for so many weeks. And we’ve got forwards who have got brilliant ball-skills, and I don’t say that lightly, they can throw a wonderful pass under pressure and in contact. They just have to know when they should use it, and if they should use it.”

Two Blues Ins and Outs

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?

“Not in my mind, the draw is what it is. Even when I was playing or coaching at Uni or Norths, people were always saying ‘We’ve got this team or this team in this round’. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who we’ve got in what round, every game’s a hard game. We have to go into every game with the thought that we can win it, and with a game plan we have to execute in order to win. There are obviously harder games than others, but if we’re worrying about a game in round six rather than who we’re playing in round one, what are we doing?

“We still need to take it one week at a time and build those wins, and I truly believe that if we can build momentum we’ll go well. The feeling in the group right now is really positive, but the easiest way to destroy that is to have a couple of losses at the start of the season. So in terms of ‘Is it a sprint?’ No, but we also need to get a couple of early wins to keep that positive momentum and effort going, and so they don’t start to think it’s going to be the same as every other year.”

Do you think that will favour sides with more consistent squads from last season and enable them to hit the ground running?

“I really think it does. Players who have played together before will probably be able to start a little bit better, but it comes down to the guys who have been doing the work. Also, other teams might have brought in a better player for a certain position but they don’t have much time to get them game ready, and you can do all the fitness you like but nothing replicates contact fitness and game fitness.

“Every year your team is not usually settled until about round three or four, because you’re bedding in new players and new combinations, or someone from second grade puts in a performance that puts their hand up for selection for example. I don’t think you have that luxury this year, you’ve got to make those decisions better and earlier, and hope that you’ve made the right ones. And if you don’t pull the trigger on those selections early enough either, your season could be over before it’s even started!”

It’s great to have a local derby back against the Emus in Round 8. Obviously, the club renamed itself after Penrith were removed from the competition in 2018 to appeal to the broader western Sydney fanbase and player base that was suddenly available. So I’ll ask you what I also cheekily asked John Muggleton, does this derby loom as a land grab or a re-establishment of territorial boundaries?!?

I think that’s how some people see it, but it depends on how you look at it. The club changed the name the year I got here, when they were the only western Sydney club. We have players coming from Campbelltown and Camden, and also guys from Kellyville, so the area we are appealing to is far greater than just Penrith. If a player wants to come here from Randwick, or Coogee, or Mosman and play, then I’ll take him also.  

“It is a difficult one, there’s so much talk around it. But I think there’s more talk between spectators and people with opinions than players. I think it places a lot more pressure on both teams out there to win that game, and there’s probably a lot riding on it from the players point of view when there doesn’t need to be. It could be a great day of rugby in western Sydney, and a moment to enjoy the talent that we’ve got out here, and hopefully that’s what it is.”

Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?

Shute Shield 2019

Michael Zakhia had an impressive 2019 season at fullback Photo: Karen Watson

“I think our front row will do well. Nick Blacklock’s been around for a long time, and props Lafi Pongi and Airi Hunt will really hold up our scrum for us. Airi’s our loosehead, but when he was nineteen or twenty-years old he played for the Blues at number eight and got injured. His ability to ball play and run the ball is fantastic, and his understanding of the game is very good. He’s had a great off-season and dropped a bit of weight, so we’re very excited to see what he can do.

“TK (Tui’takau Kioa) is in better shape than he’s ever been, which is really good, and Michael Zakhia I thought had a good year at fullback for us last year and he’s put some good weight on, so I think he’ll shine too.”

Give me a few new players to get excited about?

Rory Garrett, the new flyhalf who I mentioned earlier, he looks good. Robert Duff has come back from overseas and is looking in fine form, and Niko Dalivusa is a Fijian winger who was with us last year but got injured in pre-season and didn’t play for the rest of the season. He’s been training all year and is back and looks really good. Then there’s Manny Maliko, who came up from a rugby academy in Melbourne as far as I understand and is just a massive human. He’s one hundred and twenty-eight kilos and will be coming in to play at number eight for us, and he has potential to be a beast. He’s young and he’s got a lot to learn, but if he plays as well as it looks like he can he’ll be really good for us.

“We have Sev Domoni back from France in the second row, which is great. He is fitter than ever and a great asset to the younger players. And Tatafu Polota-Nau has just arrived back from England and is keen to be involved in club rugby again. This is very exciting for the club and first grade when he is ready. His experience and attitude is just outstanding and will be a brilliant edition for the entire club, and his knowledge and questions will also keep me on my toes!”

Who do you need to get in front of to be in that top six this year?

“Wests look like they’ve got a very good team, I think Easts are very well coached and have some very good cattle, and Randwick will expect to do a little better than what they produced last year. Norths had some good years but missed out last year so they’ll want to come back firing, and they’ve got some guys from overseas so they’ve rebuilt a bit as well. But they’re teams that we probably need to beat to be in the finals with the teams that are regularly in there, and if we can beat them we’ll know that we are a team capable of playing finals.”

What is a pass mark for the Two Blues in 2020 – is it about making finals, or is there a number of wins target, or simply a holistic improvement across the club?

A passmark for myself and these boys would be finals. Some people tell me that’s not realistic, some people do. But that is definitely where we need to be and where the club needs to be if we want to be successful, grow and get better. There’s only so many years players are going to hang around if they don’t feel there’s improvement, and the only way to show there’s improvement is to win games of footy.

“It’s going to be hard to tell what will get you into finals and what won’t. Our aim last year, as ridiculous as it might sound considering where we finished, was to make finals. And it’s the same this year, our aim is finals. But in order to do it, every week is on the line because you’ve got to get a minimum of sixty percent of wins to make it. Last year I don’t think this group thought they could do it. This year I think they’ve come around to the possibility of that idea, and that’s become our target.”

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Two Blues Draw

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