2020: The Big Kick-Off – Northern Suburbs
Original photo: Paul Cross / SPORTSPICS
There’s a fresh look about Northern Suburbs as they prepare to get their 2020 Shute Shield campaign underway. With a host of familiar names having moved on from the club, the Shoremen faithful can look forward to a batch of new faces in red and black this season, whilst the coaching box has also undertaken a transformation. Former Samoan international and Wellington Lions coach Earl Va’a takes up the overall reins, with former Manly lower grade coach Zak Beer on board to continue his progress with a role as assistant coach in charge of attack and as Club Coach Co-ordinator, alongside incumbent forwards, breakdown and defence coach Sape Misa.
Having only fallen a week short of the grand final in 2019, the perception from the outside looking in was that a few tweaks may be all that was needed to get Norths back in a title decider. But the core elements of the great side formed under Simon Cron back in 2015 have gradually been broken up, either through departures or reward at the next level. So Va’a and his team have used the extended off-season to go about implementing a new approach. What hasn’t exactly helped is that he returned to his native New Zealand before lockdown and is yet to secure a visa back to Australia – he should be on board within the next month, so most of the transition process has taken place online, or through his assistants. So I asked Zak Beer to take us through the changes they’ve undertaken, and what we can expect from the Shoremen this time out.
Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to sport, how have the Shoremen adjusted and coped with those challenges?
“It’s certainly been challenging as a coaching group. It’s forced us to become creative in the way that we keep the players engaged, and we’ve tried to address it from a mental, physical, technical and tactical aspect. The tactical aspect was put on hold when the competition was up in the air, and the mental and physical aspects took priority.
“In conjunction with the leadership group, and without wanting to overload the players, we came up with what we thought was a good balance. Monday night was a Zoom session for our top squad of around forty with coaches included, which started as a check-in and analysis of our only trial game at that point against Uni Norths. And as the season started to firm up, we used it as an analysis of each game last year, initially as a whole group and then we’d split up into attack and defence.
“From a physical perspective, our head of strength and conditioning Gavin Aquilina did a great job of checking in with the guys. We gave them access to Primrose Park and the sheds and they took home whatever equipment they needed. A lot of the guys live together in houses, which made that a little easier, and Gavin would set them little targets to hit each week and there were ways that he would track that.
“From an enjoyment perspective, each coach came up with a weekly skills challenge that was in line with the style that we want to be playing this year, and the boys would have to video that, post their challenge, and the winner would get a reward each week. It’s been challenging, but it’s actually given us time as well to reflect on how we coach and to revisit the bigger picture goals as a group.”
What about the man-management aspect to all this away from the field as well, dealing with the person and not the player?
“The man management side of coaching can often be what takes up the most time, and it’s often the most interesting and can be the most enjoyable as well. Covid brought a set of new challenges with guys having all sorts of things happening in their personal lives, and I’m personally of the opinion that rugby can be the vehicle to provide them with a safe haven away from the mental baggage that can come with that. We’ve tried to create that environment, albeit remotely, for the guys through this time, and in terms of engagement our numbers for those Zoom sessions was always in excess of forty. Coming in from another environment, I’ve noticed how this club is highly player driven and leadership driven from the playing group, and that’s really helped in this environment too.”
Has the Covid situation affected player retention or acquisition?
“Of the In’s, potentially two of them are not going to be able to run around in Norths colours this year because of Covid, but we are working through that. We’ve worked hard to source accomodation and employment for the rest of those new players and thankfully a lot of them are in trades that were unaffected, so I’m pleased to say that the vast majority are here and ready to play.”
Obviously, having new head coach Earl Va’a in lockdown back home in New Zealand for the last few months hasn’t been ideal in terms of setting the new agenda. But have you still been able to get the message across and the guys on board with what you’re trying to implement?
“Earl was living in Lane Cove before he went back to New Zealand, and for that period that we were in lockdown he may as well have been back in Lane Cove because there was no real difference! We did everything remotely, Earl and I spoke daily and had weekly Zoom calls as a coaching group, and if anything, it’s allowed him to look even deeper in analysing last season and what that looked like.”
On face value, Norths only fell one game short of another grand final last season. But across the season, they never quite gave the impression that they had enough to go on and win another title. So what was the take away from the new coaching group after studying last season so forensically, and what changes has that imbued for 2020?
“Obviously, while forwards coach Sape Misa was here last year, Earl and I have come in from different set-up’s with fresh eyes, and what that’s allowed us to do is offer some reflection on how Norths are perceived from the outside looking in, and analyse their game as an opposition and look at the numbers in terms of stats. I think you’ve always got to go that way, look at the patterns on the field and then see if the stats do back it up, which in this case it did.
“So without giving too much away around what we’re going to be doing this year, from an attack perspective there was still a lot of legacy left over from 2016 in terms of how the club played, and yet the personnel and the coaching had changed. It was very much a possession-based game about building as many phases as you could, but clearly, without the physical dominance and work at the breakdown that Simon Cron had done with the guys, it really didn’t play into that system. From a defensive perspective we’ve evolved a few things, and overall given guys a bit more clarity in terms of their roles. We want to be using the ball a lot more, identifying areas of space, and making sure the guys are clear about what we are trying to achieve in attack and defence, and the players seem to be enjoying it.
“The legacy of what ‘Cronny’ did from 2015, ’16 and ’17 with this group still lingers around the place. I remember turning up at the first training session and being impressed with how professional the set-up was. It’s a semi-amateur club but the training, the behaviours, the leadership group and how deliberate the players were in trying to go about achieving success, certainly makes your job easier as a coach. But what we’ve got to do is find that missing bit. Hopefully, adding that depth in the front row and evolving our style of play to promote the playing group’s natural ability, will provide those extra pieces to the jigsaw.”
In terms of your recruitment policy as a coaching team, was it based on the players that were leaving, or did you identify some areas of weakness that you wanted to strengthen when you arrived?
“It was a combination of both, but we did proactively recruit in key areas. Clearly, towards the tail end of last year the set-piece in terms of the scrum, was an area that was affected due to injuries and a real lack of depth. So we made a conscious effort to go out and add some strength and depth in that area. The rest you could actually call passive recruits, as in they were referrals of players from the club, or had heard about the club and approached themselves wanting to join, and we were pretty blessed in that sense. We did have a large contingent of players retire, but we’d like to think that we’ve also got a pretty strong group of colts that graduated a year back who are now pushing for spots in that first grade team.”
It’s possible that you won’t be able to call upon the services of any Red and Black involved in Super Rugby this season, which includes leaders like Will Miller, Hugh Sinclair and Michael Wells. Angus Sinclair is back from Japan to provide plenty of experience and intellectual property, but have you actively looked to promote new generals from within to help guide this side around if that proves to be the case?
“‘Gussy’ (Angus Sinclair), ‘Sticksy’ (Nick Palmer) and Harry Burey are clearly natural leaders with a proven ability in demonstrating clear thinking on the field in big games and getting the job done, so that’s a luxury to have. But I guess it’s our job as coaches to identify upcoming leaders in the group, and put them in positions where you give them enough rope to lead a certain aspect and drive expectations, measurables and standards. So when the time comes for them to take over, and it will, that they are as ready as they can be.
“There’s some great graduates from the colts program, players like Connor Winchester and Charlie Jeavons-Fellows, who featured in first grade last year and played a handful of games and had some great showings, who we’ve identified as up-and-coming leaders and the nucleus of that next group of Norths players coming through.”
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?
“If we’re going to use that analogy, I’d call it a four hundred metre race, where you’re running near full tilt all the way and it’s one of the most challenging races you can do. You’ve got one bye, ours is in round four, and there’s no easy game. You look at Newcastle, I’ve coached a couple of guys that are playing up there like Rob Buaserau who are electric and can score a try from anywhere. John Muggleton is in at Penrith and we don’t know what to expect from them, we know they’ll be physical. So there’s certainly no easy games and every one is a must win because you don’t want to be chasing your tail later in the year, particularly if and when all the Super Rugby players come back.”
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 potentially trying to bed in so many new combinations etc?
“Short answer, yes! I always go by the model that your pre-season training gives you the chance to get a spot for a trial match, and once you’re in a trial match you’re really fighting for a spot in round one, but we only had one trial before Covid and one after. So I think you’ve got to look at this season less as a starting fifteen and more as a wider squad. The nature and the speed of the Shute Shield – coupled with the fact that these guys aren’t professionals necessarily, they’ve got day jobs – and the demands that the comp has on these guys, will mean that there will inevitably be some soft tissue injuries.
“The consistency, clarity and understanding across your wider squad becomes far more important from the outset. If you do your maths, you’ve got to win seven games to guarantee being in the finals you’d think, six maybe. So you really want to come out and start fast, and if you start thinking too much about all of that you can get ahead of yourself. We’ve just got to look at it in blocks of the season. We’ve got a bye in round four, which will give us a chance to take our breath. But until then, we’ve got West Harbour, Penrith and Manly that we’re going to be focusing on with tunnel vision.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2020?
“Gus Sinclair has come back from Toyota Verblitz in Japan where he was playing under Cronny, and has come back with a hell of a lot of great intellectual property from playing with the likes of Kieran Read and Willie Le Roux and being involved with Steve Hansen, who is the Director of Rugby up there. There’s an incredible amount of intel to take away from that All Blacks set-up, not specific plays but ways of thinking about the game.
“As a coaching group we’ve got a good balance of blends and personalities and strengths, but we all love to analyse a game and think of new ways of playing and challenging the players and challenging our thinking, and the ideas that Gus brought back with him have certainly formed a big part of our discussions. He’s clearly a leading game manager in the comp, and for people who have enjoyed watching him over the years, this is a season where I think you’re going to see a fresh Gus. He spent some time on the family farm during isolation and got some fresh air, and he’s come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about this season.
“Harry Burey’s had this look in his eye since November, and what I was saying about this group being highly player-driven to succeed, he’s certainly one of the leaders in that group wanting to kick on to that next level. He’s certainly capable of playing that next level, and the look in his eye is one thing but the behaviours that he employs before training starts and once training finishes, are exemplary. He’s certainly one to watch.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Max Burey, younger brother of Harry, has come across from Wests Tigers and is one to watch for the coming seasons. He’s brought some great thinking and fresh ideas on board, particularly with the way we’re looking to attack this year, and he’s got an excellent skill-set. He lives with Harry, and I don’t know if they talk about anything other than rugby in the Burey house because they’re certainly deep thinkers on the game!
“Charlie Jeavons-Fellows plays number seven for us but was actually an Australian Schoolboy’s hooker. He’s someone that I think people should be watching closely, he’s a real leader in this group. There’s also a guy who’s come back who lit the Shute Shield up and played some NRC a couple of years ago in winger Kepu Lokotui. He’s been hit hard with injuries the last few years but he’s in good nick and is another one who is putting in a lot of effort away from the field.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“I think you’d certainly expect to see some improvement from both Gordon and Wests. Clearly, DC did an excellent job with turning Gordon around last year, and you’d think after another year and another pre-season under him they’ll improve from a cohesion perspective. Uni are one where the legacy and systems Rob Taylor built will show this year, and they’ve got some excellent depth as well as some top end players including four or five front-rowers in Super Rugby, which helps if and when those guys come back. So you’d expect them to be a strong contender this year as well. I’m interested to see how Souths are looking under Todd Louden as well, but it’s certainly a new decade and a new era in Shute Shield now with a number of new coaches. It’s going to be exciting as a fan.”
What is a pass mark for Norths in 2020 – is it a step further and another grand final appearance, or a Premiership and nothing else?
“As a club, we’ve just got to focus on what we can do to control each week and ourselves. I don’t think there’s too much time with the shorter season to be looking over the back fence too much. We’ve got some clear goals as a group internally and been quite obvious in looking at what we’re trying to achieve. The club is highly driven and demands success, whilst also developing its players into better men, so the work we’ve been doing is towards featuring in October.
“Looking holistically, one of the things I notice from joining the club is that it seems to be this eco-system that is a springboard for pushing five, six or seven players up into pro rugby each year, and that’s really our goal as well. We’re a club that has exceptionally high standards in what it wants to achieve, and we want to help push these guys onto the next level. A lot of the current Super Rugby players in Australia are looking at going overseas for opportunities, and hopefully that opens up some spots for our Shute Shield lads to push for professional contracts.
“Every club has got their own unique narrative, which makes it a fascinating comp – be that players, coaches or new inclusions. It’s going to be intense, which could really lead to some great footy being played. But for myself and I’m sure everyone involved at every club, I’m just happy for the footy to be back again.”