2020: The Big Kick-Off – Hunter Wildfires
Original photo: Stewart Hazell
As well as Penrith’s welcome reintegration into the Shute Shield this season, there is another new kid on the block to add to the eleven teams that fought out the 2019 competition, the Hunter Wildfires. Playing out of Newcastle, this representative side will feature players from the Newcastle and Hunter region, and hark back to the days when they had a side running around in Sydney club rugby between 1995-1999.
Scott ‘Bubba’ Coleman was a player back then, but after hanging up the boots has blossomed into one of the most successful young coaches in the country, leading the Hamilton Hawks to eleven grand finals and eight Premierships in his fourteen-year reign, which made him the obvious candidate to oversee the new-look Wildfires return. But as he passionately told Behind the Ruck, it’s not just the meat and drink of results he is chasing, it’s a big picture view that would see his beloved region cement a permanent place on rugby’s landscape.
Firstly, just to clarify for those Shute Shield followers – including me! – who maybe aren’t across the Newcastle and Hunter club rugby scene, or the Wildfires, or yourself – they are a representative side made up of players selected from the nine teams in the NHRU Premiership, and you are coach of both them and the Hamilton Hawks, the reigning five-time Premiers of that competition. Is all that correct?
“Yeah, except I’ve actually stood down from the Hawks now and will just be doing the Wildfires full-time this year. I was doing the Hawks right up until Covid hit and then pretty much during it, because we thought we’d get back into playing the local comp at some stage. But then this opportunity came up. I’ve always wanted to have a crack at the Shute Shield but I didn’t want to leave Newcastle because I’ve got a young family living here. This opportunity gives me the best of both worlds.”
Ok, and can you please confirm the correct name of the team, because they have been referred to in most media references as Newcastle, but I’ve also seen them referred to as the Newcastle Wildfires, or the Hunter Wildfires. So which is it??
“Definitely the Hunter Wildfires.”
And are they a modern incarnation of the Newcastle side that played in the Shute Shield back in the 1990’s?
“Well, it wasn’t a rep side back then, they were actually a team in their own right. We did draw from all the clubs up here but they were definitely a separate identity. The way we’re doing it this year, because we’ve only got a one-year licence or admission into the Shute Shield at this stage, is as a rep side. The squad has nine players from my old side Hamilton Hawks, then there’s eight from Wanderers, seven from Merewether and so on, so they’re all from everywhere.
“I’ll have thirty-eight guys in my squad that will all train on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s, then I’ll pick the matchday twenty-three for the Saturday, and the rest of the players will all go back to their clubs for Thursday training and play for their clubs that weekend. I think it works for everyone. We get to pick from the best guys and also monitor those that go back to their clubs for when we need them through the season, and we’re not dragging so many of the best players from the local comp in the process. It’s only twenty-three players, which is five percent of the local talent every week. So that’s not too bad.”
What has been the logistical challenge of getting this squad together over such a short time frame, and particularly working around the difficulties presented by Covid?
“It’s been very challenging, but one thing I will praise is the efforts of the players. We’re going into our fifth week of training now and from the get-go we stepped it up. Shute Shield is definitely twice as quick as the local Newcastle comp, and the pace and physicality and how switched on you have to be is double what they’re used to playing. We identified that early and said that we had to get fit, but we also had to challenge them in lots of games at pace, which we have done, and the players have really stepped up. It’s the hardest a lot of them have ever trained and they’ve been really enthusiastic and accepted the challenge, which is really pleasing for the coaching staff.”
Is that challenge of testing themselves against Shute Shield players, many of whom are aspiring to play professionally or may have already played professionally, a handy carrot to dangle in front of your squad, and helped them attain new heights in terms of preparation?
“Definitely, and this is a very mixed squad too. I’ve got a forty-two year old in Seva Rokobaro, who played a few years down in Sydney with Parramatta and Gordon and also for Fiji. He’s obviously in the twilight of is career but the chance to challenge himself again was really appealing to him, and also the opportunity to help the young guys coming through. And we’ve got a nineteen-year-old in the squad, Zac Crowley, who probably won’t play in round one but is only an injury away from a debut. He and Seva are both from my club Hamilton, and Seva sees him as a young son I think, so that’s a really big dynamic in our squad too.”
Has it been a hair-pulling exercise or a testing but refreshing challenge as a coach?
“Both! Things don’t move as quickly here and we don’t have a budget either. We’re doing it on a shoestring, and it’s quite hard to get sponsors to sponsor a thing like this when we can only guarantee a one-year gig. If we could get a three-year gig I’m sure we could really look at our budget and try and double it. But at the moment it’s just too hard.
“The time frame I’ve had to work with has been quite difficult that’s for sure, and round one is going to be an eye-opener. We’re treading on a tightrope really with the way we’ve trained. We pushed them so physically the first two weeks as in fitness, and in the last two weeks our scrimmage has been full contact all the time and again, it’s pleasing that the boys haven’t really backed out of it. For me, the carrot is as I keep telling them, ‘We need this but it’s going to be so hard, fast and physical down there’, and they’ve opened up to it and kept going.”
As you’ve illustrated, you’re a passionate advocate of using this unique opportunity to get a Wildfires team back into the Shute Shield on a permanent basis. But I think there has been some healthy discussion about the pros and cons of it around the clubs, the NHRU competition and the region in general. Is everybody now on board and pulling in the same direction?
“There’s still a little bit of uneasiness, just because of the uncertainty. They’re definitely all on board for this year, but if it was to go next year and beyond, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and we’d have to get some policies in place here so that the players would filter through all the clubs, not just the top four for example. We’re trying to manufacture a draft draw at the moment, so that all of the new players that I bring in to play Shute Shield and don’t make the squad are affiliated with a local side, and the bottom teams get to pick first. Even if there’s a couple of my star players that won’t play local footy, they’d still have to go to a certain amount of sessions with that local club and help out the juniors by being a marquee player for them.
“I’ve seen that happen in the Shute Shield, where big name players have been affiliated to the bigger teams and weakened all the rest. And to be honest, our competition here has separated a bit too. That’s mainly because the top clubs run a better organisation, but I’m trying to look at this from the outside now as someone who pulled away from Hamilton to go and run the Wildfires. If we knew there was a longer period of time for this team and I could be in the position to do something, I could then be accessible to all the lower clubs to go in and help them set up so to speak.
“We don’t have any coach education here in Newcastle. I was lucky, I had Paul Nixon, who coached Norths for a couple of years, to learn from, and then obviously my older brother. Through him I got a lot of connections to go down and watch Waratahs training or Brumbies training, and that needs to be done here. We need to educate the educator’s.”
What could a successful or simply permanent Wildfires team do for rugby in the Newcastle/Hunter region?
“I think the region is screaming out for it. At the moment, every young kid that comes from Newcastle only sees Sydney as a way forward in union, or they turn to rugby league. And if they don’t want to move away from Mum and Dad, they’ve got to go to rugby league. So we lose so many kids. On average, we’re losing around five to eight kids every year between eighteen and twenty-two year’s old to Sydney, because they want to chance their arm. We’re all for that as well, but if they could do it from here instead of having to move, I just feel it would be a bigger pulling power for all the next young kids coming through school. At the moment, all the kids we’ve got are playing at night, we have no program in the schools at all. Now Rugby AU have just knocked off our development officer it’s only going to get worse.
“We’re fighting for TV rights at the moment and the audience we can pull from the Hunter can only be beneficial for the comp, and the location we’re in and the cost of living compared to Sydney should make Newcastle a lot more attractive to country kids. That’ll also strengthen our local comp, which will mean our Shute Shield level as the Wildfires will go up as well. I’ve also had a lot of Newcastle-born players from other clubs in the Shute Shield ring me and say if we’re in again next year they’d be interested. I might be ambitious but I honestly think we could be a top five team in three years. We’re definitely not going to be this year, but in three years time I honestly think we could be.”
Were there any discussions with the powers that be around what the Wildfires might need to do this year in order for the invitation into the Shute Shield to be extended?
“The SRU haven’t given us any KPI’s or anything like that, they just told us we had to guarantee to be competitive to get in this year. We had to meet all these measures with our players so we gave them all our team sheets. But none of our current players are registered on the Shute Shield PPS (Player Points System) because there’s only two or three that have played in Sydney, so we’re not going to have any problems with the player points!
“I’d definitely like it to be for longer than one year. It’s very hard to build a side out of nothing to come in for one season, but we’re hoping to be competitive, give everyone a fair crack, and win a couple of games. We’d like to go back to the Shute Shield and say ‘Give us a three-year assignment and let us build for three years’ and then judge us on that. We’ve done a bit of homework on it over the last few weeks and we believe that we could build this year with just first grade and colts, and next year with firsts, seconds and colts, and in the third year first and seconds in both colts and grade.
“It can’t happen overnight because we’d drain the local comp and get crucified by all the teams up here, and we want them to be supportive of us. If it’s done in the right way, we could have nine local clubs recruiting for the Wildfires as well and saying to their new players or to all the country kids, ‘Come to Newcastle and play with us and you’re a chance of getting in the Shute Shield with the Wildfires if you’re good enough. If not, come back and play with us.'”
Given the shorter time frame of the season, sides with consistent selection from the off may benefit, does that make your job that bit harder because you’re trying to bed in so many new combinations etc?
“Yeah, definitely, and also, there’s no easy games. Especially for us, there’s no easy game at all. I’m bringing in a lot of guys who are new to that level, and we’re looking at it as coaches and we reckon there’s about six players in this squad that could probably handle the twelve weeks straight without a break, But the rest are all pretty level, so we’re looking to swap them in and out just to keep the enthusiasm and the mental side of it up as well so they don’t get drained. Some guys might play two games of Shute Shield and then go back to clubland, where they’re a rock star and get their confidence up again while another guy comes in. And then we’ll just keep swapping and changing to keep everyone fresh.”
Is it depth that’s going to be problematic if you lose a few to injury?
“Not really, our depth is not too bad. We’ve got about thirty-eight guys that are all around the same standard, I just don’t have those four or five rock stars. I’ve probably got about thirty guys that could play second grade in the Sydney comp easy, and then I’ve got six guys who could walk into first grade. So it’s just trying to balance that and make us competitive.”
As you said, no game was going to be easy for the Wildfires in this comp. But the fixtures computer hasn’t exactly given you a leg-up with games against Randwick, Eastwood, Sydney Uni and Manly in the first month. Are you happy with the draw and excited about taking on those big names, or would you have preferred to play your way in a bit?
“There’s two ways you can look at it. Out of the top eight that finished last year we’ve got seven of them in the first seven rounds, and we’ve looked at that and thought ‘Oh s**t!’ But there are some positives from it. We get a lot of teams early on that won’t have their Super Rugby players, so that probably saves us a little bit. But also, if I can keep that enthusiasm and interest there, it gives us a really good, fast learning curve to play those bottom teams at the end of the year and hopefully pull off a couple of wins. If we can get two or three or even four wins, that’s beautiful.”
Without revealing any specific game plan, what can we expect to see from your team?
“Enthusiasm is one of the things we’ve thrown around at training, we really want to try and out-enthuse our opposition. But the main focus we’ve had in the four weeks we’ve been working is looking at our exits. We want to play in the opposition’s end because we’re not a team that’s going to hold the ball for eight or more phases and score. So we’ll play field position but it’s about finding a balance. You don’t want to be kicking for the sake of it, it’s got to be with purpose and execution. We also want to be defence-orientated, and we’ve really tried to step up our physicality at training. That’s a double-edged sword though because you can end up with a lot of injuries as well.”
So, of the players you’ve got on board, are there any names that would be familiar to Shute Shield followers?
“Not many. Hayden Cole from Parramatta, Rob Buaserau who was at Manly and played in the NRC for the Rays, Chris Ale, who was at Warringah and Easts, and Marcus Christensen who was also at Parramatta before. We’ve also got Nick Dodson, who played one year of NRC with the Canberra Vikings.”
Give us a few players to keep an eye on?
“Ben Ham, he’s a local boy from Scone who’s been in the Newcastle comp with Wanderers for about eight years now. He’s one of the standouts locally, but his physicality and the way he’s stepped up to what we’ve thrown at him is really exciting me. Fullback Zac Crowley, the nineteen-year-old. As I said he might not play round one but we’ll see him soon and he’s a good young kid coming through that is definitely going to go well from this experience. David Puchert is a young prop, only twenty-one years old. He had a year in colts at Randwick two years ago and he’s another really good kid and a hard trainer. He’s probably a little bit young this year but he’s definitely someone that’s going to turn into a very good footballer.”
Obviously, there’s a family interest in all this too with your brother DC down at Gordon. Have you already pencilled in August 22nd when he brings the Highlanders up the M1?
“Mate, I’m doing road crew at the moment and we’ve got all the thumb tacks and nails all ready to go out on the highway so he gets a lot of flat tyres and the players will be late! But no, there’s definitely a lot of interest around it. He spends a lot of time in Newcastle and also lived here for a while before he went to Sydney so there’s a lot of Newcastle followers that are very interested in that game. I’ve already had a few pubs ring me and say ‘Don’t come here afterwards!’
“We’re a very close family and I’ve got the utmost respect for what he’s done. He’s very good at getting a crew together, and he’s done that again at Gordon. He’s definitely one of my mentors that’s for sure, in coaching and in general life as well. It’s already been marked on the calendar in our family chat group and it’s going to be pretty exciting.
“I did beat him with the Hawks when he was at Easts in a Sevens tournament in one of the round games, which he then claimed he wasn’t coaching and blamed it on his assistant! I heard him say to Pauli (Taumoepeau) and ‘Rivo’ (Michael Ruthven) on a group chat the other day that it’s all good because he’s been bashing me for years. But the truth be known he’s never won a fight we’ve had, so this might be his first win!
Finally, what is a pass mark for the Wildfires in 2020 – is it simply to be competitive in every match, or have you set any specific win targets etc?
“Realistically, it’s two to three wins. But also, not having the blow-outs, no-one wants that. We want to stay in that fight for the eighty minutes, no matter the scoreboard. One of the catchphrases the playing group have come up with is ‘never quit’, and we’ve used it already in a lot of our fitness drills. We also want to get back to the rugby values. So any team that have to travel up the M3, we want them to have an experience that maybe means if they get asked at the end of the season whether we should stay in the comp that they vote us in because of the hospitality that we’ve created on and off the field. That’s important to us as well.”