‘A Gordon for me’: Jack Margin on the Highlanders revival – Part 1

Photo: Andrew Quinn

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“2018 was probably one of the best things that happened to us as a club,
because we felt the pain we never want to feel again, so it drives us to be our best.”

Gordon lock Jack Margin

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Anyone privy to last Saturday’s demolition by Gordon of three-time grand finalists Warringah at Chatswood Oval, 52-7 and eight tries-to one, would be hard pressed not to make a case for the Highlanders as the real deal in 2020. Such was the completeness of performance, the control, calmness and belief in what they were doing, and the clinical way they took their opportunities to put the Rats to the sword, it seems incredible to think that it was only two years ago that Gordon were at rock bottom.

2018 was a nadir and then some for a club of such fine history and tradition. They racked up an unenviable seventeen losses from seventeen games, with their only ‘win’ courtesy of the enforced bye created by the expulsion of Penrith in round four. But not only did they lose every game, they lost in such a manner that several social media wags at the time suggested they should perhaps join the Emus in Shute Shield purgatory.

One hundred points conceded in the opening two rounds to Randwick and Eastern Suburbs set the tone, and the numbers simply spiralled from that point on – 61-22 to West Harbour, 61-17 and 71-33 to Souths, 66-21 and 87-10 to Sydney Uni, 71-17 and 73-10 to Eastwood, and the lowest point of all, 97-14 to arch-rivals Northern Suburbs – at Chatswood Oval. It’s the stuff of nightmares for a basketball coach let alone in rugby union.

But it’s another shellacking, 83-14 to Warringah on July 14th that year, that brings us full circle to last weekend, and provides perhaps the most tangible comparison between the two eras at the club thus far.

Nine of the Rats’ finest that romped home that day were back at Chatswood on Saturday to receive the ultimate return of serve, ironically at the hands of the coach who had led them to two grand finals and a title in Darren Coleman. But DC’s arrival at the Highlanders later that year brought with it the necessary broom for a fresh start, and an influx of new talent has blossomed alongside several club stalwarts that have borne witness first-hand to the dramatic change of fortunes.

Jack Margin_Gordon v Randwick_2018_AQ

Margin takes control on his Shute Shield debut against Randwick Photo: Andrew Quinn

Of Saturday’s 23-man Gordon squad, just two had featured in that 2018 loss – lock Jack Margin and flanker Jack Maguire. But fellow loose forward James Lough was also plying his trade in 1st Grade at the time, while current skipper Jordan Goddard was at the club but facing a constant battle with injuries, and star winger Brandon Quinn – who bagged a fine brace against the Rats – was off around the world with the Aussie Sevens.

So Behind the Ruck tracked down Jack Margin this week for his inside take on the revival at the Stags, and began by apologising for forcing the 24-year-old to revisit those dark, dark days of yore, particularly as 2018 was his first full season in 1st Grade – enough to put anyone off for life!

One of three Margin brothers to represent the club, with younger twins Hugh and Angus turning out for grade and Colts respectively so far – watch this space!, 6ft 7in Jack was raised on the Central Coast. He took his first footy steps with Ourimbah Rugby Club before being selected for the Central Coast and NSW Country rep teams, and it was only thanks to an opportunity offered by a former coach that he ended up in the big city at all.

“My Central Coast coach Robbie Barnard, who was my coach in the 16s/17s, had been offered a forwards coaching role for the Colts program at Gordon in 2014,” he explains. “He gave me and some other Central Coast boys a few phone calls and the rest was history. It was great because with all of us living on the Central Coast we would either carpool or catch the train together. If it wasn’t for Robbie I probably would have never come to Sydney. He also stuck around with the Colts sides during 2015-16, and even helps out coaching them to this day.”

Playing his first year of Colts in 2014 at the age of 18, he got an unfortunate portent of what was to follow in his fledgling years at the club, as a Gordon side struggling for numbers paid a heavy price. But thankfully he stuck it out and things began to turn in the right direction.

“My first year of Colts was really similar to my first few years of grade, poor results were hampering the program and we only had enough players to field two teams,” he recalls. “We only won one game that year, and I didn’t really know whether Gordon, or Sydney rugby, was for me anymore.”

“Thankfully I stayed with Colts during the 2015-2016 period because these were some of my greatest rugby memories to this date. David Telfer had come on board and did an excellent job recruiting many of the Gordon Juniors in those age groups, as one of the club’s biggest problems was that all their juniors were going to different Shute Shield Clubs after school.

“We reached the finals in both those years but unfortunately didn’t make it past the first round with a loss to the eventual champions Sydney Uni in 2015, and the most painful loss of my career to Norths in 2016. Whilst it was painful not going further into those finals series, I made some great memories along the way, and some even better mates with one of my closest being James Lough, who is now playing first grade alongside me.”

His first grade game was in 2017 for the ‘Thirsty Thirds’ against Penrith, while he took his bow in the Shute Shield in round one of 2018 against Randwick. Given the side had won a reasonable six games the previous season under head coach Mark Philp, and had an attack that were scoring some of the best first-phase tries in the comp – most of which were finished off by the electric feet of competition leading try-scorer Paula Balekana – there was cause for some cautious optimism heading into the new season.

Paula Balekana_Gordon v Easts_2017

Paula Balekana scored 22 tries in 2017 but never played for Gordon again

But a problem with Balekana’s visa saw the flying winger stuck back in Fiji before a ball was kicked, and a mini-exodus of players led to the promotion of several promising young talents – Margin included, not all of whom were perhaps ready to make the step up to the vigours of Shute Shield competition.

The results told their own story, with a 52-0 demolition at the hands of Easts in front of the tartan faithful at Chatswood Oval a sign of the impending capitulation. Philp was moved on just a few weeks later and the young side were rudderless without a head coach for a while, before Kolose Feaunati answered the call, but ultimately arrived to pick up a particularly poisoned chalice.

“2018 was a tough year,” says Margin ruefully. “A majority of the first grade team from 2017 had moved on either going overseas, pursuing other clubs, or just retiring, I think it may even be as high as twelve of the starting fifteen had moved on. They had some patchy results the previous year but also pulled off some really great wins, especially beating Norths on Ladies Day when Paula Balekana went on to score a hat-trick and really put on a show. So losing so many players took the wind out of the sails before 2018 had begun.

“The pre-season always feels good because you are working hard and everyone’s keen for the season. But you never know how good it’s been until you come up against another team. After the first few rounds of big blow-out scores the morale was extremely low in the playing group, but we still fronted up each week and gave it a go.

“The time between Mark leaving and Kolose joining was quite messy, and I remember a fair few of the leaders were not happy with how it was handled. I was excited when Kolose came in as he had been my coach when I played for the City team in Under 18s, but unfortunately there was already a lot of damage in the playing group. It would have been an extremely stressful job trying to coach us that year as the morale was completely gone after the first couple of games. We simply did not know how to win.”

It’s one thing to lose games of footy, but another to ship as many points as that Gordon team did – a whopping 1008 across the season, with 544 conceded on their own ground.

“It was probably a large combination of things,” Margin offers. “But clearly our defence was a huge issue. We always knew how to score points, especially against good teams, but that year defence was a big issue. One of the biggest factors in defence is attitude, and I think because the first few games had gone terribly wrong, we really just did not turn up to play for the full eighty minutes. No matter how hard you worked during the week to fix your mistakes, after the first ten minutes you were already standing underneath the posts. The playing group as well was not the strongest, and many of us were playing above our weight at the time.”

In amongst the weekly surrenders was a rare chink of light, a 27-26 loss to high-flying Warringah at Rat Park. But as we know now, that served only to fire up a Rats side chock-full of talent that were defending their title, and would go on to relinquish it on the final day of the season against Sydney Uni. The payback just three weeks later was swift and uncompromising.

“To be fair, the Rats team we played at Rat Park was missing quite a few of their regular starters, but they definitely still had a team capable of piling the points onto us,” says Margin. “As a team we all just turned up and didn’t really care about the result, we just wanted to enjoy our footy. But we were so close, and it needed a penalty in the dying minutes to put Warringah ahead. We all walked off the field with plenty of optimism and plenty to be happy about against a team that was red-hot that year.

Mahe Vailanu_Warringah v Gordon_2018_KW

Mahe Vailanu tears a path through his future team on a dark day for the Highlanders – Photo: Karen Watson

“Unfortunately, we seemed to think the game at Chatswood would be much the same. But we were very wrong. Warringah came out with a huge point to prove and you could tell ‘DC’ had given one of his special pre-match talks because they were relentless and we never stood a chance. They were on fire that day. By half-time, everything that was said in the change rooms was meaningless as we just could not keep up with them.

“It honestly felt like a game of cricket out there at one point, they were just able to put points on the board after one or two passes and they were in again. I think they turned up and knew they had to really nail us to erase the earlier performance, and once they were one or two tries ahead, we just knew the game was out of reach.”

The worst thing is, that 83-14 smackdown wasn’t even close to the low-point of the season. That honour went to the 97-14 Ladies Day massacre at the hands of the enemy, Norths.

“Ladies Day is a huge day in any club’s calendar and a great occasion, but the morale after that loss was terrible. No-one had any answers and no-one wanted to be there after the game. That and the fact they were three points away from being in triple digits. It’s just not something you want to be a part of, and you really start questioning your ability and belief.

“I wasn’t enjoying my footy at all, I don’t think anyone was, from players to coaches and even the volunteers. All the hard work that was getting put in off the field was just not showing on it. It was a tough time to be a part of. I really felt for the volunteers and supporters, they turn up for the love of the sport and they were coming to watch those performances. It was a hard time.”

As I suggested to Margin, if I’d told him back then that the club would be beating a Warringah side containing nine of the squad that played that day by 50pts two years later, continuing an unbeaten start to the season that saw them sitting third on the ladder, what would his response have been?

“I would have said there was more chance of me winning the lotto!”

And yet…

Shute Shield season launch

Darren Coleman at the 2019 Shute Shield season launch Photo: Stu Walmsley

Just two months after overseeing that Rats victory at Chatswood Oval, coach Darren Coleman was preparing for life in the home dressing room having signed up with Gordon for three years, and was invigorated by the chance to turn the ailing club around.

He set about getting them fit, changing the mentality, working on core skills, and creating an environment and coaching team throughout the club that would drive and raise the standards across the board.

To facilitate that he attracted a host of hungry new players such as Mahe Vailanu from the Rats, Tautalatasi Tasi from the Melbourne Rebels, Jaline Graham from Parramatta, and Sean Kearns from Ireland, whilst adding some experience through veteran speedster Robbie Coleman. But he maintained a Gordon flavour that saw Jordan Goddard awarded the captaincy, and players like Margin, James Lough, Tom Silk, Harry Rorke, Jack Maguire, Nick Fraser and others all feature heavily in his top squad.

Matters off the field were also given fresh impetus with the arrival of an ambitious new President, and the reintegration of several club legends and diehard Highlanders to boost the cause. Gordon were on a mission.

“Grade needed a clean slate after 2018 and ‘DC’ provided that, along with Matt Glascott taking over as President,” says Margin. “‘DC’ did a good job of making sure many of the 2018 Gordon cohort was not lost, and many came back because they were excited about learning from him. The club as a whole have also done a better job of making sure the club is a club – not just Grade, Colts and Women, and Colts have been absolutely thriving in all grades since David Telfer took over in 2016. He has done a really good job in recruiting Gordon Juniors back to the club, whilst also grabbing some top talent from the schoolboy systems.

“We did quite a lot of Saturday sessions in 2019 as a club, and even the President and a few board members would join in, which got us all integrated. He has also reached out to many of the Gordon old boys and learned a lot of history and culture from those proud Gordon men, many of whom have started turning back up to our games after so many years of not being around. I even remember our trip to Orange last year to play Easts, where I was standing in the pub and this bloke came up to me to tell me he coached at Gordon years ago and had driven four hours just to come and watch us play. It’s a good feeling being a part of that kind of culture.”

Having enjoyed many visits to Chatswood Oval since I started my Shute Shield reportage back in 2009, the last year the Highlanders played finals footy, I take no pleasure in saying that what used to be a trip I looked forward to had become akin to a necessary evil in recent years. The lack of atmosphere and general apathy drifting around the old ground was a suitable mirror of what was being put out on the pitch. It gave all the impression of a club that was slowly dying.

Jordan Goddard_Gordon v Souths_2019_AQ

Jordan Goddard got his captaincy off to a fine start with a try against Souths – Photo: Andrew Quinn

But even on the very first official day of the new regime against Souths in round two last season, having kicked their heels in round one with the bye, the difference was palpable. There was a much healthier crowd, the people that were there were genuinely buzzing and wholly engaged with the rugby, the lower graders were more visible and more vocal, heck – even the bagpipes were blown with more gusto! Most importantly, on the field Gordon won three from four. Was all that possible after just one off-season?

“Yes, I truly believe so,” Margin affirms. “One of the first posts ‘DC’ ever sent to us all ended with a simple message that I think has stuck true to his tenure being here – “We want to have fun, winning is fun”. That pre-season was by far one of the hardest we have ever done since I have been at the club, I had never seen the blokes around me be so fit. There was also an aura around the club, we knew 2018 could never happen again so we took the pain from that year and worked really hard for the 2019 season.

“‘DC just knows how to get the most out of players, whether that be through fitness, mental toughness or simply just practicing your basic skills until it is picture perfect. The culture changed to a winning culture, and that really shone through the club from first grade down to third colts. Especially on Super Saturdays when the lower grades would wait around for the higher grades and cheer them on until the final whistle. Our off-field support is definitely well led by Nick Tracy, who prides himself on his consistent haggling and cheering!”

They went down 31-27 to the Rebels in the end, but the improvements were clear for all to see. Confusion had been replaced with structure, ill discipline with control, panic with calmness under pressure, and shattered confidence with a belief in what they were doing. It was far from perfect and they fell short in trying to tick a lot of those boxes, but it was a sizeable upgrade on anything from the season before. The revolution was underway…

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CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO AS JACK COVERS OFF A 2019 SEASON THAT ALMOST BROUGHT FINALS FOOTBALL,
AND THE TERRIFIC START TO 2020 THAT HAS MANY IN CLUBLAND TALKING UP THEIR TITLE CHANCES

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