‘The pride of them all?’: Jack Margin on the Highlanders revival – Part 2
Photo: Andrew Quinn
Having seen the level of improvement on display against Southern Districts, it was no surprise when a rampant Gordon went on to claim what was a first win in 21 months a week later, with a 43-10 dispatching of the Western Sydney Two Blues. As Margin recalls, it was an important moment in the teams progression.
“I was injured after the game against Souths so I got to watch the Two Blues match from the stands. After that first game the team had got a bit of their confidence back knowing we can match it with the top teams. But we had to be switched on for the full eighty to get the results, and we definitely did not expect to come out and beat the Two Blues, we knew we had to patch a few things up to tighten our performance.
“But the boys really played with a lot of energy in that game, and you could see the close loss to Souths had shown us that we needed to work harder for those wins and that’s what the boys did. It had been a while since the club song had been sung, luckily in the changing room there is a board with it written on it, so for those who had forgotten they could still belt it out! It was a good feeling amongst the group and great to get that first win on the board, you could see a lot of confidence back in the players eyes.”
But it was a 37-29 victory over reigning Premiers Sydney University a fortnight later that had everybody in clubland sitting up and taking notice. Granted, the Students were missing a few of their usual starters that day. But any win over the ‘Empire’ is one to be cherished.
“The thing with playing against Sydney Uni is it is a big day for the whole club, not just first grade,” Margin explains. “They have been club champions for over ten years, so as a club it’s a great way to measure yourself against the benchmark of the competition, and that was a really big win for us. I don’t think anyone in that side had ever won against Sydney Uni, so it was a really big moment for first grade and the club.
“It gave a lot of belief that we could really match it with the top sides, which was a complete turnaround from the year before. We felt we were on the right track but still had many mountains to climb, as is the nature of the Shute Shield competition. Whilst it was pivotal as a team it was pivotal as a club too, and the team song was song by the whole club that day.”
Further wins over Easts, Randwick, Souths and West Harbour kept them firmly in the mix, and by the time they arrived at North Sydney Oval for a mouthwatering North Shore derby against the Red and Blacks in round 16, they were looking well-placed to make the finals for the first time in ten years. It turned out to be a day to remember, with a hugely impressive Gordon running out 42-34 winners, despite picking up four yellow cards, to record their first victory on enemy territory since 2011, and some welcome retribution for the horror-show the previous season.
“Norths had already got a win on us that year at Chatswood in a really tight game, and they were a top four side when we played them at North Sydney Oval and we knew we had to play some of our best footy to get the win,” says Margin. “There was quite a good feeling leading up to the game, everyone was working hard and there was a lot of detail going into our analysis of Norths. Plus, we had a guy named Karmichael Hunt at training, which for a lot of us was a star-struck moment.
“That day the team just nailed their roles really well, and the backs were playing with a lot of confidence off some slick skills from Karmichael and Jaline Graham. The forwards really tried to disrupt Norths’ set-piece and we had a bit of success in doing that, but the thing that was great about that day was everyone was just enjoying being out there. Everyone was constantly pumped up for whatever came at them next and the hunger to win was evident.
“It was a pretty special day compared to Ladies Day the year before, and a nice experience to run over to our crowd on the far side afterwards. It was a Super Saturday, so all of our Grades and Colts had stuck around to watch and we sang the club song nice and loud. It was a great moment and a stark contrast from the year before.”
At that point, a place in the top six looked well within reach of a squad that was seemingly finding an extra gear at the pointy end of the season. But it would all come down to a shoot-out against Eastern Suburbs the following week back at Chatswood Oval, and having led by 13pts with 12 minutes to go, the holy grail of the finals slipped agonisingly from their grasp as the Beasties snatched it at the death 29-25.
If you’d told you anyone in that disconsolate dressing room afterwards at the start of 2019 that they’d win nine games, draw one, and finish just two points outside the top six, you’d imagine they would have bitten your hand off based on the previous year. But the feeling of disappointment and reflection on a missed opportunity was a sign of how far they had come as a group, and the bar that had been raised in such a sort period of time.
“We always had the goal of reaching the top six so that was our target throughout the season. We had the belief we were good enough, we had a great squad, a great coaching team, and we worked hard. We just needed that to translate to wins on the board. But that Easts game was just heartbreaking the way it finished after the bell, it was either we defended it or they scored it. We were disappointed because we knew how close we were to finals, and anyone who doesn’t reach a goal is disappointed with themselves.
“We had raised the bar high and the changing room afterwards was as if we had lost a grand final. It just showed how much that game meant to everyone, and how much the team meant to each individual. Although that game was the final straw, that was only because we had missed a few opportunities during the year. We had a draw against West Harbour and a tight loss to Manly which came back to haunt us, so whilst it felt like Easts was crucial, in retrospect across the year we let a few too many slip.”
As well as the Shute Shield progress, 2019 saw an incredible rise of Gordon across all grades, with all teams making the finals, 3rd Grade winning the club’s first trophy in 10 years, and a second-place finish in the Club Championship – a rise of seven places. All of which suggests that a new-found coalition across the club was a cornerstone to their achievements.
“The unity has definitely being our greatest success, from first grade down to third colts everyone shares a beer and has a yarn, there is no elitism at our club and that’s a credit to the culture we have built,” agrees Margin. “It has been a huge turnaround as a club but predominately in grade, as colts have been strong for the last few years. You can tell every game in every grade counts, and we all watch each other’s scores to check if we are notching up wins. ‘DC’ has a real goal of us getting that Club Championship, so its something we really strive for as a club.”
“Seeing one of our teams lift a piece of silverware was amazing, and that third grade team was a really great side all year and they deserved it. Club stalwart Matt McDougall played his final game – for now! – so it was a great way to send him off. We were the only team to get silverware besides Sydney Uni that day so that was also a great achievement. Everyone was tasting third grades’ success and that has probably fuelled the fire for this season, we all want to have that success this year.”
All in all a great year for the club and a significant platform from which to build upon then. But if 2019 was about regaining belief, confidence, competitiveness and respect in the process, 2020 had to be about going up another level, making the finals as a minimum, and becoming a genuine title challenger. So how did they approach it?
“The feeling was more of ‘what-could-have-been’, so the attitude was we need to work harder,” Margin explains. “We hit the ground running a lot better this pre-season, guys had kept in good shape across the board and were really excited for what was to come. This year was really about not missing those tight games, so a lot of our drill work and fitness came down to those one percenters that make the difference between winning and losing, whether that be a bad pass or a passive tackle, and a lot of detail was put into our skills. We simply want to win the comp this year.
“‘DC’ made small changes here and there but it is much the same at the core. His biggest motto during pre-season is respect and reliability, we all get punished if someone doesn’t rock up to training without letting him know beforehand. There were far less burpees this pre-season, which is a sign that that the motto is instilled in our playing group. He also had to differ his approach as our pre-season was halted by the COVID-19 break. But he was making sure we were all still working hard, whether that be from push-up challenges to the Tik Tok challenge where the winner is yet to be determined! He kept us really engaged as a playing group.”
Purely as a coach, Darren Coleman gets a lot of wraps for his work-ethic, rugby knowledge, and ability to motivate players and improve them. But his ability to get good people around him to facilitate his ideas and promote their own is one of his greatest skills, and in Billy Melrose, Liam Winton and Cam Blades, Gordon have arguably the best coaching ticket in the Shute Shield competition.
As a second-rower, Margin obviously spends much of his time on the training paddock with Winton and Blades nailing down the specifics of his role. And he is happy to shine the light on the work of those invaluable assistants in helping to take him as a player, and the team as a whole, to that sought-after next level.
“Bladesy was around in the glory days of Gordon and is a really proud Gordon man. He has been the master behind our scrum work, and he loves nothing more then watching scrums on repeat in his spare time. He has really developed our front-rowers into great scrummagers and given them each a style to work with, but by all means never collapse a scrum in front of him! He puts a lot of time and effort into that part of the game and takes it very personally when the scrum is not going our way, so it’s great having a coach around that cares as much as him.
“Liam, or ‘Didge’ as we call him, looks after our lineouts and tackle technique, and is a young coach with a lot of energy and experience. He looks at our games in great detail and makes you realise the one percent difference between a dominant tackle and a passive tackle. He loves nothing more than watching the lads put shots on each other at training, it is the only way we will get better. He works really hard on the lineout, whether that be ours or analysing the opposition. It’s an area of the game he has a lot of knowledge and experience of, and that shows through his coaching.
“Billy has been a great asset to our playing group, he is a really successful coach and has a real passion for the game like no other. He has predominately been working with our backs but is also our defence coach and has done a great job there. He also has many funny stories to tell from his travels and isn’t afraid to tell you when you need to front up and be better. The playing squad is also kept in great condition by our S&C coach Tim Rowland, who works hard alongside ‘DC’ to manage our work loads, whilst keeping us in great condition. He also is the master of injury rehab and keeps guys engaged while they’re injured, and in great shape for when they return. Many of the players have hit PB’s in the gym or in the famous “bronco test” because of Tim’s hard work and dedication.
“Having the coaching group around us gives us a lot of confidence when we run out. They work extremely hard during the week, so the least we can do is listen to them and put on a good performance. People will often not realise it but coaches get more stressed than their players, and our coaches are no different, they feel our wins, but also hurt with our losses.”
With impressive scrumhalf Jake Abel getting a gig with the Western Force, Robbie Coleman and Sean Kearns heading overseas, and a batch of Highlanders hanging up the boots, there were some necessary fresh faces on the playing roster. In came Harrison Goddard – younger brother of Jordan – from the Melbourne Rebels, to take the vacant no.9 jersey, while former Brumby and Samoan international Rodney Iona arrived with the task of filling the points-scoring boots of Kearns, who ended the 2019 season as the competition’s joint-leading scorer.
First-up when this Covid-affected season finally got underway was a match against one of the pre-season favourites Easts, a clash that offered an immediate chance to banish the ghosts of last year. And they did just that, romping clear in an extremely dominant first half before switching off a tad in the second to cast a few nervous glances over their shoulders before seeing the game out 35-24.
Then came the Western Sydney Two Blues, who were simply swatted aside 64-0 as new recruit Iona racked up double figures for the second game in a row, and Harrison Goddard and returning Aussie Sevens star Brandon Quinn both bagged doubles. All of which brings us right up to last Saturday, and the visit of the mighty Rats to Chatswood Oval.
From the way they shot out of the blocks, didn’t miss a beat for eighty minutes, and put half a century of points on a team looking to play their fourth title decider in a row at the end of October, it was evident that this was a game the Stags, and their head coach, had earmarked for quite a while.
“This match-up was really big for us as a group, Warringah is a benchmark for us and an opposition we respect a lot from the style of play they have,” Margin reveals. “In terms of build-up we really just focused on what we needed to do to control the game, we had predicted wet and sloppy conditions and we trained for those conditions. We were fired up for it, but that’s the case when you have a bye week. We were just stinging to get out there and play some footy more then anything.
“We played pretty safe and I think our game controllers just did a really good job of playing footy down the right ends of the field and putting constant pressure on. We also drilled really hard during the week on our maul as it was something we had been not getting much reward from, and up front our scrum was really dominant. So a combination of those things were probably the reason we got the chocolates on Saturday.”
The scary thing for the rest of the competition is that it was only round four, and that players who went a whole season without winning a game just two years ago, are now not content with a 45pt win!
“We have been going for the try a lot more this year as opposed to the penalty goal, as we know how important bonus points become in the tail part of the year. And that killer instinct probably shone through on us being able to keep composed throughout the game, because we have had games where we get up by two or three tries and teams have come back to beat us. It was one of our better performances but nowhere near the finished product.”
The caveat to all of this hyperbole of course, is that they have done nothing yet. For all the positivity and expectation surrounding this team right now, and the dreams of what they could possibly go on to achieve – a first Premiership since 1998, there is still a long, long way to go in the regular season just to book a place in that top six, let alone any thoughts of glory beyond that. Lose the next couple and watch the ladder change, and the pressure begin to mount.
But when you see the way they play and the talent they have on board – both on the field with the likes of Iona, the Goddard brothers, Quinn, Jaline Graham and Tautalatasi Tasi, the industrious Margin and combative Mahe Vailanu up front – and off it with the aforementioned coaching group; added to the momentum they are building, and the desire and hunger to do something special, then in much the same way as Northern Suburbs’ journey from 11th in 2014 to the title in 2016 under Simon Cron was alluring, it’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of it all.
Factor in the Super Rugby talent that could also be unleashed in the shape of Jack Dempsey, Karmichael Hunt, Joey Walton and the Abel brothers down the track, and the headway this club have made in such a short period of time – whether you are on board with the manner of the squad overhaul or not – is borderline ridiculous.
“I can believe the strides that have been taken because I’ve seen how hard every person at Gordon has worked,” reflects an understandably proud Margin. “That’s not just as a playing group either, our coaches, our volunteers and our board members are tireless and want to see the glory days of Gordon return.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the Shute Shield, but we know we have to make the top six before that is possible. So we are taking it week-by-week and not taking any side lightly. This is one of the most competitive comps in the world, so if we get too far ahead of ourselves we wont be sitting in that top six come the end of the year, and sport has a funny way of grounding you when you do get too far ahead of yourself.
“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.”
From seventeen losses and 1008 points conceded, to 12 wins and a draw from the 20 matches since the new regime took hold of the club. It’s already been one heck of a ride, but where will this particular journey end?
Will the ‘cocky wee Gordon be the pride of them all’ once again…