‘Greece lightning’: Kagiassis a point of difference for Rebels

Photo: Malcolm Chuck

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Timing is often everything in sport, and by extension, in sports journalism too. In my limited world of rugby reportage, that revolves around trying to pick your next player or coaching story in the hope of achieving maximum relevance and impact, and it often depends on the vagaries of one result, one dropped ball or wayward throw, or worst of all, one injury.

So it was that I rocked up to a wild and windy Forshaw Park just under a fortnight ago, with dictaphone in tow ready to grab a few post-match quotes from my next chosen ‘cab off the rank’ – Souths’ utility back and points-machine Christian Kagiassis. We’d already laid down the spine of the piece in the build-up, all that was needed were the final pieces of the jigsaw to bring us up to date, and to that end, another positive showing would be extremely beneficial.

Sure, the Rebels were hosting a similarly unbeaten Randwick side that had every chance of upsetting the apple cart. But I still figured that prior form – they had downed Sydney Uni the previous weekend – suggested it could well be a doozy that would likely go down to the wire. And with the in-form Kagiassis racking up an average of 13pts per match, the worst case scenario would see he and his team go down in a blaze of noteworthy glory…

By the time I’d begun the defrosting process after absorbing an Arctic buffeting under the power lines for 80 minutes, the realisation that my intended story had just disappeared back over Tom Ugly’s Bridge on the Randwick team bus alongside the Sir Roden Cutler Shield, was not providing me with any reassuring warmth. Not only had the impressive visitors dismantled a distinctly out-of-sorts Southern Districts 34-5, there was also a rare donut in the points column for Kagiassis.

The Cook curse had struck again.

Thankfully for the Rebels, Kagiassis in particular, and the relevance of this yarn, form is temporary and class is permanent, and the week’s hiatus has afforded the luxury of writing about a stellar individual effort against Warringah last Saturday, where our man-of-the-moment crossed for a hat-trick of tries and a total of 24pts in a thrilling 39-38 victory for Souths. Perfect timing then – but I still had to ask about that loss to the Galloping Greens…

“There is no real excuse for that performance,” he offers. “We just did not play the way we had trained all week and got outclassed by a strong Randwick side. You could say that loss gave us as a club a reality check. This comp never gets easier and any team can beat anyone on a given day, so the main takeaway was to never be complacent.

“The playing group were eager to just get back out on the field afterwards and training was great, the whole club ripped in from the beginning of Tuesday night. We all knew what we had to do to improve and were all keen on doing so.”

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On the charge against Eastwood – Photo: Malcolm Chuck

As well as the task of bouncing back from the previous result, Souths also headed up to Rat Park with a few notable absentees. Scrumhalf Sam Harris, lock Isoa Nasilasila and loose forward Phil Potgieter had all picked up game-ending injuries against Randwick having been ever-presents in the starting XV, and they were also without the combative influence of Harry McLennan, arguably one of their best performers in the opening rounds.

They were also up against a proud Rats outfit that are traditionally strong at home, and when they trailed 19-3 in the first half, fears of another capitulation hove into view. But in what turned out to be an absolute classic, the Rebels fought back to lead 34-24, trailed again 38-34 with time running out, before centre Vili Latu tore up the sideline at the death to snatch it by a point.

“We were all confident, as we are every week. However, we knew we had a tough task up at Rat Park and had to execute on all levels to beat a strong Rats team,” says Kagiassis. “It must have been a great game to be a spectator at. However, it was a little frustrating with another slow start from us, along with giving up a ten-point lead in the final quarter. But in the end I couldn’t be more proud of the never-say-die attitude of each one of my team mates.”

The catalyst to the initial fightback was Kagiassis himself, scoring back-to-back tries and adding plenty off the boot to help his team to 19 unanswered points, before that dramatic finale. But ever the team man, he was happy to share the love.

“It was a crazy period! Our attacking combinations across the field started to click and we showed a glimpse of how Southern Districts likes to play. I was just lucky enough to be in the right places at the right time.”

Which is a ridiculous but admirable downplay of his consistent ability to sniff out a meat pie, and the prolific left boot that has proven to be the downfall of many a side in his four-and-a-half seasons of Shute Shield footy – not to mention his ability to break tackles and show a pretty clean pair of heels with ball in hand. 24pts is a hefty personal haul for any player, but for Kagiassis it’s not even his best, having achieved 30pts twice while in the colours of previous club Sydney University.

Across those four and a half seasons since he made his Shute Shield debut in 2016, no player has scored more points in the competition than Kagiassis, whose total of 788 is more than a hundred greater than his nearest challenger, Northern Suburbs flyhalf Angus Sinclair (667). He won the Roscoe Fay Trophy trophy as leading points-scorer in 2018, came second in 2017, and his efforts last weekend have seen him surge to the top of the 2020 standings with six weeks of the regular season remaining. He’s also crossed the chalk 41 times.

This kid got game…

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A quick Wikipedia search for the inner-south-west Sydney suburb of Panania reveals that it got its name from the Aboriginal word meaning ‘sun rising in the east and shining on the hills’; that it has a Catholic Church that is housed in the town’s old cinema; and most revealingly, that it is purportedly the residence of both cricketing Waugh brothers, and actor Bryan Brown.

What it most definitely is not, is a hotbed of rugby. So how did a third generation Greek Australian, and soccer-loving young boy who began his sporting life as a leaguie idolising Brad Fittler and Joey Johns, graduate from this relative union backwater to end up as Sydney club rugby’s leading points-machine of the last half a decade?

“I grew up in a little suburb called Panania in the Bankstown area and have been there for most of my life until recently,” he begins. “I have Greek heritage on both sides of my family, all four grandparents migrated to Australia, and I grew up playing rugby league as my old man hated soccer and loved league. So I kind of got swayed into the oval shaped ball pathway and followed him in supporting the Roosters – but I absolutely love soccer. I’m a huge Liverpool fan and tend to watch every single game, regardless of the time.

“I played for the Cabramatta Two Blues before playing Harold Matthews and SG Ball for Parramatta Eels, as well as making the training squad for the NYC under 20s. I also went to St Gregory’s College where I played first grade for three years at halfback and captained the side in 2012, and only began playing rugby in 2011 for Canterbury, and then at school as well.”

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A fresh-faced Kagiassis on the ball for ISA 2nd XV in 2013 – Photo: SPA Images

His code shift hit the accelerator button when he was selected for the Australian Schools Combined States side in 2012, but it was his educational appetite and a move to Sydney University in 2014 to study a Bachelor of Commerce that cemented his love for the 15-a-side game, and there was no going back once he’d pulled on the famous Varsity colours.

After two years in colts playing alongside the likes of Folau Fainga’a and Chris Talakai, he made his Shute Shield debut in round one of the 2016 season against Eastwood – coming off the bench to score a try to help the Students to a 46-39 win. And after a few more impressive cameos, he got the call from then head coach Tim Davidson for a starting spot in round six, ironically against Warringah on what is now a familiar hunting ground. His first start on Uni Oval No.1 a week later was a bit special too, with four tries and 30pts in a 33-10 win over Easts.

“Scoring my first ever points against Eastwood was a really memorable moment,” he proudly recalls. “But my starting first grade debut was against the Rats on a rainy, windy day at Rat Park. I played fullback and also took over the kicking duties. I’ve been a kicker ever since I can remember, I love everything about it.”

His dedication to that particular facet of the game has obviously borne some pretty ripe fruit, and 163pts in a debut season was a pretty clear indication that Uni had added a handy weapon to their attacking arsenal. A side under the auspices of club rugby royalty in the shape of coach Davidson and skipper Tom Carter – with the small matter of eight Sydney Premierships to their name – found the consistency that year that had often escaped them in the past, where they had become accustomed to achieving the initial goal of a top six finish without always setting the world alight, before going on to cast all opponents asunder in the finals.

In 2016 they were Minor Premiers, and blasted a path to the decider by racking up a combined 82pts against Eastwood and Warringah in the Qualifying and Preliminary Finals respectively. Standing in their way were the young pretenders Northern Suburbs, led by the ambitious and very impressive Simon Cron, and fortuitously playing on their home turf of North Sydney Oval. It turned out to be a day to remember – for club footy in general, for the neutral supporters at the ground or watching on from the sofa, and for a rugby public disillusioned by the complexities of Super Rugby and a struggling Wallabies. But most of all, for a Shoremen side that ran out 28-15 winners to lift the club’s first title since 1975.

“It was amazing to play with Tom Carter as skipper and Tim Davidson as coach, and to get an insight into what it would be like to be a successful rugby player,” he remembers. “The way both prepared week-in, week-out showcased why they both had unbelievable careers.

“The grand final itself was an awesome experience, especially being in my first year of grade. Running out of the tunnel and seeing that crowd was unreal. We were definitely confident going in but we knew it would never be easy, and while I didn’t want it to be Norths year, you could say that it all led to it being like that.”

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Scoring a five-pointer for Sydney Uni – with a little bit of help from Tom Carter – Photo: SPA Images

On a personal level Kagiassis kicked on in style in 2017, with 215pts seeing him finish second in the competition points-scoring listings. But it was a different case for the Students, who struggled throughout the season to find the rhythm and consistency that had served them so well the previous year, and somewhat incredibly missed out on finals footy for the first time in 19 years. However, he believes that relative nadir has proven to be the making of Uni in recent years, as they hit back with full force to claim back-to-back Premierships.

“I believe it was a bit more of a transitional period where a lot of younger players – including myself – were thrown into the deep end. We got unlucky in the end, just missing out on the finals. However, as has been shown it aided in Uni being a driving force for the coming years.”

Given the stable environment, the culture, and the historical levels of success, it’s no surprise that you see very few 1st Grade players choose to leave Sydney Uni and go to another Shute Shield club. But that’s exactly the eyebrow-raising decision Kagiassis took in the 2019 off-season just as the Robert Taylor-led revolution was getting underway, and after 385 points in two seasons, he took his shooting boots south to the Shire and to Southern Districts. Rumours abounded that the decision had its roots in a desire to change position, but the player himself sets the record straight.

“There was no promise of playing in a specific position when I moved to Souths, I just felt that I needed a change in scenery and believed Southern Districts was the perfect fit. RT [Taylor] and I had a great relationship, I left purely to challenge myself.”

In mitigation, he wasn’t exactly joining a club at the wrong end of the ladder with no chance of glory themselves. The Rebels had become a genuine force in recent years, playing finals footy every year bar one since 2010, including a couple of grand final losses in 2012 and 2014. They had actually finished second in both the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, and were poised for another tilt at an elusive maiden Premiership when Kagiassis came on board.

His arrival and the points he would bring to the table looked like a vital piece in the jigsaw. But despite doing his bit and then some by contributing 186pts to the cause and taking home the Roscoe Fay Trophy as the Shute Shield’s leading points-scorer, it wasn’t enough to get them to the pointy end of the season, as head coach Matt Barr’s successful five-year stint in the hot seat ended with an agonising 7th place finish.

In came Colts coach Don Mackinnon for 2019, and the first impressions were of a side reinvigorated by a different approach and some fresh ideas. But the novelty soon wore off, and the season became a bit of a struggle with just six wins and 9th place on the ladder. After two seasons at Souths and no finals footy, and at a time when a resurgent Sydney University won back-to-back titles, it would be easy to question that decision to leave Camperdown. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and despite the frustration of no involvement at the business end, he has absolutely no regrets about the move.

“It’s always a disappointment to not make the finals,” he observes. “2018 wasn’t our year, and I can’t really put a pin on it but consistency would most likely be the main factor. Last year was a similar situation, a lack of consistency coupled with some ill discipline at times, which cost us.  And it didn’t help having two of our big leaders in Marcus Carbone and Angus Ryan both rupturing their ACL’s.”

“However, I came here to challenge myself as a player as well as achieve something the club has never done before. Southern Districts as a whole club – from all the players to the coaches and supporters – opened up and welcomed me in. And over the last few years I have really grown fond of this place and how close all the players are, regardless of if you are a first grader or a colt. It’s never crossed my mind leaving Souths. I love the club and its culture.”

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Southern Districts head coach Todd Louden and his coaching team – Photo: Malcolm Chuck

All of which was good news for the newest man at the helm, the highly-credentialed Todd Louden. The former Waratahs, Melbourne Rebels, Sharks (SA), Randwick, Sydney Uni and West Harbour coach knows his way around the Shute Shield, having taken his teams to three grand finals and one Premiership. And having a player like Kagiassis to call upon has been an integral part of his fledgling regime, particularly one who can fill the flyhalf, wing and fullback jerseys with equal aplomb.

76pts and five tries in six games has helped to keep the Rebels largely in the top four, and in a competition that has a bevy of potential title-winners jostling for position, they are the only team in the finals places to have beaten two of their fellow top six, with wins over both Uni and Eastwood. Although he is diminutive in stature at 5ft 7in by comparison to many of the players he comes up against, he has a stocky 88kg frame packed with plenty of power from the legs and ‘glutes’ – he laughingly refers to it as his ‘Ghetto Booty’! And that dynamism amongst a healthy list of attributes, has his coach raving.

“He’s a genuine tackle-breaker, he’s not your typical finisher,” says Louden. “He doesn’t necessarily get around people, but he does insert his speed, and bump and roll and break tackles. He’s got some spring and he uses those hips of his really well as well! He’s in a bit of a purple patch of form with ball in hand, he can really do some things and we need that. He’s instrumental to us in those wider channels, he’s fit and he’s also a really good natural leader.

“You can’t put a price on somebody who can knock points over regularly, and he’s quite studious with his kicking. I’ve seen a lot of kickers over the years and sometimes you’ve just got to leave them alone to find their mojo, and he knows what he’s doing. He’s a genuine eighty-percent goal-kicker when he’s on, he’s not one of those guys that has to work at it all the time. Once he’s in form he doesn’t miss.

“But I think his biggest asset is that he’s very calm, and for our young group that’s great. He’s really enjoying his footy as well from what I can see. We can’t do without him.”

The feelings are mutual.

“Knowing Todd’s background and experience as a coach, I would be lying to say that I wasn’t excited and really looking forward to this season,” says Kagiassis. “Our main focus this year was directed around being fearless and attaining a never give up attitude, and the pre-season training was absolutely intense and definitely up there with one of the toughest and longest pre-seasons I have ever had. As a club we all pushed each other to get better, whether it was conditioning, contact or skills, and I definitely feel as if I am fitter and a little quicker than previous years.

“I am aiming to take it upon myself to be more of a leader both on and off the field. My role hasn’t really changed, but I try to get involved in the game and roam around as much as possible. It is really enjoyable to play Todd’s style of attack and I believe overall as a club we are really starting to buy into it.”

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Points-machine: Slotting another successful kick for the Rebels – Photo: Malcolm Chuck

As results suggest – Randwick aside – things seem to be ticking along rather nicely. But with clashes to come against Easts, Gordon and Norths alone, they are a long way off achieving anything tangible just yet. While any win at Rat Park is not to be sniffed at, it was a similar last-minute victory away at Sydney Uni in round five that was more of a statement of intent from this Souths side, particularly for a former Student who had tasted heavy defeat four times against his previous side since leaving. But it was just a small part of the bigger picture.

“Personally it felt good to finally get a win over Uni,” he confirms. “But that win showcased what Southern Districts is about, our one-in, all-in mentality. We all know how tough this competition is, it’s just about focusing on each game one at a time.

“We’ve got a few new faces around this year and they are all settling in quite seamlessly. We all get along off the pitch, so it makes it that much easier when it comes to our combinations on-field. Obviously, we all have the ultimate goal of wanting to win the Shute Shield. However, our main goal for the season was to improve as a club on all the fundamentals in order to succeed in the back end of the year.

“It was a big win at Warringah, especially after our lacklustre performance against Randwick. It would be nice not to have to win at the death like that, but you take any win you can in this competition. We have to be confident, but as I have said previously, no game is an easy game, and if we are to make to finals we need to fight every week for it and be consistent. We need to perform at the highest levels every week.”

In the meantime, Kagiassis will be trying his best to keep on keeping on in the manner that perhaps should have brought him greater recognition at the next level. Five games in the NRC for the long-lost Sydney Stars and then NSW Country Eagles seems scant reward for the numbers he has racked up in club rugby, and at 25-years-old, those chances of further recognition need to be happening sooner rather than later if he is to make good on his desire to play professionally.

“The NRC was another unbelievable experience, to play and train with those professional players really aided in me in improving my game.” he beams. “It definitely gave me the hunger to play at that level or beyond again, and constantly drives me to further my career professionally. I’m trying to keep a good work life balance but still believe I can make something out of my rugby. I’m working as hard as I can and trying to play the best possible footy in order to do so.”

Hard work and commitment to his craft have been his mantra since he first picked up a Gilbert. And the bad news for opposition defences, and the few remaining manual scoreboard operators in clubland, is that you shouldn’t expect the perfectionist in him to ease off anytime soon.

“You will always see me on the field at Souths practising my kicking before every session. I’m never satisfied with my kicking!”

And there’s 788 good reasons to back up that dedication.

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