Holmes & Ward: Rats legends reflect on their stellar careers

Photos: SPA Images & Karen Watson

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Just as the start of every new club season brings with it the excitement and anticipation of seeing a bevy of fresh-faced young tyros ready to rip in and take their next steps towards the dream of a professional career, the end of every season must also bring with it the inevitable departure of several legends of the grassroots game through the door marked ‘Retirement’.

Warringah will see four of their ‘veterans’ hang up the boots after tomorrow’s game against Northern Suburbs, with hooker Rob Kelly, and former 1st Grade flyer Dave Feltscheer calling time after a couple of years running around in lower grades. But joining them for that final farewell are two blokes who epitomise what it takes to be a long-time first grade footy player, and two players who have been respected by both team mates and opponents alike as being up there with the best in the competition in their relevant positions – Sam Ward and Josh Holmes.

With 350 Shute Shield games and 26 years of club footy between them, their footprint on the Sydney grassroots game is tangible, and the legacy they will leave behind is unquestionable. Holmes is widely regarded as the finest number nine to have terrorised defences during his incredible run in the competition, with a try tally that is up there with the best wingers in the game, and a tap and go near the line that is as hard to stop as it is inevitable to happen!

Ward is the big, burly enforcer with tidy hands and a knack for the line that you want from every number eight. Few hit harder on the field than this gentle giant off it, and the way he fought through personal tragedy to carry his beloved Rats on his shoulders to the glory of a Premiership in 2017, ensured that the oft-overused mantle of ‘legend’ is worthy of both these talented and driven players, and fine young men.

As a result, it would be remiss of Behind the Ruck not to pay due tribute to their achievements before they sail over the horizon. So I sat them both down this week for a look back on how it all played out – the highs, the lows, the passion and the glory. Hopefully, it’s a fitting treasure box of memories…

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Let’s go back to where it all began, how did you both end up at the mighty Rats?

Josh Holmes: “I grew up in Newport and played for the Breakers until I was 17. My Warringah debut was in 2003 when I was 16 playing fullback for 4th grade colts, and I also had my first bus trip. I was still in Year 11 and doing ‘shoey’ drinks out of boots full of port. It was ugly!”

Sam Ward: “My first game of rugby was played when I was eight-years-old for the Wahroonga Tigers – I played with them until I was thirteen. During that time I started at Barker College in Year 3 and played until I finished in Year 12. After school I went and played two years of colts at Gordon before coming to Warringah when I was 20, and my official Rats debut was in Round 1 in 2011 playing for 2nd Grade against Randwick at Rat Park.”

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Awww!!: Holmes in NSW Juniors colours in 2003 and Ward representing Barker College in 2007 – Photos: SPA Images

Josh, your Dad played for the Rats and obviously you were following in the footsteps of elder brother Luke as well, so I guess it was always going to be Warringah for you?

Josh Holmes: “Yeah, I always wanted to be at the Rats. It runs deep in our blood, the Rats is in our family.”

But as you said Sam, your pathway to the club was a bit more circuitous?

Sam Ward: “To be honest it was never a club I’d considered – but I had ball buoyed for Gordon against Warringah at Rat Park though! I was looking for a fresh start and there was a number of ex-Barker boys playing here at the time, and a very persuasive talk with then president Mike Sheeran convinced me it was the right move and I’ve never looked back since.”

Do your remember your 1st Grade debut – when and who?

Sam Ward: “That was off the bench in round four against Parramatta at home in 2011, and my starting debut was against Eastwood at TG Millner in round five.”

Josh Holmes: “2005 against Canberra Vikings at Rat Park against Matt Henjak. That was a good intro to the Shute Shield!”

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Holmes’ Shute Shield debut against the Canberra Vikings in June 2005 – Photo: SPA Images

That’s a baptism of fire! Was that a tough day at the office?

Josh Holmes: “He played up tempo footy but it was ok. I was more worried about guys like Jone Tawake running off eight, but it’s a bit of a blur to be honest.”

You’re revered around club land as being the de facto starting no.8 and no.9 for the Rats over the last decade, but you’ve both played in different jerseys on occasion – Josh at 12 and Sam in the second row. Were they the positions you specialised in coming through school and juniors etc as well?

Josh Holmes: “I was a thirteen in juniors and didn’t grow, so I moved to nine. Then I loved it and suddenly grew tall and started being called the tallest halfback around!”

Sam Ward: “I definitely love playing number eight, and there’s no doubt that with most, if not all coaches, I have made it abundantly clear that I will stick my head in the row as a favour, but that that favour better reverse itself pretty quickly! I’ve always played the same way and I love doing so. The physical nature of contact in rugby is the best part of the game. If someone gets a good shot on me or someone runs hard into a tackle on the other team I often find myself congratulating them just because I love when you know someone is ripping in.”

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Ward’s run-on debut against Eastwood in April 2011 – Photo: SPA Images

The end of the 2000’s and start of the last decade saw the Rats with a number of Super Rugby players passing through the doors, and a side that threatened to go deep in the Shute Shield every year but always fell short. Ironically, you ended playing under a couple of those club legends when they hang up the boots and took up coaching, but did you get to play alongside the likes of Sam Harris, Mark Gerrard, Brett Sheehan and Beau Robinson?

Josh Holmes: “The Rats has always been the same. The culture is you come back and make a difference, and every one of those boys genuinely cared for the club so it was good fun. We just never started the years well enough so had to do too much work at the back end of season. Always close enough but not good enough.

“I remember playing with Patty McCabe and he was a weapon who played like he went on to do with the Wallabies. I played schoolboys and Super Rugby with Beau, a good country boy and a nutcase on the field! Sam Harris was awesome and the same goes for Gerrardo. I got to play outside Sam at inside centre a few times with him at ten and I learnt a lot around how to improve my defence as many people said it was a weakness. Gerrardo was so good to play with at the Brumbies and just a natural coach too, and very different last year with how we did things.”

Sam Ward: “I probably came in on the back of a lot of those players moving on to other things, and to be honest I wasn’t completely aware of the amount of good players they had had playing for them just the year prior to me joining.  In 2011 and 2012 Sam Harris was obviously my coach, and the most vivid thing I remember – apart from playing in a game against Sydney Uni at Rat Park where the Uni side was littered with Super Rugby players and Wallabies – was a spray Sammy gave us after a thumping at Norths. It shouldn’t be repeated but it always comes up amongst the boys after a few beers!

“Sheeno and I haven’t played heaps together but we have gotten to know each other more over the last few years, and we did give a Premiership-winning Eastwood side their only loss in 2011 on a pleasant Wednesday evening at Rat Park. ‘Binnsy’ [Robinson] and I only played a couple of Rats games together in 2011. But a memorable moment for me was being at Nepean Rugby Park out at Penrith after he had recently made the Wallabies squad, and I remember rocking up and sitting in the stands next to him and seeing him reading an article about himself! In terms of mentors, I don’t really feel like I had one to learn off upon reflection. I got my start when I was young at a time when there was other young blokes around me, so potentially it may have caused me to mature quicker as a player. I hope however that some of the other players I have played with would say I have been a person who has been approachable.”

Josh, a lot of people might not remember or be aware that you actually left the Rats for a couple of seasons at Eastwood, back in 2007-08. What brought about that move, and was it an enjoyable experience or one you ended up regretting?

Josh Holmes: “The only reason I left was to push myself and try to play Super Rugby, as Sheeno was playing nine at the Rats and I needed to play first grade. But it was a great experience, I played with Tim Donnelly and learnt a lot. The Woods are very similar to the Rats and I loved my time there, but I came back here in 2009 and stayed ever since. There’s been a few offers from other clubs over the years but I never thought about leaving again. I loved the club and wanted to be a part of where it is now. Luke and I would never have left, and it was great to play together but also be a part of what we have achieved.”

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Another try! Holmes slides in against Parramatta in 2013 – Photo: Karen Watson

Do you remember when you first met each other, and what were your first impressions?

Sam Ward: “Geez, I can’t remember the first time but I remember having a beer with all the Rats boys at the Newport one evening. It was party shirt themed, Josh obviously didn’t wear one, and I feel like he spent the whole night just watching me through a pair of blacked out Ray-Bans. I kept thinking to myself ‘What’s going on with this bloke!”

Josh Holmes: “I always wore a shirt, I would never do that – but the Ray-Bans are good! I just remember a big guy like him coming to first drinks on a Sunday and straightening his hair! But he was a big second rower who flogged blokes and we became good mates that year, and it’s been the same since.”

It seems like a long time ago now but the Rats were struggling a bit at the start of the decade, and I can remember Parramatta, as they were then, putting 50pts on you in a TV game. You went on to finish 10th that season, was that the low-point of your time at the club, and did you believe that six years of finals footy, three grand finals and one Premiership were around the corner?

Josh Holmes: “Back then, finals or a Premiership seemed so far away. But if you apply yourself and believe it can happen it can. We did that, and by 2015 we could see we were becoming a team good enough to go on and win it in 2017.” 

Sam Ward: “Yeah, we definitely had some challenging years in the early days. But going through those lows as a group definitely made the success as a club feel that much greater.”

What do you put the progression of the club down to over that time – good management, the growth of the links with the community, or just producing a batch of talented young players at the same time etc?

Sam Ward: “We had a young group of players who went through those times together, and we managed to keep that nucleus together for a number of years. We learned from the tough times and that made us better players and mates.”

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Outta my way!! Ward swats aside Eastwood in 2014 – Photo: Karen Watson

You were clearly knocking on the door with a Qualifying Final in 2015 and then a Preliminary Final in 2016. What got you over the line in 2017 – was it just Warringah’s time, was it the arrival, experience and systems implemented by head coach Darren Coleman, or were the club playing for bigger things than footy in light of the tragic loss of Sam’s brother Lachie just a few months earlier?

Sam Ward: “It was a combination of things. A group of players who were getting better every year, expert coaching and direction, and then a common goal and drive to overcome unimaginable grief. They all culminated in that year.”

Josh Holmes: “Rugby-wise we have always had amazing talent, and we can score points. But we needed to figure out how to win the hard games. DC [Darren Coleman] provided that and that next step of professionalism to the club, which has only continued on since. Off the field the whole community got behind the club. To see the Ward family and how they used the club to deal with things was amazing, and having them at every game was amazing.

“We weren’t worried about what was happening on the field because we were so close and had the whole community’s families behind us. Just look at when we ran out for that semi against Manly at Rat Park. Wardy is a mate but he is also an impressive person to deal with, and he led us to that grand final. You look for inspirational people and we had one, so it wasn’t hard to get up for each game and play for that goal.”

Sam, I can’t even begin to understand how difficult it was for you and your family to go through that tragedy but also, to make the decision to play on given the unknowns. Did you consider giving up the game or did it drive you on to want to play again and honour Lachie somehow?

Sam Ward: “I definitely considered never playing again. I was unsure if my own health was going to be a stopping point as we are still not sure the reason of Lach’s passing, and potentially we may never know. But I am incredibly proud of myself to be able to continue to fight through every day and now go out on my own terms. It’s my own decision to stop playing, not because I am not keeping up but because I just know it’s my time to hand over the reigns to the next generation.”

Josh Holmes: “It was tough to see your mate go through what he and his family did. To go back and play and for him to come back was inspirational. He is an impressive man and it was awesome to have his back.” 

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Holmes on the attack against Norths in the biggest game of his life – Photo: Brett Dooley

I’ve been lucky enough to be at many grand finals with their own unique story over the years, Northern Suburbs first Premiership in 41 years in 2016 or Eastwood ending Sydney University’s dominant reign back in 2011 spring to mind. But I’ve never witnessed such an emotionally stirring occasion as that 2017 decider and the celebrations after it. It just seemed like the team were on a mission that day and nothing was going to stop you. What are your memories of what I’m sure must be your proudest day as Rats?

Josh Holmes: “It was amazing to win, we just wanted it as a team and nothing was going to stop us. The whole community were with us and that was reflected in our party after we won, we had a good time!” 

Sam Ward: “It is hard to put that day into words. It’s a combination of one of my saddest and proudest moments all rolled into one. I have a photo of me on the shoulders of Needsy [Sam Needs] and Thommo [Sam Thomson] in the middle of Rats supporters up on the wall in my clinic. For me, I look at that photo and it gives me strength to just keep on working hard and to make Lachie proud!”

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A day of unbridled emotion – Photos: Brett Dooley & Sean Ascroft

You got there again in 2018 and 2019 but missed out to Sydney Uni on both occasions. 2018 was a one-sided affair but last year I’d say for an hour you put up one of the best performances I’ve seen in a grand final but just ran out of gas in the final quarter. Is that one that got away and a big regret even now?

Josh Holmes: Yeah, last year got away. We weren’t good enough in 2018 but last year hurt a lot. Our plan going in was good but we just couldn’t hold on.”

Sam Ward: “That’s a game I feel we should have won. We were the better team for sixty minutes but unfortunately it was not the twenty minutes that counted. It would have been so sweet to get revenge for the thumping the year before but it wasn’t to be. But credit to Uni, they showed great composure to close out that game like they did.”

We’ve been focusing on all things Warringah so far, but you both went on to play successfully at the next level in different spheres. Josh, you were a bit of a boy wonder and were called into the Brumbies set-up at the age of just 18-years-old, before returning to your home state to make a Super Rugby debut in 2007. You went on to win 57 caps and play for all four states, but the general perception of a lot of rugby followers is that you should have played far, far more. Any regrets looking back now as a 33-year-old?

Josh Holmes: “I just wasn’t mentally ready when I was young and with so much opportunity given to me. I look back and think that if it came later it would have been better. But I had to get on with it and I feel like I played my best footy when I was a bit older.”

You also squeezed a season in France in there with Bourgoin back in 2012. What was that like?

Josh Holmes: “Great fun. I took my wife and learnt a different way of life, but the footy over there isn’t the same as in Oz. They’re always playing for a penalty or a scrum. It wasn’t running rugby.”

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In the big time against the Crusaders in 2009 – Photo: SPA images

Sammy, you unfortunately never got the chance to play Super Rugby but you did also play overseas for a season in Italy, and also around 30 games in the NRC with the NSW Country Eagles and the Sydney Rays. What were those experiences like?

Sam Ward: “They were awesome experiences. Italy was exactly what I needed! A refresher and a different life experience. I could go into lots of detail about the Italy experience but I think it’s something that has allowed me to understand why I enjoyed playing rugby, and who I wanted to be playing for.

“I was lucky to play five years of NRC – two for the Rays and three for the Eagles. The most enjoyable was the first year in 2014, because it was new and a chance to travel a bit around Australia and play at a higher level. And also the 2016 season for the Eagles when we made the grand final because that was such a great group of blokes. We played some juicy footy and got on like a house on fire off it!”

Any regrets about not getting that chance at the next level in Australia?

Sam Ward: “Not at all, I wouldn’t change my rugby journey for quids. It’s been so much fun and I’m very proud to have played first grade for this length of time. I’ve got plenty of great memories and mates to show for it.”

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Ward playing for NSW Country Eagles against Brisbane City in 2016 – Photo: AJF Photography

Did you know this was going to be your last season before it started, or did you make the decision as you were going along?

Josh Holmes: “Not at all. But I feel it’s time for me, and for the next person to take on that nine jersey. The body is good but mentally I’m ready to step aside. I can sail into the sunset a happy man mate.” 

Sam Ward: “Yes and no. In a different way compared to 2017 it has been mentally challenging to find purpose and drive to continue to compete, and it is more a mental and emotional decision than a physical one. I am lucky that my body doesn’t prevent me from training or playing but it’s more that I am mentally and emotional tired. I believe the commitment required to play first grade rugby is far more challenging than anything else. I work a twelve-hour day and then rock up and train for two hours an evening and then there is game day.

“Once the competition resumed in July I knew it would be my last, and making it known to the group has made it easier and more enjoyable to play. I am proud of what I have achieved, I am proud to have worn the green and white jersey, and I know I have given it my all. I can’t wait to see the next bloke do the same!””

Knowing it was your last season you would have been keen to go out on a high. But unfortunately, things haven’t gone the Rats way and you finish up without getting another tilt at a Premiership. What do you think have been the reasons for the Rats struggles in 2020 by their high standards?

Sam Ward: “Success is built over a number years. We have had a number of players move on who have been integral to the clubs success over many years – ‘Hamo’ [Hamish Angus], Luke [Holmes], JT [, Thommo [Thomson] etc. This year we have blooded lots of new and exciting players, and I believe with more time spent together as a group these players will be the nucleus of a team that have great success in future seasons.” 

Josh Holmes:We are always disappointed when we aren’t in the finals, but we have been engaged and had a big turnover. No excuses but we will build and the club will come back better. The Rats are in a new cycle with new players but we have guys like Ben Marr, Ben Woollett, Rory O’Connor, Wes Thomas, Sam Needs, Boyd Killingworth and Tyson Davis, so we will be back and will be better.”

You’re both going to leave some pretty sizeable shoes to fill at the club. Are the next cabs off the rank ready to roll?

Josh Holmes: “There’s plenty of good players around. We have Rhett Butler and Harry Anderson Brown coming through who have been playing grade for two years now. They will be really good and add a different element to the team.”

Sam Ward: “I like to think it will be hard to replace me but it won’t. The Rats always have no trouble in sourcing talented back rowers, and I look forward to the next player that I see wear the number eight jersey and hopefully I can play a part in seeing him develop!”

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Still the man: Winning lineout ball against Sydney Uni this season – Photo: Karen Watson

That leads me into asking if you intend to be in and around the club after you’ve hung up the boots. So, any plans to coach or train; are you happy to become a supporter in the stands; or do you want some time away from it all?

Sam Ward: “Yes, I hope to still be involved with the club. Currently, I help run the physio services for the club and hope to continue this, but in terms of coaching it’s definitely something I would consider in time. But I am in no rush to commit to anything.”

Josh Holmes: “TBC…ha ha ha!” 

Hold on, that sounds intriguing. Tell me more??

Josh Holmes: “Well, I’ll definitely be around the club and would love to look into coaching and explore that avenue. But I’ll let the dust settle first and figure that out later.”

Ok, what does life without footy look like for Josh Holmes – is it a case of getting your head into your career away from the game now and growing the next phase of your life?

Josh Holmes: “Life will stay the same and I will be down there to support my mates, whilst concentrating on a few things involved with work for now.” 

What about you Sam?

Sam Ward: “I can’t imagine life without footy. I hope to always be around the club supporting and giving back in some capacity, and I look forward to having some extra spare time which I will have to make sure I don’t fill with more patients at my physio clinic! I’m excited to continue growing my business, spend time with my wife and family, and do some mountain bike riding, dirt bikes and four wheel driving.”

We can’t cover off your careers at Warringah without mentioning the third wheel of the most consistent 8, 9, 10 trio in clubland over the last decade, flyhalf Hamish Angus, who called time on his stellar club career at the end of last season. What was it like playing together for so long, and what did you appreciate the most about each other’s talents?

Josh Holmes: “Just that we were three best mates and knew what we all do when we are out on the field. You knew how each other worked and what we could all do, so that makes it easy to play. Also, both of them keeping me quiet!” 

Sam Ward: “It was an absolute honour for me to be play with both of them for this long. Two of the Rats greatest players, but I too would have played well into my thirties like they did if it wasn’t for me having to take all the carries Hamo didn’t want to, and catching all of Holmesy’s bullet passes millimetres from the defensive line for the last decade. They owe me something for that!”

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Holmes and halves partner Hamish Angus celebrate their finest achievement – Photo: Rising Sun

A few ‘quick hits’ to wrap up. Outside of the 2017 grand final, which must be the obvious answer, what is/are your most memorable game/s for the Rats and why?

Josh Holmes: “Every derby against Manly at home is awesome. It’s like missing a grand final if you don’t play one.” 

Sam Ward: “The 2014 victory against Manly at home. From memory it was my first derby win, and we scored a full length of the field try which started with a pass from the back of the scrum in front of the posts to Holmesy that landed on his toes – ha ha!”

The best player/s you played with at any level?

Sam Ward: “Hamo and Josh. Hamo for his ability to control and steer a team around the park, and Joshy for his ability to win us a game on his own.”

Josh Holmes: “George Smith was amazing, and Phil Waugh was the best leader I’ve seen. He played with his heart always.”

The best/hardest opponents you’ve faced in your position?

Josh Holmes:  “Jake Gordon. Played him many times and he just has a great presence and you have to watch him always.”

Sam Ward: “I’ve played against a lot of great number eight’s over the years. But my favourite/hardest is definitely Rohan O’Regan from Sydney Uni, purely because I felt all of his shoulder in last years grand final! The only problem about the hit was that I still got back up, slowly.”

Last but by no means least. What does Warringah Rugby Club mean to you?

Josh Holmes: It’s my happy place. I love it and I love the blokes there, and forever at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon I know I go into battle with a group who means so much to me.”

Sam Ward: “It’s my extended family. If I was allowed to I would have gotten married in my jersey!”

You can’t get more passionate than that! On that note, thanks to you both for your time – now and every other interview I’ve pestered you with down the years! And on behalf of myself and anyone who has enjoyed watching you play, and witnessed the passion, talent and desire to win you both brought week after week after week with such consistency for so long, thank you. It’s been a pleasure watching you go around and you will leave a huge hole at both the Rats and in Sydney club rugby. Go well legends! 

What they said_Rd 9_Warringah v Easts

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