Finals fever: Experienced Horwitz backs Wicks to front up

Photo: Ric McLallen

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If there is one team that need to rediscover themselves in order to progress in this year’s finals it’s Randwick. While most sides reach this point of the season on an upward trajectory, the boys from Coogee have done things the other way around, starting like a house on fire with six wins from six, before picking up just two more in the second half of a regular season that ended with the ignominy of an 81-24 defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Eastern Suburbs last weekend.

Quite how you lift yourselves up off the canvas to fight on again given such a devastating blow is the unknown, but it is an answer head coach Ben McCormack needs to find in time for this afternoon’s clash against Minor Premiers Gordon. The talent on deck for the Galloping Greens is unquestionable, with a bevy of hungry young tyros mixed in with a healthy splash of Sevens stardust and a few ‘older’ heads to steer the ship. And when you’re looking for a calm head who has been in the heat of finals footy before and also brings that experience of the next level, they have a handy man on deck in the shape of David Horwitz.

But as well as revelling in another shot at Premiership glory in the colours of his beloved Wicks, this shapes as another step on the road back for the 25-year-old former Waratah and Melbourne Rebel, towards the resumption of a professional career that has yet to click into the overdrive his talents promised when he first arrived on the Shute Shield scene back in 2013. First and foremost, it’s been a chance to just play some footy week-in, week-out…

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A proud Ken Catchpole Medallist in his first stint at the club in 2015, Horwitz progressed to the Waratahs, Rebels and Connacht in Ireland, before finding himself back in Australia a week before the delayed Shute Shield kick-off. So the chance to run around again in the myrtle green was a no-brainer, and his influence on the side firstly at flyhalf, and in recent weeks from inside centre, have been palpable.

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Horwitz has revelled in his return to club colours – Photo: Ric McLallen

A comprehensive victory away to Souths in round six had Rebels head coach Todd Louden purring about how Horwitz had matured as a player since his last appearance in Sydney club rugby – he ran that game alongside his talented young offsider Kristian Jensen. But while his pro experiences alongside the natural ageing process of his rugby brain have resulted in that maturity and game management, it certainly hasn’t been all plain-sailing, and the three years of ups and downs he’s gone through both at home and abroad have also played their part in shaping a more resilient and driven individual.

Despite taking the leap into Super Rugby with the Waratahs and being a permanent feature of the matchday squad, he was afforded just 11 starts in 27 appearances for his home state before a move to Melbourne. But he harbours no grudges or disappointment, more a regret that he was a tad young to take full advantage of the opportunity.

“I was lucky because I came into the system in 2013 in the pre-season ahead of what would be the Waratahs championship winning season – the first in New South Wales’ history, and in the second year in 2015 we bowed out in the semi-finals,” he recalls. “To be a part of an environment that was the most successful in the state’s history was an honour, and probably the best introduction to professional rugby that someone could ask for.

“In terms of my two years as a Waratah, I probably didn’t get as much game time as I’d have liked in my first year in 2016. But I started the last ten or eleven games in 2017 and had the chance to make that spot my own. I thought I played well in patches but looking back now I was still only twenty-one at the time, and although I haven’t played as much professional rugby since, I feel like it would be a whole other opportunity if I was to do it again now because I look at rugby in a whole different way.”

In fairness, he’d walked into a NSW squad that was already handily stacked with playmakers like Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Ben Volavola, Bryce Hegarty and Jono Lance. And while that inevitably made for plenty of competition for a place in the matchday 23, it was an awesome learning curve for a 21-year-old to watch and play alongside such talent every day at training.

“I’ve always said that I feel you learn more from other players than you do from coaches. In 2013 and 2014 Bernard Foley was one of the best up and coming flyhalves in the world, and I could watch his game and then hear him in review talking about what he did well and what he would have changed in different scenarios. There isn’t a better learning experience than that and at the time, even though it felt like a long while being in the squad and not getting any game time, I’m very grateful that I got to be around that squad and get a slow introduction to professional rugby. A team’s performance is quite indicative of a playmaker, so that’s why I was lucky to be around the Kurtley Beale’s and Bernard Foley’s when I was young and my game was massively changing.”

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Sharing victory on a historical night for NSW rugby in 2014 – Photo: SPA Images

But just as he was beginning to cement a starting spot with his home state in 2017 after Beale had headed overseas to the UK, his circumstances changed with the early return of the Wallaby after just one season at Wasps. Looking down the barrel of less game time just as he felt his pro career was taking off, Horwitz reluctantly farewelled NSW for a fresh opportunity with the Rebels, in what seemed like a good fit for both parties. However, it’s fair to say that things never really took off for him in Victoria, as the fall-out from the axing of the Western Force led to a coaching change at the Rebels with former Force head honcho Dave Wessels taking up the reins. He brought with him a host of tried and trusted coaching and player options from the west, and Horwitz’s days were seemingly numbered before he’d barely kicked a ball.

“Kurtley Beale was coming back from the UK for the 2018 season, and whilst I wouldn’t have minded playing off the bench or challenging Bernard and Kurtley for a starting spot, it didn’t seem like there was much room for me at the club,” he explains. “I spoke to Morgan Turinui, who was backs coach at the Rebels at the time, about an opportunity there, and it seemed like there was a clearer pathway to playing consistent footy at the top level. I also knew that leaving my home state would probably add some growth to not only my rugby game, but also to me as a person. I was still living at home and I think I relished the chance of some life experience by getting out of my shell and my comfort zone, and really dedicating myself to rugby in terms of uprooting your life to pursue something you love.

“A lot of players did come into the squad with Dave after I had already signed, but I had every opportunity to get good game time and he gave me my fair share of opportunities in pre-season and the pre-season games. He just decided to go with different options, which is fair enough. They had a really strong squad and backline unit when I was down there, arguably better than the one New South Wales had when they won the title. I’ve no regrets, the training standard was just as high as I’ve ever had and they had a really good program. But it was made quite clear – not directly – that I was going to be superfluous to the team for 2018, and moving forward. The chance came up to go and play overseas with Connacht in Ireland, and with the different seasons between Australia and Europe I actually signed for them before the Rebels had played their first round of Super Rugby.”

Heading to the wild and woolly west coast of Ireland and the rugby-mad city of Galway, Horwitz was following in the footsteps of one of his old playmaking partners at Randwick in Andrew Deegan, who had had a stint with Connacht the previous season. So naturally, he tapped him up for some intel before he left.

“Deegs is a bit of an enigma over in Ireland,” he laughs. “It’s actually a really weird phenomenon to have had one of your best mates play and live in the same city and for everyone to know him, even though you’ve never been there with him! I remember him clearly saying to me that it’s wind and rain like you’ve never experienced before, but I thought ‘It’s only water, I’ll just brush that off and get on with it’. But you quickly learn when you get over there that a sunny day and a dry ball are rare, and playing in three or four degrees in wind and rain that isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen before, and the different skills and game required to cope with that, was definitely a massive learning curve for me.”

Galway is a city of just 80,00 people, and Connacht have long been used to the underdogs tag by comparison to the might of Leinster from Dublin in the east, Munster from Limerick in the south, and Ulster from Belfast in the north. And that tradition of punching above their weight against the big boys has fostered a unique kinship between the team and their fans. They are very much in it together, come hail or shine – most often hail!

“It was the first time I’ve ever lived in a city where rugby is the biggest sport,” Horwitz enthuses. “You go down the shops and everyone’s got flags, and they are so passionate for their team and so supportive. We lost by twenty points in one game in my first year and I remember that they gave us a standing ovation at the end to say ‘Well done boys’. They generally support the players over there through thick and thin, which was so nice to see.”

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Horwitz gets stuck in at Connacht training – Photo: INPHO

While he loved his time in the Emerald Isle, the recurring theme of precious little on-field minutes tainted the experience again somewhat. He ended up playing just 14 games in two years, and as had happened with his good friend Deegan, he became stuck behind the rapid progress made by Ireland’s up and coming challenger to Johnny Sexton’s national jersey in the shape of talented young flyhalf Jack Carty. But with a trademark optimism that I think is shining through in this story, he still came away with plenty of positives around the lessons learned and the rounding out of his game when tested under unfamiliar conditions.

“The game plan is a lot more attritional over there with a lot more field position, but also very smart and tactical because there’s finer margins and less individual brilliance,” he explains. “So it’s based around team performance and an ability to grind it out, which results in really resilient and hardworking rugby players.

“The wind and the wet changes your skill set as well, particularly the way you pass the ball. In dry conditions I traditionally grip the ball with my fingers and flick it. But it’s hard to get that much purchase in the wet, so I had to completely change my passing technique in the first year. Also, the way you drop the ball onto your toes for a kick. If you drop the ball fifty centimetres from your foot here it’s fine, but you really have to control the ball drop over there because the wind can take it and you can end up with an air swing, which I embarrassingly did a few times.

“I actually lived with Jack Carty for my first year, and that was a great experience to live with another top level pro and international rugby player. He featured in most, if not all the games for Ireland at the Rugby World Cup last year, so I consider myself lucky to have had that opportunity. The good thing about the European season is that they play around thirty to thirty-five games a year across the Pro 14 and the Champions Cup, so even if you are not first choice, you can still end up playing twenty to twenty-five games. But I think I played ten or twelve games in a row in that first year before getting injured, and then the second year just didn’t go the way that I wanted.”

With his contract up and the club pushing to see which way he wanted to turn, Horwitz opted to see what was on offer elsewhere. And he was in the throes of that decision before Covid-19 came along and changed the world for everybody.

“To be honest, if I wasn’t going to be playing as much as I wanted I didn’t think Connacht was the best place for me to be,” he admits. “I hadn’t played consistent rugby for eighteen months so I think I needed to be somewhere where I was going to play regularly. There was talk with a few teams, nothing too detailed just conversations, and then Covid happened and put a freeze on everything.”

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Randwick started the season with six wins from six and a brief ownership of the Sir Roden Cutler Shield Photo: Ric McLallen

Returning home to assess his options and wait out a pandemic that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast, it was an obvious move for a playmaker starved of a football to play with to come back to where it all started, and enjoy a Randwick environment that did so much to kick-start his professional journey. And having seen the club struggle along in 1st Grade from afar for the last couple of years with no knockout footy, he returned in time to be part of a rejuvenation under new head coach Ben McCormack that saw them win their opening six matches of this season.

“It’s a very happy place, I don’t think I’ve seen a bunch of boys enjoy their rugby more,” he observes. “Benny is obviously a big reason for that, he’s a big advocate of playing good footy when you’re happy and creates an environment accordingly. There’s a great balance between having shape and the ability to express yourself, which suits our squad and the natural athletes that we have. The coaching staff have done a phenomenal job and given the players a lot of confidence and a lot of freedom to play the rugby that they want to. On the back of that there’s been a lot of new and young players who just bring an amazing amount of energy because they are so happy to be playing first grade for a club like Randwick with so much history.”

That history includes a side that many regard as the finest Galloping Greens outfit of the last decade – current squad aside – the class of 2015-17. A group brilliantly crafted together by then head coach Shannon Fraser and Director of Rugby Nick Ryan, that reached the finals three years in a row playing a brand of footy that harked back to their halcyon days.

It also included a swathe of young talent in Horwitz, Deegan, Ned Hanigan, Andrew Kellaway and Mitch Short, who have all gone on to enjoy professional recognition. But each time they got to the business end of the season that promise was unfulfilled and they bowed out in week one in successive years, leaving many critics to see it as a missed opportunity, and the lack of a long-awaited Premiership title as an underachievement.

Horwitz however, broils at that suggestion when I put it to him.

“Not at all. In 2015, even though I had some success personally in that season with the Catchpole Medal I wasn’t even twenty-one yet,” he reasons. “‘Kells’, ‘Deegs’ and ‘Shorty’ were all still eligible for colts, so to have an expectation that a team with an average age in the backline of under twenty-years-old would go on to a grand final is a bit ridiculous. I wouldn’t say it was a missed opportunity at all, we were all so young. I think the primary objective of any rugby club is to firstly promote a pathway for their players to the professional system, and I’m sure if you ask Shannon Fraser today if he would have traded a grand final appearance for all those players to go on to professional careers, he’d say no.”

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Andrew Deegan runs in a try in the 2016 Qualifying Final loss to Souths – Photo: Ric McLallen

Given the result against Easts last week, and the fact that they take on a side exuding confidence in Minor Premiers Gordon, another early finals exit would seem the most likely outcome when they clash this afternoon at Rat Park. Having started the season in such fine fashion, the Wicks have sung the team song just twice in the last seven weeks, and a raft of injury-enforced selection changes – particularly in the backline – has disrupted the combinations they enjoyed in the early part of the year. As Horwitz points out, the vagaries of the fixture schedule also clearly played a part.

“I think it was just a case of the draw, we were lucky with it early on and that allowed us to build some form. But in the last six weeks we played the five teams that now sit above us on the ladder and only won against Sydney Uni – although that was a very good win, and also beat Manly. But we had a close loss to Eastwood where we actually scored more tries, and if I’d kicked my goals the result would have been different.

“There were two sub-par performances against Gordon and Norths who were both on top form, and then last week against Easts was a shock. After the Manly game I would have said we were well in it and that our destiny was in our control. We were tied on points with Easts and could have come second, but then you put in a performance like that in a competition like this, and you’re suddenly shifted down to sixth.”

As much as those of a myrtle green persuasion would want us to move on at this point – ignorance is bliss – we simply can’t gloss over the fact that Randwick didn’t just lose the derby last weekend, they shipped 80 in the process. It was the biggest concession of points from a Wicks 1st Grade side since the 70-plus put on them by a rampant Eastwood in the 2011 semi-final, a week before they went on to lift the title.

“I think to say that we simply capitulated would take too much away from Easts, I thought they were brilliant.” Horwitz concedes. “It was a really strange game because we were up ten-nil within the first fifteen minutes and playing well, but then Easts scored three quick tries back-to-back-to-back off the kick-off. Normally at that point our game leaders talk about trying to wrestle back momentum, and while we had those discussions there was just no shift and Easts had scored over forty points by half-time. In the second half it seemed like we’d stopped the rot and we scored early on. But once Easts got on a roll again they just kept piling on the points and were very clinical, especially Jack Grant up the middle.

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A rampant Beasties outfit find the line again in last week’s derby embarassment – Photo: Ric McLallen

“It was a tough game because there were not many errors from Easts and we had under thirty percent of possession. It wasn’t that we attacked poorly, I thought we actually attacked well in parts. But our defence was obviously self-explanatory with that scoreline. I’ve never been a part of anything like that in a Randwick jersey, and it was definitely one of the poorer showings I’ve been involved in with a team, both personally and as a collective. But the best thing about rugby is that we’ve got another game this weekend where if we win, all that will be somewhat forgotten.”

But how do you move on from such a shellacking in such a short space of time?

“You obviously have to dissect the game and fix all the controllables,” he concedes. “Our work around the breakdown was way too passive, they had the fastest ruck speed I’ve ever seen, which didn’t allow our defensive line time to get set, so that has to be a takeaway from the game. But after that you just have to put it to bed pretty quickly. There isn’t enough time to sulk about it or be embarrassed because we’ve got the biggest game of the year coming up, and as I said before, if we win three games in a row now, whilst the result against Easts won’t be totally forgotten we will have a different story to tell, and that is in our control.

“Benny Mac’s done a really good job in getting morale back. We had a relaxed week of training and played some games, had some fun and enjoyed our rugby. Randwick haven’t been in the finals for the last two years and these games don’t come around very often, so it’s still a milestone for us to make the six. If you go back to a week ago before we played Easts and asked us if we can win the comp we would have said yes, and just because we had that bad performance not a lot changes in a week, good or bad.”

Their meeting with the Highlanders back in round eight ended in a one-sided 42-15 victory for the visitors at Coogee Oval. And while Gordon have lost just once all season whilst averaging 43pts per game, and must go into this clash as heavy favourites as a result, Horwitz sees plenty of cause for optimism.

“We’re quite confident in the fact that we can get the job done against Gordon, and maybe we’re lucky because of Covid that it’s at a neutral venue. They have to travel there as well and it’s a bit unfamiliar to them, and all the pressure is off us now. Gordon are Minor Premiers and have a chance to win their first title in quite a while, so there’s a lot of pressure on them. We can just go out there and try to play like we did in the first six weeks.

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Halves Harrison Goddard and Rodney Iona are key for Gordon – Photo: Ric McLallen

“They’re probably the most set-piece oriented team in the finals, they’re very detailed and very good at executing their plays. So we have to be good at set-piece time in terms of defence and knowing our roles in first, second, third and fourth phase, because they definitely do. They offer a really on-ball focus in their defence, and when we played them earlier in the year they really challenged our breakdown and committed one and a half to two bodies to every breakdown to slow us down or win the ball, and that really disorientated how we attacked. They also have very good game controllers in Harrison Goddard and Rodney Iona at nine and ten, who do a lot of their talking and nearly all of their kicking. Managing those two and their impact on the game will go a long way towards seeing us win the game.”

Should he help steer the Galloping Greens past a rather large Gordon-shaped iceberg and beyond, Horwitz’s dreams of another shot at the big time will get a positive jolt in the right direction. But while he fully embraces that possibility, he’s more than humble enough to see the bigger picture playing out beyond his particular field of vision, and happy to be back where it all started for as long as it takes.

“When I first spoke to Benny Mac I told him that I was back for an unknown amount of time and to use me how he wanted. It was a privilege just to get on the field again, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a good run and that Benny has had some faith in me considering I was only back for about a week of training before the first game. I’ve just been trying to do him and the club right. This is the biggest run of continuity I’ve had for a while and I’m trying to make it count.

“But I definitely have unfinished business in Super Rugby. I played the bulk of my games before I was twenty-two, and whilst I was very lucky to get a shot that young and definitely put my best foot forward I think I’m a much better pro now and look at the game in a totally different light. I don’t have that dreamy teenage view of the players I am playing with and being amazed by them, I feel much more comfortable at that level now.

“I’d love another opportunity but you don’t always get the things you want in life and if it all falls through, I’m more than happy playing at Randwick. I’m still exploring further opportunities overseas but we don’t know what the next two years living in a foreign country and being in a bubble looks like, so you have to take all those things into consideration. For now I’m just very lucky to be at home and to get to run out in the sunshine at Coogee Oval with the waves crashing in the background, and to be able to play some amateur sport when so many other things aren’t happening around the world.”

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