Finals Fever: Livewire Duffy a key to Shoremen’s chances

Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

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As a club that has become accustomed to featuring at the pointy end of the season in recent times with two grand finals and two semi-finals in the last four years, including that memorable 2016 Premiership win at North Sydney Oval, Northern Suburbs began the 2020 Shute Shield season looking to get back into the big dance once again for a shot at glory. But with a new coaching regime and a lengthy player turnover, they did so as a bit of an unknown quantity.

With last season’s head coach Nick Hensley moving on to a role with the Western Force, the Shoremen tied up the services of Earl Va’a, a former Samoan international and head coach of Wellington Lions in the ITM Cup in New Zealand, and supplanted his arrival with an up and coming young Sydney coach in the shape of Zak Beer, who had been learning his craft in charge of the lower grades at Manly. While on the pitch the retirements of stalwarts Lawrance Hunting and Ezra Luxton, and the departures of Richie Woolf (Easts), Connor Vest (Queensland), Lochie Creagh (travelling), Andrew Tuala (Souths) and Sam Kitchen (Scotland), left many a hole needing to be filled by a hungry young rookie.

As a result, trying to confidently predict the fortunes of a newly-assembled team under a new head coach – who was stuck back in NZ until round three of the season because of Covid restrictions – and in a competition that was shorter than normal and with a minimalist pre-season, was foolhardy stuff. But fast-forward thirteen weeks and clearly there was nothing to be worried about, as a revamped Shoremen cemented a creditable third place on the ladder after nine wins and three losses. Awaiting them as a reward is a meeting with Sydney University at Rat Park this afternoon.

The Red and Black success stories are to be found across the park. Angus Sinclair, now the de-facto elder statesman of the Shute Shield flyhalves club despite being a fit and firing 30-year-old, has produced arguably his finest season of club footy off the back of a stint in Japan with former Premiership-winning coach Simon Cron. One place outside him is the most underrated player in the competition over the last five years for mine, the hardy, tough-as-teak, rugby smart and ever-reliable inside centre Harry Burey. Then there’s Harry’s younger brother Max, revelling in his rookie season at fullback having switched codes from league, or his bustling centre partner Nathan Russell, or jet-shoed winger Reece Mau’u.

Up front it’s no different, with try-scoring hooker James Margan, the combative lock with tidy feet in the shape of Dave Henaway, or the power and grace of skilful flanker Brad Hemopo. But as we know it takes both piggy’s and princesses to be ticking to make a truly effective rugby team, and the man charged with bringing the two factions together in beautiful harmony is the scrumhalf.

Luckily for Norths they have one of the best in that jersey too, with livewire Nick Duffy a standout across the season, and his pace to each breakdown and rapier-like service from the back of the ruck a key feature of their success. Given his previous club was Sydney Uni as a colt, where he played alongside a few of the Students he will be facing this afternoon, he’s also the perfect person to run the rule over the Shoremen’s season so far, and to set the scene for a mouthwatering Preliminary Final clash.

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The coaching think tank of Sape Misa, Earl Va’a and Zak Beer in action – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

Born in the NSW country town of Dubbo, some 400kms north-west of Sydney, 24-year-old Duffy began his sporting journey with a cricket bat and a soccer ball before discovering the wonders of a Gilbert. And it was the latter that eventually drew his undivided attention.

“I really liked playing soccer and rugby and couldn’t decide between the two, so I would play rugby in the morning and soccer in the afternoon most Saturdays,” he told Behind the Ruck this week. “I started playing rugby when I was ten for the Dubbo Roos, and then played throughout school.”

Moving to Sydney and the rugby institution that is Joey’s College, he ended up in the hugely successful Sydney Uni colts system, and enjoyed immediate success alongside a future international.

“I played 1st colts at Sydney Uni in my first year and played with the likes of Folau Fainga’a, who has now gone on to be one of the regulars in the Wallabies set-up,” he explains. “We won the premiership in my first year against Randwick, and there was a few boys in the colts team who I’ll play against this weekend, which I’m looking forward to. There’s nothing better then versing your mates, I think that’s the best thing about rugby.”

But more of that later…

Despite enjoying that early success, Duffy was forced to make a decision that very few players within the Uni program have to come to, the bold decision to up sticks and head to another club for a better opportunity.

“Sydney Uni had a pretty stacked halfback stock at the time and I was told there wasn’t much room for me, so I decided to head over to Norths as it was a club that was going to provide more opportunities than Uni were through the brand of rugby they wanted to play.” he explains. “My first grade game for Norths was in 2017, where I played as the second grade halfback against the Rats. Then the week after the first grade halfback got injured, so I made my run-on debut against Southern Districts and I’ve loved playing at the club ever since.”

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A fresh-faced Duffy playing for Joey’s against Kings in 2014 – Photo: SPA Images

The year was 2017, and he came into a 1st Grade side that were reigning Premiers after lifting their first title in 41 years the season before under coach Simon Cron, with victory over Sydney Uni at a packed and emotional North Sydney Oval. It was a team containing the likes of Will Miller, Hugh Sinclair, Michael Wells and Nick Palmer, all of whom had already, or went on to, play Super Rugby, alongside his long-term halves partner Angus Sinclair. Certainly an exciting dressing room to be in as a young player with aspirations, but also a tad daunting as a rookie knowing the standards and expectations required from that group in order to back up what they had done the year before.

“It was a great environment to be in and it was great for my footy to play and train alongside those boys as they had high standards and didn’t accept mediocracy.” recalls Duffy. “It was a big difference from coming out of colts into that system, but it was great for my rugby development.

“Cronny was a great coach and I was lucky to be coached by him at a young age. He brought in that winning mentality and drove that competitive edge that Norths as a club still has today. He backed you as a player and simplified the game for you, and always said to just nail your own role in the team, which is what brought on a lot of the success that Norths have had.”

A fantastic start to their title defence fell away dramatically when Cron headed to Georgia for the Junior World Cup with the Aussie U20’s for six weeks. But they regrouped upon his return to go on another run to the title decider, once again with ‘home’ ground advantage at NSO. Unfortunately for Duffy and Norths, the rugby gods had already decreed that this was a day that belonged to Warringah, to skipper Sam Ward and his family, and to the fractured community that had rallied around the club.

But while history favours the winners, and that Rats victory will forever go down as a special occasion given the circumstances, it was only a five-point ball-game in the end, and there were a couple of gilt-edged chances missed by Norths – a Wells run to the chalk curtailed by a complaining hamstring, and a spill near the line from Duffy himself – that may well have changed the outcome. Add in a misjudged clearing kick from fullback Auguy Slowik straight into the arms of Harry Jones for a five-pointer, and maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. But I know that each and every Shoremen involved on that day, still has that unusually error-ridden performance subconsciously gnawing away at their pride and ambition as one that got away.

“To be honest I don’t like to think about that game too much as it wasn’t the result we wanted,” Duffy admits. “I saved my worst game for the last of the season and it has definitely been a driving factor ever since, and one of my main goals as a player is to win a Shute Shield Premiership. But it was great to play in a game like that, which I think gave some life back to Shute Shield rugby. It was pretty surreal to run out to that packed North Sydney Oval, I remember people were in the tree’s it was so packed!”

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Duffy played a grand final in his rookie 1st Grade season but it was a day to forget – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

The talented Cron moved on to an assistant’s role at the Waratahs at the end of 2017, paving the way for former Randwick coach Shannon Fraser to come on board for a season before he too received recognition at the next level with NSW as Head of Elite Youth Development, and he was followed by a fresh-faced Nick Hensley in 2019. Both seasons saw Norths knocking on the door again with losses in the semi-finals to Warringah and Uni but for mine, without ever truly convincing across either campaign that they were a team genuinely good enough to go all the way and lift a title. Duffy begs to differ.

“Making it to the grand final and losing was tough, because now I know how hard they are to make as we have bowed out in the semi’s the last two years. I think we showed in both of those years that we were a Premiership team with the teams that we beat during the season and the type of footy we played. As I said, Premierships are hard to win and in finals you have to take the limited opportunities given to you. In those years we didn’t.”

Which brings us up to the start of a new era at the club under Earl Va’a and Zak Beer, alongside incumbent assistant Sape Misa. Watching the Shoremen this season, the level of game management and communication from the leadership group is still apparent, with the likes of Angus Sinclair – and now brother Hugh since he returned from state duties, steering the ship around on-field with Harry Burey and Nick Palmer. They are still a player-led well-drilled and clearly well-coached outfit, but a renewed focus on a defence that slipped away at times last season, has really brought its benefits.

From 2015-17 they consistently had one of the top three defences in the comp across the regular season – 2015 1st / 2016 3rd / 2017 2nd. But they fell to 6th best last season with a new system that never quite clicked. So it is no surprise to hear that it has been a big focus for the new coaches, and the proof has been in the pudding with only Gordon conceding fewer points in 12 rounds of footy.

“There has been a big exodus of players and coaches, which has meant that it does feel like a new era at the club,” says Duffy. “Zak and Earl have been great and brought a real attacking mindset to Norths, and given us plenty of ways to manipulate the defence. I think this year there is more variety in our attack than the previous years, which has given us the opportunity to create more space for our forwards and backs. In saying that, we have also had a big focus on our defence this year, and Earl has brought in a system that everyone has bought into. Everyone knows their roles and has good clarity around what we are trying to do.”

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Celebrating a famous derby win over Gordon with brothers Harry and Max Burey – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

Nine wins and three losses is testament to the good work that has been put in by all, and their ability to gel so many new faces into a pretty consistent starting XV. They are the only side to have taken the scalp of Minor Premiers Gordon this season, in what was an impressive statement win at Chatswood Oval back in round 10. The copybook was blotted somewhat by successive defeats to end the regular season, at the hands of Uni and Warringah. However, Duffy believes those setbacks could actually act as a springboard for the knockout stages.

“I think we have had a really good season this year, and the whole team has got a lot of confidence out of the way we have played throughout the season in both attack and defence. It is disappointing to have finished the season with two losses, but in saying that we learned some valuable lessons in both of those games that will only help us as a team in this finals series.

“We just need to execute better and be more disciplined as we have been our own worst enemy. I think over the last few weeks we have given away fifty penalties and turned the ball over just as much through errors, but have still been in both games to be able to win them. If we fix those areas then it’ll help us a lot in moving onto the next week.

“We have put in some really good performances as a team throughout the season and we know how well we can play. Finals footy is anyone’s game so we know we just have to compete for the full eighty-five minutes in everything we do and the results will take care of themselves.”

A major feather in the Shoremen’s cap has been their success in keeping so many players out on the park. Duffy is one of seven ever-present starters in the matchday XV – three more than any other side in the comp, and that consistency of selection is obviously beneficial in terms of fostering combinations, especially when he has been able to run out every weekend with the same 10, 12, 13 and 15 behind him. Luck must also play a part in that, but it also points to a hardy, well-trained and well-conditioned squad.

“We had a really good pre-season as a squad and our S and C program has been second to none,” offers Duffy. “I think as a squad we try to be as professional as we can, whether that is getting some extra treatment in, staying off the piss for the weekend, or doing extra stretching or mobility work before training, and that has helped keep everyone on the park. Definitely playing with those boys for twelve games straight helps build confidence and good combinations, and also to understand how each other plays and what our own role is within the team to help execute the game plan in both attack and defence.”

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Angus Sinclair has played a significant role in helping Duffy blossom as a nine – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

Having a guy like Angus Sinclair calling the shots alongside you in the halves every week, has to be a boon for a young player like Duffy. With the retirement in recent years of Hamish Angus and Jai Ayoub, Sinclair is now the most experienced no.10 running around in club land, and his game management and calmness under pressure have paid handsome dividends for the young apprentice.

“I’ve been very lucky to play along side Gus since I started playing at Norths,” says Duffy. “He is a very smart rugby player and has a very calming voice on the field. He organises the team well in attack, which has made my job very easy as a nine because all I have to worry about is getting to the ruck and passing the ball.”

Which is a pretty humble downplaying of what he brings to the table as a scrumhalf, and his effectiveness in this team. The pace of his service has opened the door for the attacking threats at his disposal, while an increasingly happy knack of finding the line himself has added six tries for good measure. The obvious raw talent that brought him to the attentions of the Waratahs a couple of years ago, when he was flown out to Buenos Aires as late injury cover for a game against the Jaguares, has been honed and allowed to blossom – and this leads us down a whole other path to another debate – by playing in a hard-edged, physical, highly competitive and top level standard of club footy week after week after week. And there really is a lot to be said for that.

“I think this year I have matured a lot as a player and have played with a bit more confidence than previous years,” he offers. “I think playing consistently and doing the basics extremely well will only help me progress to next level. I definitely think playing week-in, week-out in the Shute Shield competition is the best way to develop as a player, and to work on your game as a nine.”

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Scoring one of his six tries this season, against Uni – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

One things for sure, he’ll have to use all that acquired knowledge and experience to be at his absolute best this afternoon when Norths take on 4th placed Sydney Uni, if the Shoremen are to maintain their interest in the finals for another week. Having gone down 34-15 to them just two weeks ago, in a match where the Students scrum gave them the platform from which to forge victory, they can expect a repeat dose of set-piece medicine to be forced down their throats this afternoon. The key is to not make the same handling errors as they did in that game, and to try and take it out of the equation.

“Their scrum is a real strength of their’s and has been for the last four years,” Duffy affirms. “But we dropped too much ball last time we played and brought the scrum into the game, which made it hard for us. We know that if we all nail our roles in both attack and defence on the weekend, and compete in every moment, the result will take care of itself. This is do or die for us and that’s the great thing about finals footy, which makes it so enjoyable to play in. There is a new energy around the group and everyone is buzzing to rip in on the weekend.”

Given he is a former Student himself, it would be handy to have a microphone out in the middle just to catch the inevitable banter that will be thrown both ways in the heat of battle.

“There are a few in there that I’m still good mates with, such as Connor O’Shea, Will McDonnell and Nick De Crespigny. As I said earlier, there’s nothing better than playing and competing against your mates. I think it gives you that little bit of extra motivation to win as you don’t want to have to hear them carrying on about it until the next time we get to play them!”

It turns out that O’Shea is more than just a friend. Also hailing from Dubbo, the two were at school together before lining up at Uni, and now share a house! Needless to say, it is a friendship that will be put firmly on hold for a few days.

“I played with Connor at school and in colts at Uni, and we have lived with each other for the last two years. We usually get brekkie together every Saturday morning, but that wont be happening this weekend!”

Let’s see who takes home the bacon this afternoon…

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