Finals Fever: Eastwood’s unlikely double act carving it up

Photo: Serge Gonzalez

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Having one instinctive playmaker in your backline who can also control a game is a must for all coaches hoping to break down the most stubborn of defences, whilst also offering an attacking threat. Having two who can do the same job and rotate seamlessly at will to cover both sides of the field is an obvious boon, and it is a luxury Eastwood coach Ben Batger has been afforded this season as he guided his side to yet another finals series.

In Tane Edmed and Chris Bell he has perhaps fallen upon the keys to the kingdom in terms of a Premiership title, such has been their impact on proceedings for the Woodies in 2020. And even though their initially unlikely combination at flyhalf and fullback was arrived at more by accident than design, Batger can take great credit for seeing the possibilities offered by his young talents, and for moulding it into the potent two-pronged attacking weapon it has morphed into.

Add to the mix the dazzling form of halfback Matt Gonzalez this season, and Eastwood have plenty of options with which to worry their opponents in this afternoon’s Preliminary Final, Eastern Suburbs. But it is the way his ‘odd couple’ of rookies – 20-year-old Edmed one of the hottest young prospects in Australia in his first season out of colts, 24-year-old Bell the Englishman plucked out of Subbies for a chance in 1st Grade – have gelled and prospered in their first year of Shute Shield footy, when there was every chance one or both may take some time to find their feet, that has been a standout feature on their road to the knockout stages.

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There have been wraps on Tane Edmed for quite some time, and in a number of sports. A handy cricketer, he was offered a scholarship to Trinity Grammar off the back of his batting skills, which is where he first discovered union, showing enough talent to play Australian Youth Sevens and for the Australian Barbarians U18’s.

However, Dad Steve was a 157-game professional rugby league prop for Balmain Tigers and the North Queensland Cowboys, and it looked like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree as he made his way through the junior ranks with Leichhardt Wanderers before playing SG Ball for the Tigers under 18’s. Decisions, decisions, decisions…

A growth spurt in Year 11 was the deciding factor, his newfound size drawing him towards contact sport and a choice between following in his father’s footsteps as a hooker in league, or exploring the creative parts of his game as a flyhalf in union. Rugby Australia came knocking towards the end of 2018 and thankfully for those of us of a Gilbert persuasion, he chose wisely.

“I was a hooker in league growing up, but after playing flyhalf in rugby union I felt as if I was a player more suited to playing in the halves,” he explained to Behind the Ruck this week. “Although the Tigers saw me as more of a hooker, this was only a small reason for me going to rugby. The decision to leave league was a tough one, but in hindsight it has been a great decision and my Dad has always been supportive in whatever I wish to do. I really enjoyed playing rugby and it was an easy decision to make the switch when an opportunity presented itself.”

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Edmed in full flight for CAS 1st XV in 2018 Photo: SPA Images

He duly landed up at Coogee Oval, joining one of the most successful colts programs in the Sydney club scene at Randwick. And to say he hit the ground running would be an understatement, the Galloping Green-horns of 1sts colts winning 17 from 17 to romp home as 2019 Minor Premiers whilst scoring an average of 40pts per game, before suffering a surprise loss to Sydney University in the grand final.

As a result his name was being bandied about as one to watch for the Wicks in 2020, with a likely graduation to grade alongside several of his standout team mates. But with a number of other playmakers due to be in the selection mix for incoming head coach Ben McCormack, when an opportunity presented itself at Eastwood from persuasive head coach Ben Batger, he felt it wasn’t one he couldn’t turn down.

“I absolutely loved it at Randwick, it was a privilege to play in a team as talented as that one,” he says. “The skill level and style of rugby was really good for my development, as well as being very fun. Kristian Jensen is a great player and we formed a good little partnership that complemented each other on the field, and Ben Houston, Liam Cornish, Fiu Gibson and Ellis Hawker have all played some first grade this year. But I think the majority of that colts team could play first grade for a lot of clubs in the Shute Shield.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity and development Randwick gave me, but the move to Eastwood was purely opportunity based. Randwick had a lot of playmakers coming back into first grade, and I felt like a move to Eastwood would increase my chances of potentially playing in the Shute Shield. In saying that, Ben Batger made it very clear that a first grade spot wasn’t guaranteed and that I would have to work for it.”

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In the heat of battle in last year’s 1sts Colts grand final against Sydney Uni – Photo: Ric McLallen

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world…

Chris Bell grew up in the small village of Shibden, half an hour outside Leeds in West Yorkshire, where he too showed aptitude in another sport and played a high level of regional tennis. But his rugby soon become the priority, representing his county at U17’s, U18’s and U20’s, and also earning the prestige of the captaincy of the North England U18’s and U20’s. He played semi-pro for Huddersfield in National League Three and played a pivotal role in getting them promoted to League Two whilst studying full-time at Uni, before signing for Hull Ionians for a season in National League One – two divisions below the English Premiership – which brought with it plenty of memorable away trips to the south of England!

He arrived in Sydney in 2018 for a look around and to play a bit of footy Down Under, and rocked up in Subbies at Kentwell Cup side Petersham. He loved it.

“Subbies is a great competition,” he enthuses. “The way teams can field five full grades plus colts is phenomenal. The level was a bit lower than what I had played back home. However, I knew this, and me coming to Australia was more to see Sydney and travel around whilst playing some footy alongside.”

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Bell receives his National League Three medal from ex-Scotland coach Vern Cotter – Photo: Ray Morris

It’s here that things took an initially nasty, but ultimately fortuitous, turn.

“At first i was only supposed be in Australia for six months as I had a return flight booked,” Bell explains. “However, three-quarters of the way through the season with the Shammies I fractured my fibula and displaced my ankle, resulting in surgery and a metal plate with ten screws. Rehab was going well until one day I was getting weird sensations in my calf, so I had an ultrasound and ended up having four blood clots! From this my surgeon advised it wouldn’t be a good idea to fly home as I would be at risk, so I decided to prolong my stay in Australia and never looked back.”

And he didn’t, thankfully returning to full health and shining enough on his return for Petersham to be named on the 2019 Kentwell Medal short-list. Which piqued the interest of a certain club coach.

“I ended up at Eastwood after ‘Batg’ contacted me saying he would be interested in signing me. And after meeting up with him for a coffee and talking about the history of Eastwood and his plans, I decided to sign. I just liked what he had to say regarding his mindset on selection and the way he wanted his team to play. The other thing that sold me was that I had heard about Eastwood’s dominant pack, which is obviously a ten’s dream to be getting front-foot ball off the set-piece. I wasn’t really actively looking for a Shute Shield club. However, I knew if I was sticking around in Australia for longer then I needed to get back to playing the standard of rugby I was playing back home.”

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On the attack for Petersham last season – Photo: SPA Images

They were both joining a club that were prepping for a second season with former club legend Batger at the helm, having steered them to a second place finish and the semi-finals in his first year. But Batger is as ambitious and hungry for success as he was when he was winning Premierships for the Woodies at fullback as the club’s highest ever points scorer. In his eyes, second equals failure, and his vision of the future as he tried to rebuild a new squad following a host of high profile retirements and departures in the off-season, and the attacking tweaks he deemed necessary for them to go a couple of steps further, had his new recruits licking their lips in anticipation at being a part of the blueprint.

“The success of Eastwood in top grades over the last decade was definitely very appealing,” admits Edmed. “Adding to that was the coaching of Ben Batger and the youth that was coming into the team, and the willingness to play a different style to past years at Eastwood.”

“When I was signing for the club I did some research, and it showed how very successful they had been over the years,” adds Bell. “However, when speaking with ‘Batg’ I knew the team would be different from the previous year with some players retiring and some signing pro deals, but still with a good talented core group remaining and some new recruits to be added.

“From the get-go I knew I needed to get my head down and work hard coming into a new team environment. The first couple of weeks I was probably a bit quiet, but the boys were really welcoming, which was great, so I felt I settled in quite nicely. Whenever you sign for a new team you know a playing shirt is never guaranteed. I just knew that if I came in and worked hard and showed what I’m about, then I would give myself a good shot of getting a jersey.”

The two hungry young talents were on board and ready to rip in, the only headache for Batger was that they were both accustomed to playing at 10, and when the teams were announced for the round one clash against Southern Districts at Forshaw Park, it was the junior member of the future duo that got the nod. But it turned out to be a baptism of fire.

A Rebels side with an increased level of aggression as promised by new head coach Todd Louden, came out of the blocks firing, out-enthusing and out-muscling their visitors for large periods of the match. They won the battle of the breakdown and enjoyed the upper hand in the physicality stakes, not an accusation you can level very often at a traditionally burly and combative Eastwood. As a result, Edmed was afforded precious little quality ball with which to strut his stuff, and was forced into hurrying his options as Souths came home with a wet sail to win 34-19.

“That was probably one of the hardest games I’ve played,” he concedes. “It was a very tough, physical introduction to first grade, and nothing really clicked for us that day. In saying that, it was an awesome learning experience and probably something I needed to realise the quality of Shute Shield and the expectations of the competition.”

The one real positive for Eastwood that I took away from covering that game, was the performance of Chris Bell when he came on in the second half. Chasing the game, coach Batger threw him on at 15 with a need for his side to get their hands on the ball and use it. And while his impressive cameo as a fullback with a roving role was somewhat tainted by a yellow card for an attempted intercept harshly ruled as a deliberate knockdown, it must have opened Batger’s eyes to the possibilities of a permanent solution.

“Southern Districts was a tough one for us to start on,” Bell concurs. “We didn’t really get much front-foot ball to release the talent we have out wide, and that was my goal when I came on. I knew I just had to try and up the tempo and start using our threats out wide. This was the first time that both myself and Tane had played together, so it was a learning on the job scenario for us both. But I just tried to be vocal and take the pressure of him where needed.

“My natural position is at ten, so I guess in pre-season it was me and him going at each other for that jersey. However, ‘Batg’ gave me a call after the Souths game and shared with me his views of us both playing together with me at fifteen, which I agreed could work. Frankly, I just wanted to be playing.”

Bell played a similar role off the bench in round two’s 42-10 victory over new boys Hunter Wildfires, as Edmed slotted a confidence-building six conversions. But by round three’s clash with West Harbour the two were named together in the starting XV, and a fledgling relationship was about to blossom.

You could already see the symmetry between the two beginning to flow just a week later against Easts at Woollahra Oval. It was a fairly tight game that the Woodies eventually won 20-17, but the third quarter after half-time was the best sustained period of rugby I’d seen any side put together at that early stage of the season. The forwards were laying a platform adeptly utilised by scrumhalf Matt Gonzalez and profited from by Edmed, with Bell chiming in from the back and the two swapping at first and second receiver at will to really ask questions of the home defence.

“I think Easts really gave us both some confidence on how we can play together,” says Bell. “It was a really tight game but we knew if we played in the right areas of the field we would put pressure on their set-piece, and hopefully cause an error which we could capitalise on. With me being a ten normally, it’s pretty easy for me to fill in at first receiver when necessary to give our attack options all the time. I think it helps take a bit of pressure off Tane with the kicking game as we just share the responsibility.”

“I was starting to feel more comfortable playing at this level and Belly really helped relieve some pressure from me, which allowed me to relax a bit more and focus on other things,” affirms Edmed. “He’s a natural flyhalf and ball player, which means we can chop and change when it comes to who plays first receiver. It’s also just logical as it means we don’t need to run as far, there is no need to cross over to get into first receiver when Belly is there, which means I can play in the wider channels. Being young and inexperienced, having that extra help from a game management perspective was awesome.”

Bar one match where Bell was unavailable through suspension after another yellow card – “I was a naughty boy going for too many intercepts so I had a one-match ban against the Two Blues!” – they’ve been in situ ever since, and causing havoc. While you’d always want to see your fullback stepping up to relieve some pressure off his flyhalf at times, I can’t recall two players that interchange their roles with such ease and to such effect. But I’ll let someone who actually knows what they’re on about go into detail.

“Tane and Chris have provided a perfect dual playmaking option for us that I think is working really well,” explains coach Ben Batger. “You only have to look to the All Blacks and how they moved Beauden Barrett to fifteen to see it’s a model that works. It has a number of advantages for us but ultimately it comes down to team balance. If you look at the rest of the backline they are more ball runners or explosive players, and I want them to focus on that. Having Belly and Tane both there allows them to control the game and unleash the other players.

“Chris also has an excellent kicking game, so opposition fullbacks and wingers also now have to keep a close eye on three players in Gonzo, Tane and Chris as kicking threats. A ten also has a lot of responsibilities, and while Tane has been brilliant for us he is only 20-years-old, and having Chris there means that he doesn’t have to do all the playmaking duties. That means he can relax a little more and we can share the load, whether that be ball playing, game management, or kicking.”

Catching up with them again a couple of weeks ago at TG Millner, as they combined to put Warringah to the sword in impressive fashion with a 47-21 win, that vision of their coach in terms of them loading the bullets for the guys outside of them was writ large. With the power of ‘Nox’ Muliufi getting you over the gainline at 12, the defence and work rate of Devan Stoltz at 13, the pace and power of Fabian Goodall on one wing, and the x-factor in recent weeks of ‘Marky Mark’ Nawaqanitawase on the other, it’s a pretty handy set of tools for the attacking triumvirate to work with.

“Each player in the backline has different qualities, which is great,” says Bell.“Basically, both myself and Tane’s job is just to play a game to match each players strengths, which I feel as the season has developed we have got much better at doing. Noxy and Fabs will give us that front-foot ball, with Dev leading our defence from 13. Then having Marky out there now is a great combination with his speed and aerial ability.”

And you simply can’t leave Gonzalez out of this conversation. The electric no.9 is enjoying a fantastic comeback season after long-term injury, working brilliantly in tandem with both his playmakers in terms of running the attacking ship, but also as a genuine running threat who has crossed the chalk 11 times himself. He’s still only 26-years-old but an experienced head in that backline, and someone with a Premiership already under his belt having played in the 2015 grand final victory over Manly. 

“Gonzo has been amazing this year,” Edmed agrees. “His running ability is sensational and his passing is crisp, and he has definitely helped me with being relaxed on the field. His experience is what’s needed at halfback, and when Belly is on the field it means Gonzo can focus on the stuff he is good at, like being an attacking threat in and around the ruck. This also creates space outside of him for people to run into.”

“Yeah, Gonzo has been epic this year,” says an equally enthusiastic Bell. “His ability to just pop up out of nowhere to get on the end of line breaks is awesome. His pace around the pitch is unreal so it provides Tane and I with really quick ball, which is awesome to play with. He makes our lives a hell of a lot easier as we’ve got more space and time to make decisions.”

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Matt Gonzalez runs in try number 11 for the season against Gordon last week – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

The mutual appreciation society is in full swing. Gonzalez played several seasons alongside one of the finest no.10’s to have graced the club scene in the last decade in Jai Ayoub, as well as a club legend and now his coach in Ben Batger at 15. So he knows a decent flyhalf and fullback when he sees one.

“It helps when you’ve got a ten like Tane,” he told Behind the Ruck. “Jai Ayoub was the best ten I’ve played with personally, I loved playing with him, and I see a lot of similarities between him and Tane. He has a very good level head on him, but also that spark where he can just play off the cuff, throw a dummy and go through a gap. And Chrissy Bell out the back is really good at controlling things and is quite a good talker, like ‘Batg’ was when he was a player.

“It’s really handy to have two options because you can split the field with Belly running one side and Tane the other, or you hit Belly out the back from Tane and he’s able to control that next phase. It’s really easy for me because they’re organising everything out the back, and all I’ve got to focus on is what’s happening at the ruck and who I am hitting. They’re both really good talkers.”

It was those levels of communication against Warringah a fortnight ago that was particularly noticeable. As Gonzalez says, Batger was one of the chirpiest fullbacks going around when he was playing, constantly calling the shots with his big picture view from the back of the field. So it is no surprise that his two young proteges are toeing a similar line. They know their roles and they know where they want their team to be on the field, and they project that clearly. It sounds like an obvious and easy thing to get right, but it isn’t always the case.

“Batg has been great this year for me with some really good tips from his playing career,” says Bell. “Having never played fifteen before it has just been continual learning for me throughout the comp, but being able to question him twenty-four seven about everything has been invaluable, and the main one is to just be vocal for eighty minutes. Always communicating to my wingers just to try make them feel comfortable in what their roles are. I think that’s a big thing from my perspective back at fifteen, just to constantly be talking and making sure everyone is on the same page both in attack and defence. Ultimately, I just want to take some of the pressure off Tane so when it comes to the backs everyone knows their roles and we just need to focus on executing.

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Bell takes it to the line against Warringah – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

“I guess with me being a natural ten it’s instinct to just jump in as first receiver when necessary, and Tane and I talk a lot at training on how we can use the both of us in exits and attacking threats. Then on game days we try to get together at stoppages to discuss what’s working or not etc. Batg will never tell us off from playing what we see, he encourages it a lot. However, as the season has developed I think as a combination we have got smarter as a pairing on choosing the right times to play, and the times where we just need to play field position.”

The acid test of their working relationship will be finals footy, and lying in wait to knock them out of title contention in week one are an Eastern Suburbs side that are the form team in the competition, having won eight straight and finished the regular season in second spot after an 81-24 shellacking of a more-than-decent Randwick side. The Woodies got a handy dress rehearsal for what is required if they are to go on and lift a Premiership when they met Minor Premiers Gordon last weekend. And while it didn’t go their way after a poor start, both players feel that they showed enough across the 80 minutes to suggest they have what it takes against the big guns.

“It was very disappointing losing that last game, especially because we were in a position to win but couldn’t quite get there,” Edmed reflects. “In saying that, the top six was so close and to make the finals it’s anyone’s game, so we aren’t too fazed at where we finished. We felt like we didn’t play at our best, especially in the first twenty minutes, which really hurt us. But it was a massive positive for us to come back and nearly win, especially heading into the finals.”

“The result last weekend was extremely disappointing for the group,” says Bell. “The start last week killed us, going nineteen points down to a team top of the ladder was never going to be easy to come back from. But I’m proud of the effort from the boys to believe we could get back and almost did. We were honest with ourselves in the review and we made far too many errors against a team that are top of the ladder, so probably didn’t deserve the win. But the promising thing is if we clean that area of the game up we can be a really dangerous team. A few little errors cost us in big parts of the game, so if we can rectify these I think we will be a strong team coming into finals.”

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Edmed’s running game has grown across the season – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

The Easts side they face this afternoon will have a different look about it to the one they edged out back in round four, with several Super Rugby imports in the shape of Alex Newsome, Lalakai Foketi, Rob Leota, Charlie Gamble and Ryan McCauley. It is also a Beasties team still smarting from being dumped out of the knockouts at this stage of the season last year, by Eastwood. But this Woodies outfit have come a long way in a short period of time, and with Edmed rewarded for his form with stints in the Waratahs U20’s Academy and Junior Wallabies Extended Squad, and picking up the Dave Dennis Elite Youth Development Player of the Year along the way, this deadly duo may not be playing together for much longer, and they want to make it count.

Obviously, they have some Tahs players coming in to strengthen their line-up, but we are more focused on us and what we can do,” says Edmed. “We have improved dramatically since round four and I’m sure they have also, so it’s going to be a very good battle and I’m really looking forward to it. Our attack against them in round four was a bit one-dimensional and that’s something that we have improved a lot since then. So we will look to play with a bit more variety in attack and test their defence.”

“We haven’t even thought about our win against them earlier in the season, it’s out of our mind and doesn’t really mean anything,” adds Bell. “They’ve added a few players since then so are a completely different side, but they’re a well-balanced team with plenty of attacking threats from one to fifteen. Compared to round four, we just need to start better as a team as you can’t afford a bad start in finals footy. Apart from that we know if we execute our game plan with the players we have then we should be in with a good chance.

“If we are being completely honest we have probably not put in an eighty minute performance yet as a team, so hopefully now its finals time we can make this happen and that’s our goal for Sunday. I think with Covid it’s made everyone realise never to take playing for granted ever again. As a team we don’t want our season to end as we enjoy playing with each other and know already that we might not play together as a group again, so we want this year to be as successful as possible. We will be sure to give it our all on Sunday and hopefully that will see us over the line come 80 minutes.”

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