Finals Fever: Abrasive Silk a homespun success story

Photo: Andrew Quinn

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It goes without saying that you’ve got to be a particular breed of animal to play rugby. While the blood and thunder physicality of the modern game is – in part – one of the things that draws us like moths to a flame, its brutal nature at the elite level requires a level of disregard for your own body that limits it to a relatively select band of human beings.

Whether you’re the 130kg Polynesian wrecking-ball blessed with the genetic make-up to swat aside a small army, or the chirpy halfback who’s forced to punch above his weight for 80 minutes as reward for his constant sledging, it is a sport that you simply can’t hope to survive in if you don’t like it rough. But even amongst this seething mass of aggression and combativeness, there are a handful of players that stand out from the melee for their sheer willingness to put their bodies on the line, throw their head and anything else in where it hurts, do whatever it takes to be the last man standing, and approach each contest with the desire to win the match but the absolute determination to win the fight.

Gordon’s 22-year-old loose forward Tom Silk appears to be one such creature. Oh, and he can play too…

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“He couldn’t be further from that potential stereotype of a white private school kid that’s had everything laid on for him. He’s an amazing competitor, he’s genuinely tough, and he’s got a bit of s**t about him.
He’s the complete package.”

Gordon head coach Darren Coleman

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Not since I witnessed an 18-year-old Lachie Swinton take his first steps in 1st Grade for Sydney Uni – all mouth but a whole wardrobe of trousers to go with it – have I come across such a fiery competitor as young Silk. The way in which he attacks every breakdown like his life depends on it, and selflessly hunts for the ball for the benefit of his side, is a feature that embodies the mantra his coach has worked hard to foster at Chatswood Oval. Yes, this Gordon side can carve you up out wide with pace and skill, but they’re going to smash you right in the kisser up the middle at the same time.

As a suitably no-nonsense Silk told Behind the Ruck this week, it’s simply a non-negotiable.

“I look forward every week to putting my body into contact, whether it be through carries or defence. I enjoy the physicality of the competition and the feeling of a hard-fought aggressive game where you are required to put your body on the line or to make those last second efforts. Every week I go out with the goal to be better than my opposition. I like to play with that confidence that I can and will win the battle with my opposite number no matter who they are or what they’ve done.”

And boy, has he been doing just that. There have been many standouts for the Highlanders on their road to redemption under coach Coleman. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to think of any player who hasn’t risen to the challenge of returning the club to it’s former glories. But Silk is certainly near the top of the tree when it comes to producing a high level of consistency in terms of performance, and being a point of difference week after week. Perhaps his biggest calling card at this moment in time though, is the fact that he is one of Gordon’s own.

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An 18-year-old Silk in typically combative style for NSW 2nd XV against Queensland 1st XV in 2016 – Photo: SPA Images

Born in Sydney and raised in Greenwich on the lower north shore, Silk took his first rugby steps with Lane Cove Juniors from the age of nine through to 16. Attending St Ignatius College, Riverview from Year 5 to Year 12 he managed to juggle school footy on Saturday and club rugby on Sunday up to Year 10. He wasn’t the star of the team, in fact he had played most of his rugby in the B sides before turning out for the first XV in Year 12. That’s when things started to progress a bit quicker.

“I gained further selection in the GPS 2nd XV and NSW schoolboys 2nd XV, where we won the National championships for the first time since 1977,” he explains. “I then moved to Gordon colts and played a handful of games in 2017 before I went overseas for a few months on gap year. In 2018 I returned to Gordon colts again and we made the 1sts colts grand final but ultimately succumbed to a strong Randwick side, and I was also a member of the NSW Waratahs U20 Gen Blue program that year.”

Why Gordon?

“A lot of boys from my school team were keen on going to Gordon, and after some interviews with colts Director David Telfer he really sold the club to me, and it just seemed like the right place to continue playing rugby. It is also the closest club to home and has a fantastic social atmosphere, which made it a no-brainer.”

He transitioned into grade last season, starting off in 4’s after injury before making a steady rise up the ranks to get plenty of time in 2nd Grade, and having made his Shute Shield debut against West Harbour, ended the season in the top squad. On the way up, he got to witness the dramatic transformation taking place across the club first hand after the arrival of Darren Coleman.

“In 2019 I played most of my games under Paul Hardwick and Riley Carter in second grade, who were excellent coaches and really helped me develop my rugby,” he says. “The foundations DC was building were very apparent, and after being Minor Premiers in second grade last year and just missing out on Shute Shield finals, the club knew that we could go much further in 2020 as we had the base and some established systems in place now to achieve further success.”

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Taking on Sydney Uni in colts in 2018 – Photo: Andrew Quinn

The seismic reversal of fortunes in just under two years, from 17 losses in 17 games in 2018 to their rebirth as a title challenger this season, was covered off in detail by a piece I did with Silk’s fellow forward Jack Margin back in August. But it’s safe to say that it’s been nothing short of miraculous.

They have gone from a club that appeared to be in danger of disappearing altogether, had not played 1st Grade finals footy since 2009, not won any silverware since that year either, and were struggling to maintain any semblance of foundations at the all-important base of the pyramid in colts, to one of immeasurable depth, strength and success.

A host of fresh-faced young talent is regularly getting them to the pointy end of all colts levels, a 3rd Grade Premiership broke the trophy drought last season and renewed belief across the board, while this year 1st Grade has made the finals, finished as Minor Premiers, and are 80 minutes away from a grand final. But topping the lot is the Club Championship they have just prised from the hands of Sydney University’s 16-year grasp.

Given the callow youth that is at the heart of the restoration, it would be understandable if players like Silk and his fellow graduates were blissfully unaware of the travails experienced by the club over the last decade. They simply haven’t known the hard times. But as the great Carl Sagan famously said, ‘You have to know the past to understand the present’, and he has done his research.

“When I first arrived at Gordon in 2017 it wasn’t one of the big clubs like Sydney Uni or Randwick that a lot of young players out of school wanted to go and play for,” he says. “But in the last few years there has been a huge increase in professionalism right across the club. The appointment of the new President Matt Glascott was crucial, as he has been very passionate about driving change and restoring the club to its previous glory days.

DC quote on Tom Silk

“With the appointment of new coaches across all grades the quality of coaching has increased exponentially, with head coach DC leading the way and helping the club to become more streamlined and keeping everyone accountable. This revitalisation has subsequently attracted a number of players who wanted to come and be a part of the club, significantly contributing to Gordon’s success in 2020.

“I’m aware of the period the club has gone through and it is awesome to see it regaining strength and momentum – from third colts all the way through to first grade. However, for the moment we are just focusing on the present and the task ahead of us. Every player is determined to do something special this year and really help re-cement Gordon as the Shute Shield powerhouse it once was. There’s a real feel around the club that this is the year that we can break the drought, and we know we have the players and personnel to go all the way in multiple grades.”

With two grades and two colts teams already into the grand finals being played out down at Forshaw Park today, and 1st Grade and 1st Colts contesting semi-finals, the chances of adding some pots to the JR Henderson Shield won by 3rd Grade in 2019 are pretty high. But it is a first Premiership since 1998 that would be the cherry on top of the cake.

After setting his stall out last season with six wins and a 7th placed finish on the ladder to just miss out on finals, Darren Coleman has made good on his promise to deliver bigger and better things in 2020. The campaign started well with a 35-24 win against today’s opponents Eastern Suburbs and a 64-0 shellacking of the Two Blues. But it was the 52-7 demolition of two-time grand finalists Warringah in Channel Seven’s TV match of the round that had people waxing lyrical about whether this Highlanders outfit could indeed be the real deal. Silk agrees that it was a pivotal moment in the side’s progress.

“After the Two Blues game we had a week off, and the whole week everyone was just thinking forward to the Rats game. We had played them a few weeks prior in the trials and knew it would be a tough match, but we went out there with the goal of playing our brand of fast, expansive footy, and knew we would go through them if we played to our strengths. The result of that game really reaffirmed the confidence that the group had, and really ignited the already burning flame that we could win the competition.”

Wins at Manly, Hunter and West Harbour followed, although the performance at Drummoyne Oval that day was well below their best, and there were some concerns that Gordon were top of the ladder without playing any of the top six. So it’s fair to say that the 42-15 dispatching of table-topping Randwick in round eight summarily ticked another box.

“After a tough game against West Harbour, where we beat ourselves in periods, we knew it was integral for us to bounce back against an in-form Randwick side and play our brand of rugby,” Silk recalls. “The win was important for us as this was the first top six side we had played, so it just added that extra bit of confidence that we could beat the teams up top as well.”

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Channelling their inner Bulldog, the Highlanders donned a snazzy heritage kit for the derby – Photo: Andrew Quinn

They lost their only game of the season so far to Northern Suburbs, in a cracking derby clash played out in front of an incredible atmosphere at a Covid-restricted Chatswood Oval – the best and most vocal I’d seen there since 2009. One wonders just how many they could have squeezed into the Trumper Pavilion if normality was prevailing at the time, and even though they went down 24-13, it was a moment to treasure for Silk and his team mates.

“It was a very memorable occasion running out against Norths in the heritage kit in front of a sold-out crowd,” he affirms. “The atmosphere was great, and showed that the success of the club this year has pulled a lot of long-time supporters out of the house to get down to the ground and cheer us on.”

They regrouped to see off Sydney University a week later in what Coleman describes as one of the finest performances of the season, and a week later were confirmed as Minor Premiers following a 97-0 drubbing of Penrith – despite resting several regular starters. But it is the Club Championship achievement that is understandably looked upon with the most satisfaction – for now at least.

“We were very determined to secure the Club Championship as a club, as it is a huge indicator of the overall strength that Gordon has. Quite a bit of emphasis was put on securing it, and all the players knew that every game mattered if we wanted to take it away from Sydney Uni. We all enjoyed the moment as it was a huge milestone in the club’s revamp, but we also knew that there were further jobs to complete and to keep working hard.”

Only scrumhalf Harrison Goddard has started more games than Silk for Gordon this season, such has been his growing importance to the side. He readily admits that it’s gone better than he could have hoped for considering it is his first full season of Shute Shield rugby, and he’s happy to pay lip service to the coaching team running the 1st Grade ship.

“It’s been an amazing experience this year to play with so many talented players under the professional coaching staff of DC, Billy Melrose and Liam Winton. I’m just happy I’ve been able to play some good footy and contribute to the team whilst remaining injury free. DC’s approach to coaching is the most professional I have experienced in my career thus far. He has multiple systems in place to make sure he gets the best out of his players, and to get everyone striving for further improvement. For me as a player, it has helped and encouraged me to be competitive and to master my trade. This has allowed me to make significant improvements to my body and mindset over the last two seasons.”

Starting predominantly at seven, Silk brings with him the happy knack of being able to shift seamlessly across the backrow – a boon for his coaches. But it is in the traditional fetcher’s role that he seems to the manor born, and is at his most comfortable.

“Through school I predominantly played seven until Year 12 where I packed down in the second row. Since then I’ve played a lot of six and eight before moving back into the seven jersey this year,” he explains. “Seven is my preferred position but I don’t mind playing at six or eight if it is required. When I was younger, my Dad, my brother and I would go to many Waratahs and Wallabies games. We also went to the 2015 RWC in England for a month. I’ve always dreamt of playing professional rugby, whether it be at state or international level. I have always loved David Pocock’s game of breakdown dominance and ruthlessness around the ruck.”

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Jack Dempsey takes on Randwick single-handed in last week’s Preliminary Final – Photo: Andrew Quinn

That ability to play different positions also gives an insight into what is required to master each one, and Silk has been fortunate to have a couple of standout operators alongside him in the trenches in the shape of influential skipper Jordan Goddard, and Waratah and Wallaby Jack Dempsey, as he continues to hone the dark arts of his craft.

“It has been great training and playing alongside ‘Demo’,” says Silk. “He is very vocal and really leads from the front, whether that be around the strategic point of the game or the physical. He’s brought another level of experience and professionalism to the team, and has given me various pointers which have helped me improve as a player.

“Jordy brings a calm and wise approach to the team, but that’s not to say he isn’t ruthless on the field. He leads from the front and always sets a good example, whether that be through a dominant tackle or helping the team refocus and regroup, he knows how to deal with every situation. When Jordy speaks all the boys listen and take in what he’s saying. He puts the team first and does whatever he can to ensure we are performing at our potential. He’s a great leader and widely respected by the whole player base at Gordon, which speaks volumes of his character.

But back to Dempsey for a moment.

Hearing the value that his presence has brought to Silk’s understanding of the game and what is required if he wants to follow the same path, is a big tick in the box for players at the next level coming back to their clubs to impart that wisdom and experience to their young proteges. In Dempsey’s case of course, it is irrefutable given his ascension through the junior ranks and his family’s illustrious history at the club, and the same goes to a lesser extent for his Waratahs team mate Joey Walton. But what of the trio of Abel brothers or the likes of Karmichael Hunt who donned the tartan on a few occasions in 2019?

For while the revival itself taking place at the Highlanders cannot be called into question, some naysayers around the traps have levelled the accusation of ‘buying a Premiership’ at their, and more specifically coach Coleman’s door, with the additions of the aforementioned Super Rugby stars alongside a healthy amount of recruitment in the shape of Mahe Vailanu, Tautalatasi Tasi and Rodney Iona for example.

Given 1st Grade had lost all 17 matches in the season prior to Coleman’s arrival, and conceded over 1000pts in the process, the likelihood of turning that side into title challengers inside two years without bringing some fairly heavy artillery through the door with you was fanciful at best. And while the club’s colts system is on an upward trajectory with the hope of creating a consistent production line of talent to fill the grades in the years to come, expecting to bring almost an entire squad with Shute Shield capabilities through in one foul swoop was unlikely, although not impossible – see Sydney University in 2018.

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The Abel brothers – Robbie, Jacob and Charlie – celebrate with the Minor Premiership and Sir Roden Cutler Shield – Photo: Andrew Quinn

Even so, of the 23-man squad named to face Easts this afternoon, my research tells me that six have come through colts – Silk, Dempsey, Walton, Jack Margin, Brandon Quinn and James Lough. I am happy to stand corrected but it is seemingly not quite the external takeover job it has been painted. Having poster boys like Dempsey and Walton at the Waratahs, Quinn in the Aussie Sevens, and potentially Silk in the future if he continues to prosper, can only be a good advert for the club, and a handy tool for attracting the next batch of aspiring young Highlanders. In the meantime, playing alongside that influx of talent provides its own incentive. Just ask Silk.

“I think the additions of class players like Mahe, the Abel brothers and Tasi were essential as they helped increase competitiveness within the club, which further drives results as everyone is competing for a jersey,” he reasons. “I think every team needs Super Rugby talent to help bolster the quality of the team, and these guys really helped strengthen the club. There’s also numerous other colts who have contributed to the top squad this year, and the club is reaping results across the board as a result of these players coming through the system. These players that have come in from higher honours have helped create a winning environment, which I know a lot of guys coming through look up to and admire.”

The one question mark around this Gordon side all season has been how they would cope with the pressure and intensity of finals footy if and when they got there, given that it was unchartered territory for all on board except the exceptional Vailanu, who played in the 2018 grand final under Coleman at Warringah. The below-par performance against Randwick in last weekend’s Preliminary Final gave that particular theory some credence, although, the fact that they came from behind twice to win at the death with several minutes of prime knockout footy, also indicates that they are pretty quick learners.

“I don’t think anyone was nervous, more determined to get the job done and keep progressing in the competition,” says Silk. “We all knew what game we had to play and that finals would have a huge increase in intensity and physicality. The set-piece just didn’t go our way this game and Randwick had a lot of ball in hand and really attacked us down in our ‘d’ zone.

“Our determination and desire really showed with huge periods of defence where we were able to keep them from crossing the line. The game showed us that when things aren’t going our way at set-piece we can still front up and grind out a gritty win. We took lots of confidence away from our defensive system which held them out for consecutive ‘a’ zone entries.”

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Discussing the finer points of the ruck and maul with Randwick last weekend – Photo: Andrew Quinn

They will need that defensive grit and determination in spades to hold out an Easts side that were equally underwhelming in their first finals hit-out last week against Eastwood. The chances of the top two teams in the regular season failing to hit their straps two weeks in a row when it truly matters is unlikely.

“We know that Easts will be another hard-fought physical game. We will need to play a much better brand of footy this weekend if we want to come out on top, and everyone is determined after some solid and intense trainings this week to get the job done. We know we are going to have to work hard as they like to play off fast front-foot ball. So it will be important to have quick line speed in order to shut them down and cut off their outside backs. We need to trust our structure, execute at the set-piece, and make the most of any opportunities we create.”

With both teams out to create their own slice of history – the Beasties are hoping to blow the cobwebs off their Premiership trophy cabinet after a 51-year hiatus – and the knowledge that there is no tomorrow if you lose, it will no doubt be a game that comes down to tight margins. As a result, there are far too many if’s ,buts and maybe’s involved to look too far down the road. But should the Highlanders win through to the big dance next week and go on and lift that elusive Shute Shield, it would be quite some story. And that’s what drives Silk on to do what he does best.

“Playing for the Gordon club is everything. I’m proud to pull on the tartan week-in and week-out and play alongside people who are not only team mates, but brothers. Everyone is determined to win the Premiership, not only for the club but for all the long-time supporters. The club hasn’t been in a position like this for a long time, and it would do a great deal in restoring some of the Gordon pride, and continuing the legacy that the previous generations of players laid before us.”

Keep an eye on this one, he could be about to go off…

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