Finals Fever: Winner Woolf still hungry for Beasties success

Photo: SPA Images

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The final four of the 2020 Shute Shield season are very much competing at opposite ends of the experience scale when it comes to contesting the pointiest of pointy ends of the competition.

Eastern Suburbs enter relatively unchartered territory this afternoon, at least in their recent history, with a first semi-final appearance since 2007, and a chance to go through and play-off for their first Premiership title since 1969. Standing in their way of a first grand final outing since they reached the big dance 12 years ago and went onto lose to Sydney University, are Minor Premiers Gordon, who are themselves on the brink of achieving a milestone for their club should they progress, having not featured in the decider since 1998, the year they last tasted 1st Grade glory.

It’s a very different case of recency bias on the other side of the draw however, with 2016 Premiers Northern Suburbs competing in their fifth successive semi-final and a chance to contest what would be a third grand final over the same period. Up against them are Eastwood, Premiers in 2011, 2014 and 2015, and semi-finalists eight times across the previous decade. It’s the freshly blooming flowers of the Highlanders and Beasts on one hand, versus the hardy perennials of the Shoremen and Woods on the other.

In fact, when Gordon take on Eastern Suburbs at Rat Park today, only one player will be taking the field with a Premiership-winning tankard already in his possession, Easts evergreen try-machine Richie Woolf.

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A familiar sight up and down the touchlines of Sydney clubland over the last decade, ‘Woolfie’ – still only 28-years-old – remains as one of the biggest threats in the competition with his pace and finishing prowess. And every club rugby-loving follower will have the sight of the rangy 6ft 3in winger tearing a path across North Sydney Oval to score for Northern Suburbs in the 2016 grand final win over Sydney University, etched into their memory banks. But it turns out he was almost lost to the game before he’d started, with a love of swimming and water polo at school.

“Swimming was my main sport through high school and then being a quick swimmer with big hands meant water polo was a perfect match,” he explained to Behind the Ruck this week. “I was never really a rugby player, I always played in the D’s and E’s through school but managed to get into the 2nd XV at Knox for my final year. After that I took a year off and tried to keep up my swimming and water polo, but unfortunately they were both difficult sports to continue with at Uni and with work commitments. At that point all my school mates were playing Subbies Rugby for Knox Old Boys so I joined the Colts team in 2011 and just sat on the wing and I haven’t moved since. I never really knew I was a fast runner until then. It was great fun and we won back-to-back Premierships.”

That success led to a chance meeting with the coach that would shape his rugby future – and the acquisition of a new nickname.

“Through Subbies I joined the Norths Sevens Team and met Simon Cron. We won the Byron Bay Sevens, Bowral Sevens and Central Coast Sevens, and earned a trip to Fiji to play in the Sigatoka Sevens. We had a great team including Sam Myers, Will Miller, Sam Figg and my partner in crime – Lochie Creagh. Cronny started calling me the ‘Newborn Foal’ because of my lanky height and weird running style! After that year of Sevens I stuck with Norths and played a mix of first and second grade under Scott Fava and Joel Wilson.”

He made his Shute Shield debut in 2014 against West Harbour, but the return of Cron to take up 1st Grade duties for the 2015 season after a year continuing his coaching apprenticeship – ironically at Easts – was the catalyst for a seismic rate of progress for Woolf and his fellow young Shoremen.

“With Sevens as well I was fortunate to be coached by him for nearly four years,” he says. “Cronny and I were very similar in that we both really hated coming second, so he brought a winning mentality to the club. He also brought in a style of play that gave outside backs a lot more space because the forwards had attracted so much defensive attention. This allowed us a lot of space and created numerous line break opportunities. But I think the main learning from Cronny was the development of a Rugby IQ and just knowing what to do in all different scenarios. I think rugby intelligence is the most handy skill to have on a rugby field.”

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Diving home in style in the 2016 grand final win against Sydney Uni – Photo: Clay Cross/SPORTSPICS

The story of Norths run to the finals in 2016, and the breaking of a 41-year Premiership drought on their own ground, has been told many times. But the one about how they went all the way to the grand final again a year later only to go down by five points to an emotionally-charged Warringah, is not one that is regaled too often by that particular band of Shoremen.

“I always hear chatter about the 2016 team, but we kind of erased the memory of the 2017 loss,” he admits. “For me 2017 still burns because we know we could have been better. I still haven’t watched the highlights or the replay of that game. Emotionally it was bit of a rollercoaster because just a year before it was the euphoria of winning. But I have been fortunate to enjoy the experience of winning and losing a GF, so I know what it’s like and you can learn from it.”

They almost got there again in 2018, this time under the steady hand of new head coach Shannon Fraser after Cron got his reward for a job very well done at the next level with the Waratahs. A team that had become very much player-driven with a talented, ambitious and studious leadership group, lost just three matches in the 18-round regular season to finish second on the ladder, but were left ruing the Rats again after bowing out to Warringah by just 3pts in week two of the finals.

“I think the 2018 team under Shannon Fraser was one of the best to be a part of,” reflects Woolf. “Irae Simone came back to the club for pretty much the whole season from the Waratahs, and by that stage the entire cohort of us had a lot of experience under our belts. Our game plan didn’t really change and we just were on the same page as a collective. We were very unlucky to lose against Rats in the semi-final, and the worst part is that one of my current coaches (Easts assistant coach Myles Dorrian) was the one who kicked us out with a penalty conversion at the end!” 

Last season saw injury curtail Woolf’s involvement to just eight games as another run to the semis fell short at the hands of Sydney University, a 40-7 dispatching that maybe didn’t quite suggest the end of an era for Norths, but certainly a rethink and a reboot. That would play out with the arrival of a new coaching team and several fresh faces to the playing roster, while many of the stalwarts that had played their part in a golden period for the club moved on – including Woolf.

In my experience of covering Sydney club rugby, it’s not all that often that a regular starting XV Shute Shield player makes the move to another club in the off-season. But after seven years plying his trade on the lower north shore, and one Premiership, two grand finals, and an incredible 64 tries in 81 games, that was the decision Woolf agonisingly arrived at late last year. However, whilst the choice to pull on the tricolour jersey of the Beasties was a welcome chance to try and thrive in a different environment, it was driven by simple logistics rather than any downturn of affection for the Shoremen.

“Unfortunately, 2019 wasn’t a great year,” he says. “I had come off ankle surgery and we never really got in the groove at the tail end of the season. I think we lost a few on the trot and snuck into the semis because we were the highest-ranked loser, and at the end of the season a large chunk of the original Norths cohort either retired, went to Super Rugby, or went overseas. I have been an Eastern Suburbs local for a long time now, and it was the perfect moment to move a bit closer to home and let the new generation of Norths boys come through. One of my biggest challenges has always been juggling work and rugby, and moving to O’Sullivan Road made that a lot easier.”

Richie Woolf celebrates_norths v Sydney Uni_2016 GF_CC

Woolf left Norths after racking up 64 tries in 81 games – Photo: Clay Cross/SPORTSPICS

What wasn’t easy was walking away from a club, a culture, and a group of tried and trusted team mates – and then telling them.

“Yeah, it wasn’t easy and I had to make some pretty tough phone calls,” he confirms. “But the boys understood the decision and it made sense. I am proud of what I brought to Norths and what we achieved together. The club gave me so many opportunities and I wouldn’t be the player I am today without them. I have had the honour of playing alongside some unbelievably talented players and even got to watch some of them become members of the Wallabies. I just thought that the timing was right to move and that the club was in safe hands going forward.”

At 28-years-old and with six years of 1st Grade behind him – plus that Premiership tankard of course, Woolf had earned the right to settle into his new rugby environs on the other side of the Harbour Bridge with the minimum of fuss and with plenty of good will. He was the new kid in school but one that his fellow class mates were all too aware of, and were presumably happy to see donning their colours for a change rather than the opposition down the road. But it was still an awkward first few days out of his red and black comfort zone.

“It wasn’t easy! I was pretty nervous but very excited at the same time. I came in pretty cold and only really knew a small group of Easts boys, but to theirs and coach Pauli Taumoepeau’s credit, they made the transition super-easy for me and welcomed me with open arms. Having two pre-seasons because of Covid also helped, and it feels like I have been a member of Easts for long time now.

“A change is as good as a holiday and I was ready for a new challenge. One of the best things about Easts is that the facilities are all together – the training/playing field, clubhouse and gym etc, so everyone always sticks around in the clubhouse after training or a match. It’s a great place to hang out and they have built a great culture within the club. On the field they are both very similar clubs, so the transition from that perspective has been easy.”

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One of the boys: Woolf has settled in quickly at Woollahra – Photo: SPA Images

What has helped is the symbiosis he has developed with his new coach, someone that he already had a shared rugby history with when they crossed paths at the next level last year.

“It’s been great, Pauli is very passionate and we get along really well. He has a great chemistry with the players in the entire club and he’s been through it all as a player, colts coach and now first grade coach. I also had the opportunity to get to know him a bit when he was coaching the Waratahs A team in 2019, and I have really enjoyed Pauli’s training methods and he gets the best out of me. He has a very bright future ahead of him and I am glad to say that I have had the opportunity to play for him.”

Woolf joined a club that was preparing for a season for which there was much hope and expectation. The team had made steady progress under the hands of Taumoepeau since he took up the head coaching reigns in 2017, after his promotion from a stellar stint with the Beasties colts system. Having not played knockout footy since 2010, he guided them to back-to-back finals appearances in his first two seasons, and mustered a young squad of serious potential, embellished by a healthy injection of professional talent at the business end of the competition.

But the elephant in the room was that lack of a Premiership for 51 long years. And the belief being fostered around the traps and those of an Easts persuasion, was that 2020 heralded their best chance of going all the way since a side that contained the likes of Taumoepeau himself – a hugely talented backrower in his day – and future Super Rugby talent in the shape of Matt Hodgson, Brendan McKibbin and Taumoepeau’s younger brother Afusipa, had fallen at the first time of asking some 10 years ago.

Pauli quote on Richie Woolf

However, it’s one thing to have the tools for the job, it’s quite another to have the necessary mindset and application with which to use them to their fullest capabilities. And bringing in a player who has been through that transition of a team from pretenders to the throne, to sitting proudly on top of it looking back down on everyone else, can only be a positive. That he did so with a club that had also endured a long-term drought of success was a rather handy bonus. But his straightforward approach was to play down the hyperbole and get on with the job of winning games of footy.

“When I had the discussion with Pauli last year there was no expectation, I was just ready to provide the team with any help I could give them,” he says. “I have watched Easts the last few years and they are always a talented team but it just never went their way during the finals. Those types of added expectations can do some damage mentally to a team. We ignored all that and just needed to trust our processes, and the wins would come week to week.”

Except they didn’t.

Woolf started in customary style, crossing the chalk twice in his first two matches before picking up a hamstring injury. But the team slumped to just one win from their opening four matches, and in this Covid-affected shortened season, were left with just eight weeks with which to turn around their fortunes just to get into the finals, let alone position themselves as a genuine challenger. However, any crisis talk was confined to the external noise outside the club and the team itself. Taumoepeau believed they weren’t all that far away when Behind the Ruck spoke to him following a 20-17 loss to Eastwood in round four, and his players were firmly in the same camp.

“I don’t think we were ever under any pressure,” confirms Woolf. “We lost against Gordon in round one and that was due to us being a new team and not having played much together. We then lost to Eastwood and Warringah by three points each, and in both those games we made some errors. We knew we had the ability to get on track eventually. We knew that we couldn’t afford any more losses – regardless of how close. We just needed to be better as a team and execute when we had the chance.”

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Woolf takes on former team mate Angus Sinclair – Photo: SPA Images

The bye week after that Eastwood game came at perhaps the perfect time, giving both players and coaches the chance to regroup, rebuild, and go again. And it paid off, with a 24-14 victory over a previously unbeaten Northern Suburbs side in round six that renewed some much-needed confidence and belief. It also happened to be Woolf’s return from injury, and against some familiar faces.

“It was strange to be wearing a non-red and black jersey but good fun at the same time,” he smiles. “I copped a bit of a spray from the boys on the sideline but it wasn’t anything I wasn’t expecting, and all a bit of fun. That win was the start of our run, and I think given the short season we all knew we had to right the ship. It was a tough game and Norths played really well, we just got over the line at the end.”

It kick-started an incredible run of eight wins in a row, a series of victories that took them from the fringes of finals despair and the relative nightmare of a place outside the top six given their pre-season ambitions, to second on the ladder – their highest finish in over a decade. It included wins over Sydney University at Woollahra Oval, against Manly at the Village Green, and a once-in-a-lifetime derby day humiliation of arch-rivals Randwick, as a host of Super Rugby talent came back to put their distinguished shoulders to the wheel.

But it was a less-than routine away day success at gallant new boys Hunter Wildfires that stands out for the new recruit. Easts trailed 14-5 early in the second half to a team looking for their first scalp since returning to the Shute Shield, and they needed to rally hard to eventually come home with a wet sail and run out 31-21 winners.

“I think the Newcastle game sticks out for me,” says Woolf. “We went down after half-time but we remained calm and composed to eventually get a good win on the board. That was a good learning experience for us. Having players like Alex Newsome, Lalakai Foketi, Ryan McCauley and Charlie Gamble back – and even Tom Staniforth and Will Harris as well – definitely helped. However, we always said from the start of the season that the chemistry will eventually develop and we will start working better as a team and understanding how we all play.” 

But still, that Randwick result eh?

“The Randwick game was my first derby day and it was really good fun,” he understates. “It was just one of those games where everything stuck for us. They got out to a ten-nil lead but we just came back and once we had the momentum we were pretty hard to stop.”

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Showcasing his aerial prowess against Randwick – Photo: SPA Images

While the additions of Messrs Newsome and Foketi et al have been understandably welcome, Woolf has had the opportunity to blossom alongside a backline that took it’s time to click in the early rounds but has flourished to the extent of an average of just under 40pts per match in the regular season. Key to that has been the form of fullback Dan Donato, whose kicking from hand and off the tee have been a huge contributor to Easts progress. While utility back Henry Paterson has been a fellow ever-present across a couple of positions, and added five tries to the teams healthy tally for good measure.

“They’re great boys to play with and get to know,” says Woolf. “Dan was one of the first guys at Easts along with his brother James to welcome me to the club, and it’s been great to get to know them and their family. They are both still very young but have really bright futures ahead of them, and the Donato name will be well-known through rugby channels shortly. One of Dan’s biggest assets is his kicking game during general play, and his ability to slot conversions and penalty kicks from anywhere on the field. He has one of the most reliable right foots in the game, and makes the job of the forwards and his fellow backs a lot easier.

“Henry joined us late in pre-season after coming back from a short league stint, and he’s also been one of the form players in the comp. He’s Kurt Gidley-like in that he can play most positions in the back line – although as a Chooks fan he would probably prefer a Mitch Aubusson comparison! Originally he was at outside centre and his brother Will was on the other wing. However, as the season has progressed he has moved onto the opposite wing. He’s one of the fastest players in the comp and has a lethal step on him. If Henry is less than twenty-two metres out with a bit of space, he’s under the sticks most of the time. 

“Having Lalakai and Nobby come back to Easts after Super Rugby has also been great for the outside backs. They both bring a tonne of experience and knowledge to the team and know how to manipulate the defence to get the ball out. They are also great leaders and know how to get the best out of the forwards and steer them around the park. Coupled with Jack Grant at half and Cohan Guerra steering us from ten, it’s been a great backline to be a part of over the last couple of months.”

I’m glad he mentioned Guerra. Watching on as a punter with far more passion for the game than in-depth knowledge, I still found the puzzle presented to coach Taumoepeau at the start of the season regarding who he selected at flyhalf to be an intriguing one. While his first choice Jordan Jackson-Hope can play at 10 or 15, he really made his name as a dashing inside centre for the Canberra Vikings, winning their Player of the Year award for the 2018 NRC season in the no.12 jersey. Similarly, Nic Holton arrived from Manly as another who had donned the playmakers jersey on numerous occasions for the Marlins, but had arguably enjoyed his best success as the second ball-player with a bit more time to employ his kicking game.

It would be wholly unjust to lay the early season struggles squarely at their feet alone, there were clearly problems across the park for a team that was still gelling at that point. But after three rounds of trying both in the hot-seat without being totally convinced, it was the performance of Cohan Guerra off the bench against Eastwood in round four, and his chemistry with scrumhalf Jack Grant and levels of communication with his pack up front, that persuaded Taumoepeau to give the 2nd Grade starter his chance. He’s been there ever since.

“Cohan is a genuine playmaking ten, and has a great relationship with Jack Grant both on and off the field, so the two of them connect really well,” observes Woolf. “It’s tough for Pauli when you have Jordan and Nic to choose from as well each week, but each time Cohan came on towards the end of games in the first four weeks he just understood the game plan we were trying to execute, and was able to lead the forwards around the park.

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Cohan Guerra’s form has earned him the starting flyhalf jersey – Photo: SPA Images

“He’s also been an Easts boy for a long time so he has a good chemistry with the greater playing group and the coaching staff. He’s got some ‘biscuit shoulders’ on him but I am always shocked how he sticks his tackles on some big boys each game! He’s also one of the funniest boys to play with, and I know I always get a good laugh each time I see him, and so do the boys.”

With the attack purring along and things coming together nicely across the paddock, they came into the finals off the back of that bizarre 81-24 result over the Wicks. And with the eight wins in a row and the second-placed finish that came with that, the Beasties suddenly found themselves in a position they perhaps don’t feel particularly comfortable with – if not favourites for the competition then strongly-fancied. Yet things didn’t quite go according to script last weekend against Eastwood in the Preliminary Final. Again.

Having recovered from a slow start to put together a dominant 15 minutes of attack that garnered three tries and a 15-10 lead, they came unstuck in the second half deluge that swept across Rat Park. Barely making it out of their own half they went down 29-20 to a Woodies side that were admittedly at the right end of the field when it mattered, but also played the better footy to suit the conditions, and duly prospered.

“Eastwood to their credit played really well and some unforced errors on our part didn’t help,” reflects Woolf. “I think in the second half they just played smart. The conditions were in their favour and their game manager’s made the right decisions, kicking with the wind behind them and camping us in our half. That led to some errors from us and they capitalised. It was the first game we had played in a while in those conditions and Eastwood made the most of it. They have historically been a big team with a large forward pack and they played to their strengths. Luckily results in the other games fell our way and we were lucky to stay alive for another week.”

The old adage that form is temporary and class is permanent is not wasted here. You don’t win eight games of footy in a row, beat Sydney Uni and put 80pts on Randwick, if you’re not a pretty handy rugby team. You also don’t become a bad side after one performance. But rolling in on such a wave of positive emotions only to come up short again can be a difficult cross to bear, particularly when the loss came at the hands of the team that ended their season the year before at the same stage.

They do live to fight another day against Gordon this afternoon, courtesy of their efforts across the season. But have they been able to put last week to bed in time to rediscover their mojo, and down a Minor Premier side that saw them off 35-24 all the way back in round one?

“We reviewed the game, made some adjustments and are now looking forward to Gordon,” says a no-nonsense Woolf. “There’s no point reflecting, we have just moved on to Gordon and we know we just have to do our job. The loss was good for us and we took it as a learning experience. Finals footy is no different to a regular season match, we just need to go out there and do our jobs. If we execute well the opportunities will present themselves.

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A consolation intercept against Eastwood last weekend – Photo: AJF Photography

“I don’t think we have taken anything away from the round one loss at Chatswood. Gordon have been the most consistent team all year and are a side very well coached by DC. I suspect it will be a physical, low-scoring game and will come down to one or two mistakes that will lead to the other team scoring, so we need to be at our best.” 

Before a ball was kicked in this strange old season to remember, Pauli Taumoepeau gave Behind the Ruck his response to the external expectation building around his talented squad and what they could achieve in his pre-season preview.

“I also think that any pressure or expectation, especially over the last three years, comes because the team is doing so well. That’s pressure that we’ve brought onto ourselves and I think that’s good pressure. You certainly don’t want it to be the other way around and people saying ‘We don’t expect much from these guys’ or ‘They’re losers’, I’d much rather have that expectation.”

By extension then, a loss at this stage for Easts, and failure to reach the title decider, would have to be seen as a missed opportunity for this group. Woolf acknowledges that to a certain extent, but his time in the game also tells him that whatever happens this afternoon, it’s just a game of footy, the sun will still come up tomorrow, and the world will still be spinning. 

“Our end goal in 2020 is of course to win. But I’ve loved this season, getting to know the players, coaching staff, support staff and the supporters. Regardless of the result on Saturday we have built a good foundation going forward, and I look forward to an uninterrupted 2021 season at Woollahra.”

However, the chance to join a pretty exclusive group is suitably alluring. But long live the pragmatist…

“To be a part of history with two clubs with such long Premiership droughts would be great and a huge honour. To also help win one for Pauli and some of the Easts old boys would be huge.

“But the first job is Gordon.”

Spoken like a true winner.

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