The Final Word: Exclusive GF preview by Mark Gudmunson

Shute Shield season launch

Photo: Stu Walmsley

Expert analysis on the title decider from West Harbour head coach Mark Gudmunson. After injury brought a premature end to his playing career, Gudmunson got the coaching bug in his twenties. Eighteen years on, he’s certainly served his apprenticeship. Having done a year with the Pirates 5th Grade side, he moved up through 4’s to 3’s, where he oversaw back-to-back Premierships in 2005-06. After four years honing his craft with the Briars club in Subbies, he returned to Concord to coach 2nd Grade to a grand final in 2012, got a taste of 1st Grade when he took over as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2015 season when Joe Barakat headed overseas, and spent two years assisting Todd Louden before finally getting the hot seat on a permanent basis in 2018. He has just signed up as head coach again for 2021.

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THE CLUBS

GORDON (8 Premierships – 1952/54/56/58/76/93/95/98) – Captain – Jordy Goddard

From 2018 Wooden Spoon to 2020 Club Champions, what a couple of years it has been. The Stags, the Highlanders or whatever you want to call them, have been the benchmark for 2020 with 11 wins, and just one loss but have they got the understanding to win a Premiership? The confidence and experience is definitely there if you look at the playing group and the coaching staff. Can the emotion of the week and the big day be contained to send super coach Darren Coleman off to Major League Rugby with another title?

EASTWOOD (6 Premierships – 1999/02/03/11/14/15) – Captain – Pat Sio

Head coach Ben Batger knows what it takes to win a Premiership as a player, while John Manenti has surely added some experience to this group with the Australian Sevens programs on hold. I speak with Eastwood players or players that have played for Eastwood, and there is always an underlying confidence that they can beat anyone and at any time. There is never any panic, they stick to what they know and it works. Will that be the case on Saturday? There has been a bit of a changing of the guard in the past few years at the club, is this group as good as ones past, and will retiring stalwart Jed Gillespie bow out with a third Premiership?

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THE COACHING TEAMS

GORDON: Headed by the very well credentialled Darren Coleman. What a past four years this guy has had. I am sure Super Rugby clubs have knocked on his door with opportunities, but DC as he is known, is a man of the people. His focus on detail and the breaking down of the game is top notch, he has visited a few clubs within the Shute Shield and I do not think he has left one that is not better than when he arrived. This club has not been a one man show in 2020 though. When I heard that Brian Melrose was coming to assist DC, we knew this team would go to another level. Billy has been one of the top coaches within the Shute Shield for a long time without putting it all together. Then you add in the tough Liam Winton, who would have added a real grit to this team, and then the super experienced Cam Blades looking after the scrum. Some professional outfits would be happy with this team, so we can see why this is a success.

Just one thing I want to note and often think about with all that Gordon has achieved. If Rapid Rugby had taken off in Western Sydney – which is where DC was signed too – would Gordon be where it is today. I am sure all Gordon supporters and players thank their lucky stars that all fell through at the last minute.

EASTWOOD: I am sure players and supporters were thinking ‘where too next?’ when John Manenti moved into Rugby Australia. Do they go outside the club or do they put the club in the hands of an Eastwood player that has a massive amount of playing experience, both professionally and semi professionally for a long time, but not much coaching experience as such? They would not be too worried now. Ben Batger has led this team through a massive transition and come out the other side with a berth into a grand final. All the way through this he has been assisted by another Eastwood player in Andrew Clyne, and the tall timber with his quiet approach has got these forwards firing. As mentioned earlier, John Manenti is still watching over Ben’s shoulder, but I am sure that is at the request of Ben to continue on his path to a Premiership. Top class mentors willing to give up their time are hard to come by.

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ROAD TO THE FINALS

GORDON P12 W 11 L 1 / EASTWOOD P 12 W 8 L 4

Who would have thought that Round 13 was a dress rehearsal for grand final day? Gordon came away winners 29-24 on the day, but it should be noted that they did lead 19-0 and Eastwood got back in front by sticking to a game plan, and arguably had a tough call against them on full-time. Also key to note that Mahe Vailanu was blue carded early in this game and he is a key for me in the Gordon team.

Preliminary Finals

Gordon (1st) took on a Randwick (6th) team towelled up the week prior by Eastern Suburbs. This was a really tough game for me to judge as a coach. Gordon were the only team that were guaranteed to be alive the following week. The only thoughts that went through my mind as a coach would have been ‘I hope players do not get injured for the following week and what do we have to gain?‘ I am sure it did on Gordon’s side too, and I imagine this was in the Gordon discussions at some stage in coaching meetings. It kind of made me not really worry that the score was close, Randwick improved out of sight from the week prior and were a very good team all year, so nothing was lost for me –  and remember Mahe was having a week off from his blue card the week prior. They did what they had to do. Gordon 15 Randwick 14.

Tom Silk 2_Gordon v Randwick_2020 PF_AQ

Gordon’s defence had to be at it’s best against Randwick – Photo: Andrew Quinn

Eastwood (5th) took on Eastern Suburbs (2nd). As mentioned, Easts were coming off a big win against Randwick, while Eastwood were coming off a tough loss to Gordon. The weather was terrible and it was the unveiling of a few players that showed they were ready for the big time. Mark Nawaqanitawase we had seen throughout the Super Rugby season; Lachlan Anderson was a player that had come from Australian Sevens and Tane Edmed had been in the Waratahs system for the past few years. These three guys stood up and took over the game. If it was not Mark catching high balls, running the length of the field and having the ball on a string off his boot, it was Lachlan with some strong efforts in defence and some big carries when needed, and his constant workload all over the field was outstanding. But for me it was young Tane that guided his team around the park, and made Easts have to attack into a wind in the second half from their own try line. He was well supported by Chris Bell at the back too, but these three for me were the standouts. Eastwood 29 Easts 20.

Semi-Finals

Gordon took on Eastern Suburbs and although it was a battle in the first half, I always wondered whether Easts could bounce back from the previous weekend’s loss. They also had Rob Leota and Lalakai Foketi out injured, and they are big names for me to be missing. They did welcome back Jack Maddocks who would have added some inspiration, but you could always see that Gordon were in control. A great kicking game and some outstanding tries from Gordon really put them in a good frame of mind for this weekend. Jaline Graham’s try assist was special. Gordon 28 Easts 10.

Eastwood took on Northern Suburbs in a game that was dominated by the weather. Cold, rainy and windy. Which team would play field position the best and come out on top? Although Eastwood know how to grind out a win, I would have liked to have seen one big thing be better for them. I would have liked the scrum to dominate a little more (ground conditions may have played a factor). Tane Edmed and Chris Bell had the ball on a string and kept Eastwood in the game. Eastwood were tough, but a little disappointing for mine. Norths certainly had their chances, and if not for a few wayward lineout throws, this could have been a different story. In saying that, Eastwood – as always – stayed tough and prevailed, but they will need to improve on this performance to win on Saturday.

Pat Sio_Eastwood v Norths_2020 SF_SG

Eastwood skipper Pat Sio leads the charge in dreadful conditions – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

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ATTACKING THREATS

When doing the review of both teams and how I would defend against them, it was a case of where do you start. If any team gets a lineout 5-8 metres out from the opposition’s line, it is try-time for mine. Both teams have great driving mauls and will use them. Can you stop it? Not without referee James Quinn giving advantage or a penalty try you can’t. Add to that the tricks DC will have up his sleeve if Eastwood focus only on the counter maul. Don’t be surprised to see Vailanu rolling the corner to slip an inside ball to Brandon Quinn. On Eastwood’s side, Ed Craig is a hooker that knows how to get the ball in his hand at the back and score tries. Both teams have players with pinpoint kicks to put their teams in these spots.

Both forward packs have dominant forwards, Pat Sio and Sione Tau come to mind for Eastwood, and Jack Dempsey and Vailanu for Gordon. These guys will have lots of carries in the game. Both teams like to use the forwards a lot while the backs just sit and wait for opportunity, so expect it to be tight if the weather is not great as predicted. For me this creates opportunity for the brave if they wish to go wide. Eastwood have scored some great tries this year by having decoys come short and playing out the back, Gordon have scored some great tries with their speed players coming back through the middle, so watch for this on Saturday.

The best attacking match up for me is at 9 – Harrison Goddard vs Matt Gonzalez. Both have top service from the ground, Harrison has a box kick that will worry wingers and fullbacks all day, and Gonzalez has speed that I know of and I hope we see on Saturday. Gordon will need to watch the edges of the rucks as I have seen over the past few weeks Gonzalez looking for opportunity. Saturday may be his chance. Which one has the best game on Saturday is holding the Shield at about 4.45pm for me. The only thing that is against Gonzo is that at some stage Harrison will go off and Jacob Abel will come on, can that be the game changer for DC and the Gordon team?

Enoka Muliufi_Eastwood v Gordon_2020_AQ

Enoka Muliufi is a wrecking ball at 12 – Photo: Andrew Quinn

Gordon’s outside backs can do almost anything, Quinn coming back in adds some real speed and he goes looking for the ball in the midfield. Joey Walton and Tautalatasi Tasi will carry strong, and then when Jaline Graham is injected into the backline, watch out. Eastwood’s outside backs need to get the ball more. Enoka Muliufi at 12 has been under used by Eastwood and he needs the ball in his hands early. I do not want to see him put under pressure to catch at the gain line, he is at his best when he can catch and pick the player he wants to run over. We have already mentioned Mark Nawaqanitawase earlier and he is a threat on the ground with speed or in the air with size. If it is dry, this will be a highlights show for everybody watching.

The weather plays a big factor in all of the above. If it is wet, then centres and wingers are going to get a cold. If it is a good pitch, bring on the highlights reel. If West Harbour were defending these two teams, I would defend hard and square, cut down both inside centre’s spaces, and not give them any time before being hit hard and low. Let players drift across field if they wish, defend your channel and DO NOT JAM IN! The talk would be about making your one-on-one’s and never giving up on the inside once the ball is past you. Always have an eye on the ball in front of your outside defender, this will make sure of good linespeed and no gaps back on the inside. Lastly, if the big boys are going to get through, they are going to have to go over you, so get your body in front.

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DEFENSIVE STRENGTHS

Many teams try to get at both number 10’s in attack. These two do not go hiding and have plenty of support on their inside when needed. That is a massive defensive threat for both teams as openside flankers can get on that ball if the 10’s make a good first up tackle. Attack needs to look elsewhere for space. The key on both sides is their outside centres, how well Anderson and Tasi can connect with their folding forward pack after the attack has just crashed up midfield is going to be key, both teams do this in the game. If the outside centre does not get the help needed, both teams will play immediately to an edge and score points. Tom Silk and Tom Murphy will have to work overtime to be that help. If they are not a genuine threat on that ball, they need to fold and help or you will leave your mate hung out to dry. Both teams like to leave the big fellas shortside in defence off set-piece, so also be prepared for a raid back down the shortside if opportunity presents. Having the option of Edmed and Bell adds value to Eastwood’s attack. So it is key that both teams find a good balance of who folds and who holds to protect both sides. The width of a field seems easy to cover, but with a few wrong decisions in defence space will open up.

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THE SCRUM BATTLE

These are two of the best scrums West Harbour came up against in 2020. They will both be looking to get dominance and advantage from the referee so this is such an interesting battle. As I mentioned prior, I would have just liked to see a little more from Eastwood last weekend. Jed Gillespie in his last hurrah and I don’t think he wants to go backwards, so I think Eastwood will have a big focus on helping that. Gordon have Super Rugby calibre coming off the bench, which means no rest for Eastwood and shows what Brandon Fa’avae-Eli has been doing all year. He’s a quality young prop. There is some quality locking the scrum too for both sides, all with hard edges to them that work hard all day, so it will be all about the first hit and who wins that. If it is wet, expect plenty of scrums. I can see you front rowers rubbing your hands together already praying for rain.

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THE LINEOUT BATTLE

The weather 100% dictates what will be on offer here. Both teams have quality lineout options, both teams have quality throwers who will chance their arm and throw to the back if the wind is up. I think either team could get some real pay from launching off the back of the lineout, it will come down to if they have the guts to go deep. Both play a lot of strong strikes off clean ball in the lineout, so this is a key match up again in the game to win clean ball and execute. If it is wet, expect plenty of quick throws at the back and wingers and fullbacks playing a bit deeper to keep the ball in. This throws attacking opportunity for those that brave it with wingers in the backfield, or playing 50/50 and weakening their front line defence. This is a battle of the minds at the set-piece.

Iona, Rodney runs rain 241020D-1796.JPG

Rodney Iona’s battle with Tane Edmed at 10 will be one to watch – Photo: SPA Images

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KICKING GAME

Edmed and Bell vs Rodney Iona. With Eastwood having two strike powers here, Gordon’s back three will have their work cut out. Iona has some classic touches that could help Gordon, but he needs to find grass as Bell showed in the past few weeks that if you kick to him on the full, you are going to be pinned in your own 10 metres to exit, and that makes for a long day. This for mine is where the game can potentially turn in Eastwood’s favour. Harrison Goddard is going to have to take a big chunk of the kicking role to ease the pressure on Iona. Goddard’s box kick is outstanding, and he also possesses a soft touch when required with some crafty dink-style kicks when on the front-foot. Both teams have great goal kickers to help the scoreboard tick over. Tactics will change on the weather, but I expect a fair bit of kicking and some great counter attack opportunity.

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KEY MATCH-UPS

I have already spoken about the one I am looking forward to in the halves with Goddard vs Gonzalez.

MAHE VAILANU vs ED CRAIG
The hooker battle between these two will be top notch. Mahe is the Ken Catchpole favourite in my eyes and has been outstanding whether at hooker or 6 for the past few seasons. Ed got a Super Rugby opportunity this year at the Reds and has improved every week. I have seen Ed likes a bit of the chat, so let’s see what Mahe brings in return.

TANE EDMED vs RODNEY IONA
The battle of the flyhalves is probably most people’s one to keep an eye on. Edmed is playing some great rugby and for him to lead this Eastwood team through some real tough battles in the past few weeks has been awesome to watch. Each week has been another step up test for him and Saturday will be no different. He needs to control the game, get the ball out of his hands quickly when needed, and then kick to corners and control the game when his forwards have worked overtime. For a young guy this is a big challenge, but he has not let anyone down yet. Iona is a highlight machine, whether it is flicks through the legs, cut passes or linebreaks, He always seems to have all the time he needs. It is interesting who Gordon are up against, but he reminds me a little bit of Jai Ayoub with his ability to be patient and just control a game for his team, and then jump in and take the game over when his team needs him. I can’t wait to see what he offers up on Saturday.

JACK DEMPSEY vs PAT SIO
The final match-up I will be focusing on is the number 8’s. This could get physical. Both will not take a backwards step in carries, both will have major parts in their team being in the hunt with minutes to go. Dempsey has the resume of Wallaby and Waratah, Sio is one that should probably have a Super Rugby team name next to his name in my view . These two guys will be massive influences on their teams performance, they both like to run the ball and be dominant in defence.

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THE FINAL VERDICT

This is a real tough one, so many factors come into play. The weather, the bounce of the ball, the energy within the playing group and the crowd. I think that Gordon will be too good for the Woodies on Saturday and send DC off to the LA Giltinis in his pink shirt a winner. If I had to go with a score, I would say Gordon 28 Eastwood 17.

To all teams playing on the day: Good luck, play well and enjoy. Grand finals are hard to make, so don’t get lost up in the day and miss it all.

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