Grand Final Key Match-Up – Harrison Goddard vs Matt Gonzalez
Photos: Andrew Quinn & Serge Gonzalez
Our final key match-up for this afternoon’s Shute Shield grand final is one of the most mouthwatering across the park – the halves battle between Gordon’s Harrison Goddard and Eastwood’s Matt Gonzalez.
It may be somewhat falsely painted as the young gun versus the old hand, but even though Gonzalez appears to have been on the Sydney club scene for an age he is still only four years older than his young opponent. He’s already got a Premiership notch on his belt from 2015 when he was just 21-years-old, so he knows a thing or two about playing your first grand final at a young age. But injuries have plagued him ever since, and it has been fantastic to see him return to 1st Grade this season and play a full season in career-best form as one of the speediest and most dangerous running threats from nine in the competition.
Trying to match his achievement of a Shute Shield title at the first attempt is 22-year-old Goddard. Identified as a talent early in the piece he was fast-tracked into the Melbourne Rebels system after earning his 1st Grade stripes at Randwick. But after several years of kicking his heels with a frustratingly limited amount of footy, he returned to Sydney this year, and to a revamped Gordon side being led around the park by big brother Jordan. His influence has been obvious, proving to be the perfect foil to star flyhalf Rodney Iona with his mixture of pace and an accurate and astute kicking game.
Behind the Ruck caught up with both halfbacks to gauge their views on the battle ahead.
ON THE SEASON SO FAR:
Harrison Goddard: “I’ve loved it. It took a while to play again with the scheduled changes but as I came back from Melbourne I just wanted to play week-in, week-out and put everything into the season. Gordon has been great, the culture and feeling around each training session/event is something that has made me enjoy footy at club level. Credit to DC and the coaching staff that have made it feel as close to a professional set-up and I’ve been so fortunate to have good players, coaches and all volunteers around me to make this such an enjoyable year.
“Achieving Minor Premiers was special for the club and felt like a massive reward for the work we put in. The Norths game taught us a lot, and although we lost and didn’t play our best I think it made us hungrier to learn and be better to finish off the season well. I believe it’s how you bounce back from a defeat that shows your true character. I came to the club in January and I’ve seen so many of the players work so hard and stick at it during the Covid period. It feels great to see all our hard work come to light and reward us with a great opportunity to make something special for our club. Gordon Rugby deserves to be in the position it is in.
“Finals footy is always another level and there’s a lot more passion and drive to win. Of course, although the Randwick game was close, it was a game where we had very little ball possession, and our defence was key in that game. Easts was a patience grind game, in which we stuck it out and our hunger made us finish well. Yes we’ve had challenges, but facing them with the groundwork we put in – especially with our detail of knowing how we want to play each week – and knowing the opposition well and being tactically smart gives us confidence each week we play.
“It’s a massive achievement for our 3rd Grade and 2nd Colts to be able to make finals and win a Premiership, and rewarding for both teams as I have seen first-hand both grades work hard to achieve what they have. It definitely does make first grade motivated to achieve the same. The buzz this week has been amazing. We’ve kept the week the same in terms of the same routine and treating it as another game, but enjoying the build-up also has created more energy and passion from everyone.”
Matt Gonzalez: “We started out this year a little slow, and obviously everything with Covid shook it up a little bit. But in terms of the season it took the team a little bit to gel together and start working as a unit. There was lots of new pieces being added in, so at the start it was a little clunky. But from the first game we played together I think everyone quietly knew there was a little something special about the group of boys this team has, and it was only a matter of time before it all came together. Whilst we had a couple of bumps along the road and learnt some lessons the hard way, I think it shows some real determination and grit to be able to come into the finals series as the underdogs and grind out two really tough wins to get us here.
“Whilst it hasn’t been perfect, I think we have showed some real character and development as a team, especially in those last two weeks. ‘Batg’ [head coach Ben Batger] has been very vocal about peaking at the right time of the season, that slow build-up to finals where each week we get better and better, then come finals time everything comes together. In terms of this week it’s about getting the bodies right and being prepared to play the biggest game of the season, so that’s rest and recovery, ice baths, stretching, foam rolling and some light movement. Just ticking the boxes to ensure the bodies are rested and recovered come Saturday.
“You’re not going to learn many new things or change something drastically for the final game, so it’s about knowing the game plan and focusing on ourselves for and how we want to play this game. It’s an awesome feeling to be here, all the hard work we have put in throughout the last twelve months have paid off. This is why you work so hard as a player and as a team, so you can get the chance to make it to the ever-elusive grand final. The boys are excited and really focused on getting the job done. There’s still one more game, eighty minutes of footy to go. So whilst I’m not getting too excited and over thinking it all, the feeling of what’s to come is growing steadily.”
ON EACH OTHER AND THE HALVES BATTLE:
Matt Gonzalez: “When you love the game so much and you have to sit on the sidelines and watch it, it’s incredibly hard, so to be able to get a whole season together for me is huge. I haven’t played every minute this season, I missed the game against Penrith, which was a blessing for my body. But I honestly didn’t think it would go this well for me. Two years out of footy is a really long time and to play how I have this year I am really proud of myself, but I couldn’t have done it without the support staff I had behind me helping me along the way. There’s a lot more that goes into coming back from a long-term injury than meets the eye, and without that support around me I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today. You go into some really dark places that you’re unsure if you’ll get out of.
“Not winning on Saturday would obviously be incredibly disappointing, and I think if you ask anyone from either team they will say the same thing. But that doesn’t mean the season has not mattered. For me it was about putting my best foot forward and giving it everything I possibly could, week-in, week-out, which I have and I’m proud of myself for doing so. Winning will be the icing on top of an unreal season, and I will do my best to help the boys get there and raise that Shield.
“Tane [Edmed] and Chris [Bell] have been awesome, for me it makes my job much easier when you have two players in the backline that can both play ten, are really good talkers and organisers, and have some of the best rugby brains in the Shute Shield. Each week we go through a game plan together to figure out how to best attack the opponent, and each week Belly and Tane nail it on the head in the game, but also make adjustments when they need to. That is what I really enjoy about playing with the both of them, they are always talking, playing eyes up rugby and adjusting to how the opposition is defending. That makes my job as a halfback easier as I’m focusing on what’s happening in front of me, while they’re focusing on what’s happening around the field.
“The last couple of weeks have been tough, I much prefer dry footy as it aids my game a little more than the wet does but it’s about making adjustments. If as a team you can adjust how you play to suit the weather it’s going to make a massive difference over the team that doesn’t adjust and plays how they would in the dry. There is a risk with playing expansive footy in the wet but I also think you need to take opportunities when they arise, something we didn’t do a huge amount of against Norths. We played very conservatively whereas they tried to play expansively, both had an impact on respective teams and outcome of the game. It’s a matter of finding the balance and adjusting on the run to the weather and how the opposition is playing.
“I honestly don’t think playing in a grand final before does give me an advantage, Harrison has played Super Rugby so he knows what it’s like to be in that environment already. Being a grand final will raise the nerves a little bit, but he doesn’t strike me as the type to be distracted by what’s going on around him. I think he will be cool, calm and collected, and having that professional experience really helps I believe. He’s a great player, he has a fantastic kicking game, a great pass and he is also a very good organiser. I don’t think it’s a matter of getting the better of him, or he of me. We are very different players in my opinion, I am more of a runner and attacking threat where he is more of a tactical and kicking threat, so it’s not so much that I need to do something different to get the better or come out on top. It’s a battle of halfbacks sure, but each of us have strengths as well as weaknesses. It’s about playing to our strengths and exploiting those weaknesses.”
Harrison Goddard: “I was definitely disappointed with the limited game opportunity in Melbourne, it was quite frustrating and mentally draining only playing ten or so games in four years. But I knew I had a great club and competition in the Shute Shield to come back and make an impact. As a player you just want to play footy competitively week in week out, and enjoy the nature of playing the game along with trying to continue your skill development. Every person has setbacks or people doubting you, but I was confident in my ability and have always believed in letting my footy do the talking. So I just wanted to get an opportunity to get back on the park and get some decent game time to help relieve some of that mental frustration, and also continue on my journey of being a professional player and my goal of representing the Wallabies.
“Having had a taste of Super Rugby, when I came back to Sydney I gave it some great thought on my next steps and how to get closer to my goals, and my priorities were based on gaining access to as close to a professional program and more importantly high quality coaching. Having chats with my brother Jordy and also Darren Coleman I knew Gordon was a place that was really going places ,and I was keen to play a part of helping bring success to Chatswood oval. DC has told us to just enjoy the journey of playing rugby and that it isn’t always just straightforward and easy. With that in mind I’ve just loved playing for Gordon this year and whatever opportunities come up in the future I’ll be grateful for.
“The opportunity to play with Jordy was a big factor, he’s always helped me and been the person to give me advice on certain things. I’ve played with Jord for Lloydies at the Central Coast Sevens but never in fifteen’s. It’s an awesome feeling running out next to him each week on the field, from little kids in the backyard it’s been a big goal of ours to play and create success together. He’s been a great leader for the club and I suppose it does give me extra motivation knowing my brother is next to me going into battle. We are both a bit stubborn, so we sometimes clash. But that’s how we criticise each other and tell each other on how to improve. Being a halfback, it’s sort of fun telling your ‘big bro’ to get in the defensive line and tell him what to do!
“Sure, experience can help players. But I treat this as another game, my mindset has to be composed and in the moment. Everyone’s played in high pressure games so I think it’s all mental. I think giving the team a fast service really helps with how we want to play. The up-tempo style of footy is effective. Our team are well organised with smart forwards knowing when to carry and pass. Going into that Easts game we knew it was going to be wet, so adapting but just being patient and putting the ball into opposition corners is key for those games. At the same time, having confidence to pass in the wet is something that is encouraged if it’s on, and I felt in our last thirty minutes we did that well. A combination of confidence and belief is what I think is essential, and that is what will drive us.
“I’ve know ‘Gonzo’ since I was a kid, we went to the same school so I’ve seen his game grow. He’s got a good running game around the ruck and at set-piece, and I think his attack and link-up with his backs has been very helpful for Eastwood this year. I think being tactically smart and having high energy for my forwards to keep going is key. Tane Edmed and Chris Bell both have great kicking games, so we will be aware of that and have a plan in place to do be smart with where and what we do with the ball.”
ON THE GAME:
Harrison Goddard: “There was a lot of passion in the game between us three weeks ago. Both teams have big forward packs, so we knew it was going to be a physical game. Tying that in with a lot of tactical kicking and being smart from our own zone to exit well and play the ball and add pressure. It was a hot sunny day, which let us throw the ball around. So let’s hope Mother Nature can bring us a miracle this weekend! You can’t change the weather, so first thing is to adapt to whatever it is and apply ourselves with an attitude of not letting it affect us come kick-off. I think at times we just play our game by using both our big men and outside backs and changing if need to if it is raining heavy.
“We have to apply ourselves to be in the game for the full eighty minutes. I think set-piece will be a good battle and will allow both sets of backs to show their attacking flare. Once again, it’s about being smart in where to put the ball at certain times and our defence will have to be on point. Defence shows how much you want it, so I think it’s going to be a courageous game. I’m sure the boys will be nervous building up to the game but that’s natural. It’s a combination of nerves and excitement. Knowing our plan and going through in our heads I think is a good thing. Practising the first play over again allows us to be clear.
“This club has been through a lot, and for myself seeing how much effort boys have put in and even all the coaching staff and the volunteers, it’s motivation to do it for them. My Dad has won two Premierships with Parramatta, so to do it for my family would be special as he loves to put the 1985 and 1986 GF video on every now and then!”
Matt Gonzalez: “We can take a lot of confidence from the previous game against Gordon, there’s not too many teams that can be 19-0 down against a top of the table opponent and come back to lead with ten minutes to go. Although we came up short, it really proved a pivotal point in our development that we can come back, we can fight adversity, and we can bring it together and come together as a team and fight back to win games. I think that confidence has followed us into the finals and will be following us into this game on the weekend.
“It was very cold, wet and windy last week. Tough footy weather. I have played in worse, in my first year of colts against Randwick at Epping Boys High the whole field was bogged and there was a small worry in the back of your mind about drowning at the bottom of a ruck! However, the wind wasn’t like it was on the weekend. So I would love for it to be a dry game, better for spectators to watch, more running rugby and everyone displaying their skills. However, knowing it will be wet, for me it’s accepting that and adjusting to playing with a wet pill. The game plan might slightly alter as well. Sure we have played two weeks of wet weather footy but so have they, so I don’t think either team has an advantage in that situation.
“I think it will be won and lost in the little one-percenters – who is going to work harder for their team, get off the ground quicker, make it to the next ruck to clean out, those little things are what is going to be the difference maker because those little one-percenters add up. Gordon are very good at tactically kicking as well as making you pay for your errors, so ensuring we clean up kicks is going to be really important, being clinical under the high ball and securing the ruck, then figuring out what do to next from there.
“Everyone is really excited you can tell, there’s a certain energy in the room that’s building but we do have to remain calm and not get too over-excited too early in the week. I would be lying if I didn’t say every night before bed I have thought about it and envisioned what’s happening throughout the game, I think a lot of the boys would be doing that as well. But it’s a matter of keeping a lid on that and making sure not to overthink and over excite before 3pm on Saturday afternoon. It would mean absolutely everything to win in a year where so much has happened, and considering we weren’t even sure there was going to be a season in April. So to be able to grind through and win the Shield would mean the world, not only to the twenty-three players taking the field but to the coaches, club and supporters that come week-in, week-out to cheer on the boys and support us through thick and thin.”
THE COACHES VIEW:
Darren Coleman: “As a coach you’re always looking for ways to make players better, and the by-product of that is that you don’t appreciate the things that they are good at enough sometimes. Besides all of Harrison’s obvious skills, the 1998 Premiership halfback – a guy named Kemble Cowan – opened my eyes up when we were talking after the game last Saturday when he told me that the best thing he likes about Harrison is his composure. And if you look at Harrison I don’t think I’ve coached a halfback – particularly at Shute Shield level – that has so few errors and gets flustered as little as he does. He’s only 22 or 23 and even younger in rugby years because he spent so much time sitting down in Melbourne, but he’s just a really composed player.”
Ben Batger: “Eastwood junior who was part of the victorious 2015 Premiership-winning team. Has rebuilt himself after an injury-plagued few years to once again establish himself as one of the most dominant halfbacks in the competition. Lightning speed make him a nightmare for opposition defences. Lives in the gym.”
For a complete set of grand final player profiles from each coach click below: