Grand Final Key Match-Up: Mark Nawaqanitawase vs Brandon Quinn

Photos: Serge Gonzalez & Andrew Quinn

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If you’re looking for excitement machines to light up this afternoon’s Shute Shield grand final, look no further than Eastwood’s Mark Nawaqanitawase and Gordon’s Brandon Quinn. Fingers crossed for a dry deck and the chance to see these two go toe-to-toe down the sideline, as their ability to bring a bit of x-factor to a game has been firmly evidenced across the season.

It’s been a whirlwind 18 months for 20-year-old Nawaqanitawase. In June 2019 he was tearing it up in Argentina as a vital part of the Junior Wallabies side that went all the way to the World Rugby U20’s Championship final, unfortunately losing to France. But his efforts were enough to earn him a professional contract with the Waratahs for this year, and his name was on the tip of everyone’s tongues – well, those that could actually say it! – when he bagged a double in his Super Rugby debut against the Crusaders. The newly christened ‘Marky Mark’ returned to the Shute Shield for another stint at Eastwood after debuting last year, and his return of six tries in six games alongside his intercept threat, aerial skills and deft handling, mark him out as one to watch.

Staring him down at Leichhardt Oval will be a player who bleeds the Highlander tartan. Brandon Quinn is one of six proud Gordon colts lining up in today’s starting XV, and like Jack Margin, another who has seen his fair share of struggles over the years at the club since debuting in 2011. Lightning-fast and a prodigious finisher, Quinn enjoyed a couple of years travelling the world with the Aussie Sevens boys. But when Covid put an end to global travel – and his pro contract – Chatswood Oval was the first place he headed to in order to shake off the disappointment. And his contribution has been invaluable, racking up six tries in five games before injury looked to have ended his season, before an improbable return in time for the finals and the chance to run out for his beloved Gordon in their biggest game for 22 years.

Behind the Ruck caught up with the opposing wingers this week to reflect on their seasons, their rugby journey to this big day, their opinion of each other, and their team’s chances of glory.

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ON THE SEASON SO FAR:

Mark Nawaqanitawase: “I came in late but from what I saw and the run we had going in, I think the boys were starting to get a bit more of a chemistry going, and it was definitely the right timing for us going to finals. I think we actually went into the Easts game not thinking about what losing meant, more so thinking about what we knew we could do and being confident with ourselves and how we play, which I guess showed in that second half. Then last week was terrible! That’s the worst I’ve played in, so rainy and windy you could hardly do anything with the thought of doing something wrong at some points in the game.

“With that I guess the time for celebration only lasted a few hours and we got straight back into game mode for next week. Pretty much the next day all of the boys were in stretching and ice baths. I guess for me it’s a pretty new feeling being in a Shute Shield GF. It’s always exciting to be in a GF but with Eastwood it seems a bit more exciting because it means a lot to so many people around the club. There are so many people getting around the hype but also really keen to get out there at Leichhardt oval with us.”

Mark Nawaqanitawase_Pat Sio_Eastwood v Warringah_2020_SG

Nawaqanitawase’s ability to offload in the tackle creates space for others – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

Brandon Quinn: “After such a long pre-season, COVID lockdown, smaller training groups and then a near full season, it’s just great to be here at the tail end. It would have been very easy to get lazy over the break, but I think we took advantage of it, which put us ahead of a lot of teams and in good stead for the season. I think it’s almost exactly twelve months since we had our first session back last year so it’s great to have the finish line in sight. I guess it’s probably everybody’s dream goal going into a season to win every game, but in reality it’s very unlikely to get through a whole season without a loss. Though you never want to lose a local derby I think the loss to Norths was good for us in the long run just to bring us back down to earth a little bit, and ensure that we have to work hard for every win and that things won’t just automatically happen for us.

“Certainly a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have expected we’d be in this position, especially in such a short amount of time. With the lower grades finishing off last week it’s great to see them all still so involved this week just at training and getting around the boys. It’s great to see how dedicated these players and staff are to the club as a whole and really helps bring in even more energy around this week. As our coach DC says, “winning is contagious”, so when you see six of our seven teams in the finals, a Club Championship and then two Premierships already, it just goes to show how important it is that the whole club does well, not just the higher grades. Unfortunately we won’t have any Gordon teams playing before us on Saturday but I have no doubt they’ll be out there rain, hail or shine.

“For us this week isn’t too different to normal, just with a bit more media hype and a couple of events around it. Not since I’ve been at the club have we even made finals, so it is a bit new. But in saying that, we have a lot of new players and guys who have a lot of experience. Our goal was never just to make the grand final so there hasn’t been much celebration yet, in saying that there is a bit of a buzz around training this week as you would expect. When you get to play-off time there are never going to be easy games, so we’ve been expecting tight games from the very start. And what we can take out of those games is that when we are under the pump we’ve found a way to grind out a win. This weekend will be the test as to whether you can call us the real deal.”

ON EACH OTHER AND THEIR JOURNEY TO THE BIG DANCE:

Brandon Quinn: “After Covid hit back in March and I was told there wasn’t a spot for me with the Sevens anymore, my first call was to DC letting him know I was fully on board for the upcoming season. With rugby all over the world more or less at a standstill, it was an obvious decision to play in the Shute Shield with Gordon. For me it will never be anywhere else but Gordon, so it’s been awesome that there’s such a great set up here at the moment. Over the last three or four seasons I would have only had a handful of fifteen’s games under my belt, so I worked quite hard after coming back from Sevens to put a bit more weight on, and getting a good block of pre-season training really helped get my head back into fifteen’s mode.

“When you’re on the end of such a talented backline as a winger, a couple of tries are inevitable. But for me I was just having a great time playing some fifteen’s rugby and getting some consecutive games together. Then I picked up the injury to my knee, I tore a bit of cartilage off my patella so really I just had no choice but to rest it and let it recover. I definitely started getting a bit nervous when the weeks started ticking away and I felt like I was plateauing with my rehab a little bit. Considering how well we were going I was determined to get back in time for the finals, so luckily enough it came good in the end and I was able to have half a game against Randwick.

Brandon Quinn_Gordon v Warringah_2020_AQ

Quinn leads a Highlander charge against Warringah – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“Mark has had a really good couple of years, obviously with the U20’s and then really bursting onto the scene with the Waratahs. He’s a great physical athlete and one of those guys that can change a game in an instant. He’s got good acceleration and top end speed, is very good on his feet, and his ability to beat a defender or score a try with just a sniff of the line are impressive. Further to that he’s got a good offload game and is also strong when getting up for a kick.”

Mark Nawaqanitawase: “It’s pretty crazy to think how far I’ve come in the last twelve months, I’m so grateful for the opportunities given to me and all the help I have had to achieve some of my goals. I was very fortunate to have a start at the Waratahs like that. It’s a young side but also with new coaches and new systems, and when you’re only taking your first steps which can be hard, we were going to have up’s and downs. It’s no different to any kind of change in a team but only over time can we better ourselves. Also it doesn’t help when the whole world goes into lockdown, which had a massive impact on us all. I did have a different ending which happens, but not once has my drive to be in that starting Tahs XV changed, from the very start to now I will always want to play in that team and playing with Eastwood is exactly the same.

“I’m very pleased to come back to this club, it has some great people who do a lot of things to make things go right and one of those things is putting the right players on the field. From the boys to the coaches everyone loves getting up on a Saturday and going out there to play some footy, and it’s more fun when we all work together to help each other score some points. It would be a lie if I didn’t say Tane [Edmed] and Belly [Chris Bell] were the heart of the team. They make sure we know what we are doing but in a calm manner and not by rushing us or themselves but also taking control of games. They’re great to play with, especially when they are putting you in to score!

“I can’t go past Brandon’s pace, for me to be better than him I think I have to shut him down early. Don’t let him get space or else he could hurt us. Joey Walton’s coming off a great year as well so he’ll bring some professional experience to their side, but also he is a very good player who can help control a team around a field and is not bad at having a little run as well. Then there is Jack Dempsey, a strong ball carrier who likes to think he can offload – ha ha ha! – but brings experience from the highest level so will be tough to stop. A bit of chat has already been going on at Tahs training on Tuesday, which was good to hear, and I’m sure there will be more to come.”

ON THE GAME:

Mark Nawaqanitawase: “For us it was a really good test right before finals to go against the possible ‘club champions’ when we played Gordon. It gave us a measure for how we would also go against other clubs, which I guess boosted a little bit of confidence going into finals. Hopefully the weather holds up and we’ll be able to have a battle between ourselves instead of just the forwards, because there are some quality players in there and it could really open up the game to make it interesting. But if it’s anything like last week I think both teams will be a little bit more conservative, which obviously would shut down any sort of expansive play.

Mark Nawaqanitawase_Eastwood v Gordon_AQ_2020

Nawaqanitawase will be looking to claim bragging rights over Waratahs team mate Jack Dempsey – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“If we stick to our plan and do our job I think it will be a great game. I think it could be won or lost in everything we do, so it’s about making sure we go out there with confidence and belief that we can do everything we need to for a win. I think the boys are really excited but at the same time it’s a first for many of them so nerves will definitely be there. which isn’t bad because it shows they care.

“To the club it would mean the world to them. The amount of people who love and support this club is just crazy, but to be able to bring a Shield back for them would be amazing. Personally, being my second year at Eastwood I think it would be a great achievement. But at the same time it’s really exciting to be a part of, especially with this great bunch of boys who I know have worked hard all year to hopefully lift that Shield in front of everyone.”

Brandon Quinn: “We can take a lot out of that game against Eastwood recently, it’s good to get exposure to different scenarios like that throughout the season. Obviously we were up by a few tries then the momentum shifted back to them, so for us it was good to get into a tight game like that in a pressure situation and still be able to find a way to win. Having the ability to grind out a game is so critical, especially at this time of year, so to show some grit when times are tough is so important.

“Our nine-ten combo have such a great ability to control a game, and their ability to kick, set someone up or have a go themselves, is phenomenal. Outside that, our centre pairing are big strong guys with great ball playing capabilities which gives us a variety of options to run off. Then there’s the flair of the outside backs. Ahmu’s [Tuimalealiifano] been great in defence all year and you could see what Jaline [Graham] could do given a few minutes last week. It’s played out that we’ve got a few back from injury in the last couple of weeks so we’ve still got incredibly talented players sitting on the bench. On them we know Matt Gonzalez is a little whippet, Tane Edmed and Chris Bell have got great boots on them and they’ve also got guys like Lachie Anderson and Nawaqanitawase with some flair about them.

“It’s probably a cliche but I’d say the game is won and lost in defence. Both teams are full of skilful and exciting players, so whoever can keep a lid on the other is going to have a major advantage. Eastwood is traditionally a very power-based team with a lot of strong forwards, but then clearly they’ve got that flair out in their backline and an exceptional kicking game from Edmed and Bell. In the backs we’ve got to be ready for both run and kick options from them, and in the forwards it will be a real physical battle. Although it would be a shame to neglect the crowd of some good running tries, at the end of the day we’re here to win a Premiership and we’re going to play the style of rugby that is going to get us that win.

Brandon Quinn 2_Gordon v Two Blues_2020_AQ

Quinn dives home in style against the Two Blues – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“I can’t speak for others but for myself I’m definitely feeling more excitement than nerves. I’m excited every time I play so the bigger the occasion the better. But you definitely can’t pump yourself up too much throughout the week and be mentally drained by the time you run out on the field. To hold up that Shield on Saturday afternoon would be huge. Not only would it justify the hard work and determination this team has shown throughout the last twelve months, but it would mean a lot more to a lot of people.

“To have our names beside those guys who have won Gordon Premierships and to make those guys proud would be the best part. It would be gratifying to do it for the whole club, not only current players but to all those ex-players and old Gordon faithful who are still passionate about the club and love seeing us do well. There have been a lot of tough years at Gordon for the last decade, so to be here now is a great achievement. I think what makes it even more satisfying for me and a few others is that we’ve been there and stuck it out during the tough times, which would make a win this year all that much more special.”

THE COACHES VIEW:

Ben Batger: “Still just 20-years-old, this is Mark’s second year playing finals football and he has already played Super Rugby with the NSW Waratahs. Another one-club man, Mark has size, speed, agility and x-factor that can trouble the best of defenders. His leaping ability is second-to-none and he could easily take up AFL.”

Darren Coleman: “I’m really happy for Quinny to get back for the play-off’s. He copped a tricky knee injury in the game against Hunter and it was genuinely doubtful for three or four weeks whether he’d get back on the field this season. I could tell that for a Gordon kid and a Gordon colt, you could see he was visibly down. But in true Quinny style he’s done everything possible to get back. In finals he’s increased his playing time and got better each week. He’ll be primed for this week, and probably what people don’t appreciate too much is just the pressure that he exerts on opposition with his kick-chase. I’m really happy that he’s on the field this week for him.”

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For a complete set of grand final player profiles from each coach click below:

MEET THE TEAMS: EASTWOOD with Ben Batger

MEET THE TEAMS: GORDON with Darren Coleman

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