JR Henderson Shield Final: Gordon defend title in thriller

Photo: Andrew Quinn

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Having waited 10 long years for a piece of silverware Gordon have gone back-to-back in 3rd Grade, lifting the JR Henderson Shield for the second year in a row after defending their title in another close battle against Sydney University, eventually running out 29-24 winners.

A tight first half was dominated by the forwards and defence, as both packs looked to gain ascendancy at the set-piece and with ball in hand. Uni enjoyed the lion’s share of territory and possession but couldn’t make it count as Gordon edged it 10-7 at the break. But the game opened up in the second half with tit-for-tat scoring at either end leaving them locked up at 24-all with 15 to play, before a late charge-down from Highlanders flanker Harry Turner proved to be the difference.

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Uni were on the front-foot early, a nice line off a scrum from Joe Schwager paving the way for fullback Sam Renton to drop a tidy grubber in behind, but the bounce of the ball beat winger Max Robson to the sideline. A suitably well-celebrated scrum penalty kept them in prime position as they kicked to touch for a 10 metre lineout, but the throw missed its mark and fell into Gordon hands for an exit.

It was 10 minutes before the Highlanders could get out of their own half as the Students laid siege to their red zone without creating any gilt-edged opportunities, and a booming clearing kick upfield from veteran Erik Moss offered some welcome respite. However, back-to-back penalties conceded by Uni gave Gordon the opportunity to build their own pressure, and they didn’t waste it. Trucking it up through the forwards they stretched and softened the Students goal-line defence, with halfback Patrick Fa’apoi to the fore as he sprayed an array of raking passes left and right. And one final delivery had fullback Alex Barker jinking in and away for the game’s opener.

Erik Moss_Gordon v Sydney Uni_JRHS 2020 GF_AQ

Veteran Erik Moss on the charge for Gordon – Photo: Andrew Quinn

No doubt fired up by their indiscretions Uni went straight on the attack, a pinpoint kick-off from flyhalf Josh Hardie pinning Gordon five metres from their own line and putting pressure on hooker Nick Olive. When his throw was plucked from the air by a blue and gold jersey the alarm bells were ringing, only for Uni to knock-on before they could set a trademark maul. And when they backed that up with a short-arm penalty at the scrum for an early engagement to let the Highlanders off the hook once more, frustrations must have been at tipping point in the Students coaching box.

But you can’t keep a good team down for long, and from their next possession they hit back. Props Will Ridley and Salesi Ma’umalanga take some credit for their initial damaging carries, supplanted by a dominant surge from skipper Jack Stanford. But it was left to talented lock Luke Porter – who spent plenty of time in 1st Grade this year – to finish the job, with a tidy step between two defenders and a gallop through a gap to stretch his long levers out for the chalk. Max Robson matched Hone Edwards earlier conversion and we were 7-apiece after 20 minutes.

Luke Porter_Sydney Uni v Gordon_JRHS 2020 GF_AJF

Luke Porter dives home for Uni’s opener – Photo: AJF Photography

A breakdown penalty in Gordon’s favour after the restart led to some handbags as both sides released a bit of their grand final tension, but it also provided Edwards with the chance to restore the Highlanders lead at 10-7. The loss of Olive to injury in backplay was a blow although, with Rodney Ma’a in his place – a veteran of well over 50 Shute Shield games across four clubs and a previous 3rd Grade Premier with Gordon back in 2008 – they had a pretty handy replacement.

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ was Uni’s mantra as they looked to strike again before the half-time break, their next visit to the Gordon 22 coming off the back of multiple hit-up’s from their hardworking forwards. And they almost got the same result, Porter driven over near the posts but this time held-up. A penalty from the resulting five-metre scrum kept them in the hunt as they battered the Highlanders’ line with pick and drives to force another infringement. But just as they looked to turn the screw from another put-in they knocked-on, and the reigning Premiers went to the sheds with the narrowest of advantages.

Having had precious little ball in the first half despite leading on the scoreboard, Gordon set about making amends at the start of the second stanza as they patiently built phases across the field to look for a weakness. When they lost the ball on the floor and Uni had the chance to clear, an opportunity appeared to have been lost. But a sloppy pass from Uni’s Hardie forced centre Dan Poletto to rush his midfield kick, with air rather than distance the result, and when the ball was allowed to hit the deck and bounce backwards at an admittedly freakish angle, Gordon’s Hunta Campbell was played onside and was on hand to scoop up and offload for fellow flanker Harry Turner to race home.

Tim Lilomaiava_Sydney Uni v Gordon_JRHS 2020 GF_AJF

Tim Lilomaiava crashes over for Uni’s second try – Photo: AJF Photography

The see-saw nature of the contest continued as Uni went straight back up the other end of the field to score themselves. A penalty allowed Hardie to kick them within range from a lineout, and after several damaging surges had been quelled by Gordon, hooker Tim Lilomaiava was too big and too strong from a couple of metres to crash over. 17-14.

That was a signal for an all-out assault from the Students as they looked to up the pace of the game, taking a quick lineout with numbers out wide only for some good scramble from the Highlanders to hold them out. That fire looked to have been summarily doused by a yellow card for Luke Ratcliff for an incident in backplay following an intervention from the referee’s assistant. But it didn’t quell Uni’s renewed intent, and when Gordon infringed to give them another platform from 10 metres the ensuing maul was too powerful to stop, and big lock Zac Von Appen found the line to put them in front for the first time in the match.

Harry Turner_Gordon v Sydney Uni_JRHS 2020 GF_AQ

Harry Turner gallops home for the Highlanders’ match-winner Photo: Andrew Quinn

Accordingly, Gordon hit straight back. This time off another lineout but with a bit more invention, as Ma’a hit a pod at the tail to suck in defenders before a neat wraparound sent no.8 Jahmin Gernhoefer through unseen at the back to catch Uni napping. Edwards was again on-point off the boot to add the extras and it was 24-21 to the holders as rain started to fall in the Shire.

But guess what? Uni scored next of course, Max Robson punishing an offside penalty with his fourth successful kick of the day to make it all-square with 15 to play. So, who was going to make a crucial mistake or come up with the game-breaking play to decide it?

As it turned out it was a bit of both. The reliable Robson took a bit too long to get boot to ball as he attempted to clear Uni’s lines in the 66th minute, and was charged-down by the alert Harry Turner, who chased the loose pill and got the bounce he needed to grab his second of the day to put the Highlanders back in front.

Edwards’ first miss of the day meant there was still time for the Students to snatch it, and they were making good inroads into the opposition half when their desperation got the better of them and a knock-on gave Gordon the scrum feed. That gave Uni one last chance to force a penalty and regain control of their destiny, but despite a seismic initial hit from the pack, the Highlander’s eight went to work with aplomb, holding firm for James Dainton to smash the ball into the Forshaw grandstand and confirm back-to-back 3rd Grade Premierships for the boys from Chatswood Oval.

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GORDON 29 (Harry Turner 2, Alex Barker, Jahmin Gernhoefer tries; Hone Edwards 3 cons, pen) defeated SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 24 (Luke Porter, Tim Lilomaiava, Zac Von Appen tries; Max Robson 3 cons, pen) HT 10-7 at Forshaw Rugby Park

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POST-MATCH REACTION:

Gordon’s injured captain and grand final water boy Andrew Chapman:

“Just to win this year is obviously huge for the club and for us as a playing group. Considering that we hadn’t won a Premiership in ten years at the club and then for third grade to go back-to-back with about half a team who were starters last year as well, is massive. We didn’t lose to Uni at all last year and we beat them in the rounds as well this year, so we knew we had the right game plan to beat them. We knew exactly where they were strong, which are our strengths as well around the set-piece, and having been pretty dominant at scrum and lineout all year we knew that if we could hold them up at the scrum that we had the lineout and the backline to jump ahead of them, so we were pretty confident that we could do it again.

“We were playing into a pretty big wind in the first half – probably worth ten points at least – and we knew that if we could hold out and go into half-time pretty much level that we’d have done a really good job. Uni turned us around pretty quickly and we were fighting out of our half, but we knew that as soon as we did counter-attack around halfway that we needed to keep the ball in hand. We have a pretty dynamic back three led by Alex Barker at fullback, and we knew that if we could get the ball into his hands in some space that he could do some real damage, and he was lucky enough to get a good flat pass from our halfback Patrick and slip through a couple of tackles to get that first try.

“The try they scored they actually ended up breaking through Nick Olive, who ruptured his pec making that tackle, which is one of the reasons he slipped off and they got through. We’ve been really happy with our line defence all year, we’ve been really aggressive and firm with it, so for them to only go through once in that first half off a guy rupturing his pec, showed that we were pretty confident in holding them out.

“We knew we had to play the game down in Uni’s end of the field in that second half, and we knew we’d have the wind at our back. So anytime we were in the middle of the field the whole game plan was to turn Uni’s forwards around, pin them in their own half and back our set-piece to either get a turnover, or our defence to force an error. We did drop off in that third quarter and were a bit complacent with the wind and conceded a couple of tries, and part of the message that was going out there was that just because we had it at our backs didn’t mean we had the game in the bag, we still had to go out and play. But we knew that as long as we could keep playing it down their end and get our set-piece going that we’d be able to turn it back around.

Gordon 3rd Grade celebrate v Sydney Uni_JRHS 2020 GF_AQ

Head coach Tony Dempsey, prop Rob Lacinski, skipper for the day Hugh Cropley, and injured captain Andrew Chapman with the famous shield – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“A lot of the games in third grade seem to open up right at the end, and I think considering it was a grand final, both teams were really giving it everything they had. Uni knew that they were playing into the wind so they had to try and attack with ball in hand, and that spurred them on to try and run it from their own half and play a little differently. For us, having dropped our heads a bit and let them score a couple of tries we knew that we had to get our own back, so there was a lot to play for and both teams just gave everything they could in the last ten to fifteen minutes.

“We had a lot of the same playing group from the year before when we were fifteen-nil down at one point, and we got that game all the way back through our set-piece. And that Uni side was also pretty similar to last year and we hadn’t lost to them in two full seasons, so we really had a mental belief that we would go on and beat them. We beat them during the season and we beat them three times last year, so we knew we had it over those guys and that they’d be starting to doubt themselves as well. To win grand finals you’ve got to play with the footy in the opposition half and that’s what we tried to do and it paid off.

“Harry Turner has probably been one of our best players throughout the whole year but funnily enough, hadn’t actually scored a try before today, and then comes away with a double in the grand final! He’s probably the fastest openside flanker in the competition and he has had a few charge-down’s this year, so once he saw that their winger was a little bit slow in trying to clear the ball he was right onto that with his pace and collected it and dotted down in the corner for the winner.

“From the beginning of my career we basically lost to Uni twice ever year, so to be able to have the wood over them in two grand finals and over the last two seasons has been really special. Obviously, every team has probably got a losing record against them, so for us to turn it around against them and really feel supremely confident when we go out and play them is pretty significant. We know what their strengths are and that has been a real focus for us in the last two years, to be better than them at their own strengths, and that has led us to these grand final wins.

“If you look at our coaching team of Tony Dempsey, Brett O’Neill, Mike Spalding and Phil Scarr as well, they’re all guys that played over a hundred first grade games for Gordon, were a part of the 1998 Shute Shield winning side, and played for their state or country as well, and they’ve brought that winning mentality to the squad. They’ve really drilled into us that you’ve got to have that belief to win and that when we play to our potential we’re the best team going around, and that has really helped us as well.

“We know Uni would hate to lose to us again so they’ll be back and giving it everything they can again next year. They’re a hugely competitive team on the field so we know that we’ll have to train just as hard to compete with them again, and I’m not sure if any team has won three of these in a row so that’s a goal for us, to keep this winning run going. There’s only a certain amount of chances you get to win Premierships, and while we’ve got this really good playing group and really good mix of old and young players we’ve got to make the most of it.”

Gordon 3rd Grade Premiers_2020_AQ

2020 JR Henderson Shield Premiers: GORDON – Photo: Andrew Quinn

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GORDON: 1. Rob Lacinski; 2. Nick Olive; 3. Hugh Cropley (c); 4. Tom Leaver; 5. Nick Jansen; 6. Hunta Campbell; 7. Harry Turner; 8. Jahmin Gernhoefer; 9. Patrick Fa’apoi; 10. James Dainton; 11. Sam Mete; 12. Erik Moss; 13. Kurtis Quinn; 14. Hone Edwards; 15. Alex Barker – Replacements: Ben Wilkinson; Rodney Ma’a; Luke Gardner

To find out more about Gordon’s 3rd Grade Premiers, click here for some light-hearted player profiles from skipper for the day Hugh Cropley.

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: 1. Will Ridley; 2. Tim Lilomaiava; 3. Salesi Ma’umalanga; 4. Luke Porter; 5. Zac Von Appen; 6. Luke Ratcliff; 7. Patrick Calavassy; 8. Jack Stanford (c); 9. Daniel Calavassy; 10. Josh Hardie; 11. Max Robson; 12. Joseph Schwager; 13. Daniel Poletto; 14. Ben Bull; 15. Sam Renton – Replacements: Alex Masima; Tom Rhodes; George Lehmann; Darcy Page; Alex Simson; Harry Armour

To find out more about Sydney University’s 3rd Grade grand finalists, click here for some light-hearted player profiles from skipper Jack Stanford.

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