2021: The Big Kick-Off – Northern Suburbs
Original photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS
Northern Suburbs produced some of the most attractive footy in the comp last year, and were the only team to beat eventual Premiers Gordon before falling one game short of what would have been a third grand final in five years, after an agonising extra-time loss to Eastwood in crazy conditions up at Rat Park.
With head coach Earl Va’a heading back to New Zealand for family reasons, assistant Zak Beer steps up to take the reins of his first full Shute Shield season in charge, having successfully steered the ship through the Covid-affected early part of 2020 in Va’a’s absence. With a pretty consistent roster and last year’s disappointment fuelling their ambitions, expect the Red and Blacks to feature heavily again in 2021…
Looking back at last year it was a pretty consistent season that saw Norths be the only side to down eventual champions Gordon on the way to a 3rd place finish on the ladder, before suffering a heartbreaking extra-time loss in the semi-finals to Eastwood – what was your 2020 summary?
“Given the players that we had lost and the overall transition between 2019 to 2020, I think most would say that we exceeded expectations last year. However, clearly as a group we wanted to finish the job and go all the way. So, while we were pleased with the minor successes throughout the year and some really special moments, it gave us a burning desire to carry that momentum which we had built into 2021.“
Where did you meet or excel expectations, and where did you fall short?
“In terms of expectation, obviously we evolved the way we played last year from previous years, and the speed with which the boys picked that up, and the cohesion and combinations and clarity of their roles was instilled a lot quicker than you would expect given it was a bit of a new and blended group.
“Where we fell short was around the set-piece area, and that’s been a big part of our pre-season planning and preparation this year. We’ve got Simon Johnson on board again, who was involved with the forwards last year, and Ben Matwijow, who has returned to the club as a former captain. They are both in charge of the set-piece and have done an incredible amount of work and analysis in training both on the field, and through video sessions with the players through the pre-season break. In saying that, we did have the number one defensive lineout in the comp last year, and we were up there in terms of our attacking lineout, so there were some really positive things that we’ve been able to carry through as well.“
What have been the other focus areas for 2021?
“My philosophy for this year is for us to add more layers to both our attack and defence. The benefit that we’ve got this year is that not just myself, but also a number of the coaches and a vast majority of the playing group are carrying through from last season. So that gave us the opportunity to refresh over the summer and reinvigorate our thinking around new and creative ways that we can approach the game, and bringing those in on top of the foundation of what we built in 2020.“
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“Last year prepared us for anything! Obviously, we played deep into the year last year, so we gave the boys until after the Christmas break off and told them to get completely away from footy in November and December. They had a program in terms of their strength and conditioning, but we didn’t overload them with rugby related stuff, we just wanted them to get completely away from it. They have come back in with a real clear focus, drive and determination to improve in all areas.
“In saying that, we did get a trial against Eastwood washed out and unfortunately couldn’t find another ground, but I think that’s been the case for a number of clubs. However, on the positive side we did get a trial the week before against the Canberra Royals, who have won the last three or four John I Dent Cup Premierships, and had a really good showing down there. It was a great trip for the boys as well so were blessed to get that trial in, and we had another good trial against the Rats. So, whilst it’s been a bit of a sprint, I guess we’ve ticked all the boxes that you would usually do in a traditional pre-season.“
Last year was a bit of a sprint, this season sees a full 17 rounds. How has that informed your approach in terms of game style, player management, fitness regimes etc?
“Funnily enough, off the back of last year my thinking has evolved in using some of the methods that worked last year in addressing some chunks of the season. Clearly depth is going to be the most critical factor for any side, and we were well positioned last year thanks to our strength and conditioning team and our physios. Head of Athletic Performance Gavin Aquilina and grade physio Jarrod Rangihuna kept the vast majority of our first fifteen on the field for most of the year, and those guys come into play even more now with the depth that will be required.”
You assume the head coaching role with the departure of Earl Va’a, your first opportunity to lead a 1st Grade side. But you obviously spent a large part of last season’s pre-season, and the early rounds of the competition running the show with Earl stranded in New Zealand due to Covid, so you already have plenty of insight into what it involves. You must be relishing the chance, and excited to put your full imprint on this squad?
“It’s highly exciting, and the honour of taking this role is not lost on me. It’s been a journey. Eleven years coaching in Sydney club rugby and coaching at every grade right through has been an incredible learning experience, and it has given me the opportunity to build the necessary skills I need technically, tactically and mentally to step into this role with great confidence. Nine of those years were spent as a head coach and it is a role that I do enjoy. And the opportunity to have been a part of the group last year in difficult circumstances with Earl stuck in New Zealand for the majority of the pre-season and across the first five rounds, I guess gave me a really rare and unique chance to be involved in certain areas of that role. So for me, it’s not like a drastic change of role or responsibility, and the year-on-year involvement in coaching within the Shute Shield over the last decade has given me some deep insights into the workings of a club.“
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“The short answer is yes, but you can always do with more depth in all areas. The exciting thing for us as a club this year is the number of players who are of such high calibre that have reached out to us to join our program. For the Northern Suburbs club as a whole I guess that is a great indicator of the brand and style of play we promote, and our standing in the comp. But that counts for nothing because it all starts again this season.
“We could always do with more depth in key areas, and like every club, particularly in the front row and locking departments. But we have worked hard to build a squad of depth with guys that we believe are capable and still have room for growth as well, and we probably have more competition for spots across the board this year than we did last year. Our colts program is going from strength to strength led by Ben Molloy, and we’re seeing a number of those players graduate from our 2020 colts program into our top squad this season.“
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“Max Burey. He was in rugby league for a few years and that experience added a lot to our attack with him playing from the back at fifteen last year. He’s still only twenty-one or twenty-two years old and he’s a pleasure to coach and work with, particularly with me being an attack-focused coach and the way that he sees the game and the conversations that we have about developing new ideas to open up our attack. He’s ambitious as a player as well, and I truly believe that with the commitment that he shows that if he stays the course, he’s a kid that can definitely go all the way.
“Another one is Brad Hemopo, who had an outstanding season last year. I think he’s evolved his game since he’s joined Norths and his style of play suits the way we want to play. We want to coach to the profile of the team and the players in the team, and Brad definitely suits that style. He’s got bigger and faster since last year, and if his performances in the trials are any indicator, he’s certainly evolved his game even more.
“Also, James Margan, who took that hooking jersey at the start of last year and probably exceeded a lot of expectations. He’s another who has put on more size and is stepping up as a leader in our pack, and I don’t think there are many other hookers in the comp who have his running game and speed.“
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Sam Shepherd, who is one of those players who’ve come up from colts. He’s a lock who was actually our colts Best and Fairest last year and he’s still only nineteen. Through his grit, work ethic and studious nature in terms of studying the way we play and his role clarity, he’s forced his way into our top squad and has held on to that spot and played well in the trials. If he’s not in the first grade squad for round one, he’s definitely someone that will get some game time this year.
“Brodie Leber is a backrower that was actually with us in 2019 and got a deal with the NEC Green Rockets in Japan, and has now come back and is committed to this season. He’s originally from Canberra and was with the Brumby Runners and has also been with the Aussie Sevens, and is a really exciting proposition in terms of backrowers in the Shute Shield.
“The other one is Liam Dalibozek, who was the top try-scorer in colts last year. Still also only nineteen, Liam was in our Sevens team for Kiama where we finished as runners-up, and he got injured in the last game and won’t be back until round six or seven. But he is someone who played a bit of second grade last year, and with the continuation of last season’s format where colts played before second grade, I think you’ll see a few of our colts team.
“The program had a strong year last year off the back of a couple of really tough years, and we hope to see them continue to build because it’s creating a good pathway for players to come through into grade. Having been through and coached all those levels I understand how important it is for those guys to have that attention and respect, and those development opportunities. For us to build a sustainable club we clearly had to do a bit of reactive recruitment and list management last year when Earl and I came onboard. But this year it’s been more proactive along with a number of guys approaching the club, and hopefully less so as the years go on.“
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2021?
“Everyone looks great before round one but we just don’t know, and that’s what makes this comp so special because there’s so many genuine contenders for the title, and every game is going to be difficult and a grind in different ways. In terms of clubs it’s always hard to say, because I know last year’s predictions didn’t fit what a lot of people expected. But I think Uni will improve and Eastwood will be in and around there as always.“
What is the target for Norths in 2021 – a Premiership and nothing else?
“We’re excited for another year, because whilst it was heartbreaking you’ve got to pick yourselves up. We’ve been crystal clear on the areas that let us down last year, and have gone about doing everything in our control to improve on those areas whilst still evolving our strengths. We’ve added layers to both our attack and defensive games, which have evolved since last year.
“Our viewpoint for the season is to literally focus on one game at a time, that’s our approach and we focused on the same thing last year. Overall, everything we do is about improving on where we were in every area last year as a collective group, as individual players and coaches, and as a wider club.“