2021: The Big Kick-Off – Randwick
Original photo: Ric McLallen
Randwick shot out of the blocks in 2020 and were leading the way at the halfway stage off the back of a miserly defence and an ability to score from anywhere. But several heavy losses in the second half of the season – in particular the humbling at the hands of arch-rivals Easts – left them with a 6th placed finish and a mountain to climb in the finals. However, a gallant one-point defeat at the hands of future Premiers Gordon in week one left a feeling of ‘what might have been’ for a group that had gelled superbly well under the guidance of first year head coach Ben McCormack.
Victims of their own success, McCormack enters the 2021 campaign having seen a bevy of his stars from last year go on to earn professional contracts, and has the task of integrating a handy list of replacements into a squad primed for bigger and better things this time around…
Looking back at last year, the Wicks started well and led the competition for a couple of weeks before falling away a bit in the second half of the season. But you did finish in the top six for the first time since 2017, and went on to push eventual champions Gordon all the way in week one of the finals. What was your 2020 summary?
“It was definitely an improvement on the previous few years. But anything short of a grand final berth is disappointing, so we definitely weren’t happy with it. As a group we didn’t meet the expectations we put on ourselves, so we were all pretty deflated at the end of the year.
“There were only two games all year we weren’t actually in at all, and that was the Gordon game at Coogee, where they just smashed us at the breakdown and scored a lot off turnover ball, and then the Easts game at Woollahra, which was just a bit of a strange one. We had been scoring tries quite easily in the previous couple of weeks and had a really attacking mindset, and we scored early and with relative ease. But when Easts started scoring points our mindset was still ‘just get the ball and we’ll score tries’, and at no point did we address our defence or try to stop the bleeding. The boys thought they could just outscore them, which perpetuated the issues. We learnt some good lessons that day.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations, and where did you fall short?
“We were just a little bit inconsistent. Our defensive record for the first half of the season was pretty outstanding, and then we ended up with probably the worst individual scoreline of any game in the competition in that last round against Easts, so it didn’t really equate. Our maul and maul defence wasn’t up to it, but our lineout was actually very good and provided us with plenty of possession. I think there’s a good amount of experience and maturity that a core of our boys picked up throughout the season, which is good. But the way the Shute Shield operates – particularly at the bigger clubs – is that you don’t always see the compounding benefit of that because a lot of players move on.“
How have the learnings from last year fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“You’re always looking for improvements in all areas but definitely our discipline needs to improve, that was quite obvious. That’s fed into the way we do some of the things this year, and will definitely feed into the way we look at and review performances. We’ve also looked to simplify things a little bit in our attack as well, because we thought that we maybe over-complicated it at times last year. There were some really good, key principles that we’ll keep, but we’ve just simplified things to get some more clarity around what we’re doing there. So far, the boys seem to have enjoyed that and we’re looking ok.
“The other major one is our breakdown. In terms of the way it was refereed last year and the interpretation of it, we saw a lot more defensive breakdown turnovers than we had seen previously, so we need to adapt to that. Years ago, if you were on your feet and got your hands on the ball you just got a penalty straight away. But they went away from that and it became difficult to get pay from jackals. Defensive coaches adapted and were coaching more to take space and stay on your feet, rather than focus on getting on the ball. But that’s changed again now and we probably didn’t adapt and weren’t good enough in that space, so that’s something that we’ve put a focus on and will definitely be better at this year. They’re probably all the key learnings and how they’ve shaped us.”
We’ve had plenty of wet weather lately but thankfully, far less of the Covid disruptions that all teams had to contend with and work around last year. How has a more ‘normal’ 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“It can always be better and you’re always looking for ways to improve, but overall we’re happy enough with our pre-season so far. We finished a training session last night and all the coaches were talking afterwards about how we could have made it better or what else we could have got out of it, so it’s a never-ending journey. But there’s nothing major to complain about, we’ve been tracking along pretty nicely I suppose.“
Last year was a bit of a sprint, this season sees a full 17 regular rounds before finals. How has that informed your approach in terms of game style, player management, fitness regimes etc?
“It has an influence on the way you put your season plan together, and how and when we build load into the group, so that’s definitely been taken into consideration. But at the end of the day the same principles are there, we still need to be strong, fit and fast. I’m lucky to have a great head of performance in Jacinta Mattingly, who drives me and keeps me sharp on the strength and conditioning side of things.
“It’s probably just the contact that has been a little bit more drastic, because last year with social distancing we weren’t allowed to touch each other at training, and then suddenly you’re full on into it and you have to accelerate your contact at a ridiculous rate. Whereas this year we’ve been able to go back to what we previously did, which is integrate that strategically over time throughout the pre-season, and I’m sure the players have seen the benefit of being able to do that.
“I’m always somebody who is quite well planned and has thought things out in terms of our approach. So being able to actually execute a plan in the way that it was supposed to be, is much more enjoyable than having to come up with one a few weeks out!“
Are you happy with where your squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“We’ve lost plenty. But at the same time, and I’ve been quite vocal around it, that’s our job. Some boys come to the club because they want to be better, some want to play first grade colts and others want to play first grade, and some want to play for the Wallabies. Our job is to facilitate that and help them achieve their goals. When we’ve got guys that want to play professional rugby, it’s part of our role to facilitate a program that allows them to get there. So I see a lot of the boys that have left as a success on our part, because they’ve been able to come into our program and achieve what they wanted to achieve.
“I’m lucky that I’m in an environment at Randwick where we’re all on the same page. We’re not after a one-year success, we want to be in a grand final and competing for a Premiership every year, and to do that, you need to look after your pathway programs. Your colts system needs to be continually good at bringing players through so that every year I don’t have to go out and recruit a hundred new players, and I’m lucky that we do do that. We’ve got quality staff in the colts program and we consistently get quality kids through there, and if you look at some of those players who have come through colts last year and will get their chance in first grade this year, there’s some real quality there and some genuine enthusiasm around them, so I’m fortunate in that sense. But it’s not luck, it comes through the hard work and focus of the people at the club.
“Some of the guys that look the most exciting, they’re not new recruits, they’re kids from our program, which is great. We work hard on a ‘one-club’ philosophy in terms of our approach to the game so we’re not reinventing the wheel every year with the boys, they’re coming through a system they understand and you can just build on what they know and refine it.“
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“I think Zac Carr is doing some good things at the moment. He’s a utility back that can play thirteen, wing or fifteen and has played a number of first grade games now. He’s only a young guy and he gets better every year.
“Benny Houston is one to watch out for. He’s a six/lock rather than a lock/six – he’s too skinny to be called a lock/six! But he’s worked hard on his rig in the off-season and he’s a talent. He was a firsts colt two years ago and then played the majority of the year in second grade last year, with a few games in first grade off the bench. He’s rangy, he knows how to find the try line, he can run with the ball, he’s good in the lineout and he’s got a bit of mongrel about him too. I’m really excited to see what he can do.“
Give me a few new players to get excited about?
“Zac Shepherd is a 21 or 22-year-old second rower who has been playing with Sunnybank in Brisbane. I like the way he plays footy, so we had a chat to him and he was keen on trying something new.
“Jamie Rickward is a backrower from Brisbane. I was lucky on that one because he came down to study medicine and a coaching mate from Brissy called me and said he was coming down and that he was very good. So, I watched some games of his at the end of last year and had a yarn to him, and that’s worked out for us.
“Chris Eves has joined us from NZ, where he had previously played for the Hurricanes for a long time and then the Sunwolves. He’s a quality addition who has amassed a great amount of knowledge and experience. We’re helping him transition into life after rugby, but he’s still got some great footy in him and will be great for our group.“
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2021?
“I think it’ll be the usual suspects to be honest. I think the Rats will improve on last year but I think everyone will improve because that’s what people do. Manly have done some good recruiting and the Hunter have recruited well, but I still don’t think that one-off recruiting can make up for those consistent programs, so I don’t see anyone jumping out of the box too much. It’ll be Uni, Easts, Norths, Eastwood and hopefully us. Uni will have been disappointed with last year for sure, and they’ve got a good, consistent program over there and have plenty of full-time rugby staff, so they‘d want to go good!”
What is the target for Randwick in 2021 – a step further into the top four and an extra week at least in the finals, or do you harbour loftier ambitions?
“One hundred percent we do, we’re definitely not here to run second. With the boys having been there last year and seen that they are capable, they’ll take a lot of confidence out of that and we’re not here to make up the numbers. We’ve got to have our eyes on the prize from the beginning for sure.”