2021: The Big Kick-Off – Eastwood
Original photo: Serge Gonzalez
Given the high turnover of players before the season began following a raft of high-profile retirements, Eastwood’s subsequent run to a grand final where they pushed Gordon all the way has to mark 2020 down as a year of notable achievement. But for a club with such a Premiership pedigree across the last decade, it was still an opportunity missed that left an unwanted scar for all involved.
No extra motivation required for 2021 then, with the task at hand for head coach Ben Batger and his charges to simply go one step further and get their hands on the big prize. And despite the promotion of several of their stars to the next level, the core elements remaining in situ from a squad that went ‘oh so close’ last time out, should ensure they give it one heck of an almighty crack again…
Looking back at last year you had plenty of highs with a few lows and ended up just outside the top four, but kicked on in the finals to fall short in the decider to a very good Gordon side – what was your 2020 summary?
“When you look back on it, we were very happy with how we performed. Take away a grand final loss and it’s a great season. It was a brand-new squad coming together so I think it was a really good achievement just to get to a grand final. Are we upset we lost that grand final? One hundred percent. Whether it’s brought up to myself or any of the players, we’ve still got that little bit of a bitter taste in our mouths when we get asked about it. But at the same time, at some stage you have to move on from it and we’re trying to do that now.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations and where did you fall short?
“Our cohesion was a lot better than I anticipated. We had a turnover of around ten or eleven players from the previous year’s semi final team, and our average age went down by about eight years. So in terms of that cohesion, and also dealing with pressure moments in games, I was very surprised that we were able to do as well as we did. That’s probably credit to our rookie play callers in Tane Edmed and Chrissy Bell, alongside Matt Gonzalez, who was returning from long-term injury as well. So that was a very pleasing aspect.
“In terms of where didn’t we excel, I was actually pretty happy. You lose a grand final so you can look back and say that we should have taken our opportunities, but there were other games where we did take those opportunities. So with the expectations that I had was pretty happy overall.”
How have those takeaways from last year fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“I like to really analyse the game but when I looked at a few of the key stats after the grand final I was a in a really deep, dark place wondering ‘How can we be better?’! But what we were is a team that held the ball more than anyone else but wasn’t that efficient at scoring, and we’ve become known as the team that bludgeons you to death. So I want us to become a little bit more efficient and smarter with our attack, and evolve our game. It might have taken us two minutes to score last year and I’d like to bring that down to a minute and a half when you’re looking at ball in hand time.
“Like a lot of teams there’s a focus on linespeed so we can force more turnovers because we’re not a pilfering team per se, but there’s other ways to force those turnovers. And defensively, I think with the bodies that we have in our team we could probably be a little more aggressive there as well. We can hold teams out, but when you’ve got hitmen like Sione Tau, Pat Sio, Enoka Muliufi and Fabian Goodall, we should be getting on the front-foot with our defence as well. So I’d like to think we can tweak one or two things there too.”
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“I heard from most coaches that their teams took that time off before Christmas and we were the same, so you had about an eight-week block heading into the trials. But I’ve been coaching in the Shute Shield for four years after playing in it for sixteen, and besides a few little training drills here and there they are what they are. It’s Tuesday and Thursday nights from six til eight o’clock and it’s hard work.
“I think we’re better prepared than last year but at the same time, so will all the other teams be thanks to the lack of Covid disruptions. Although, that wind and all that rain did throw a spanner into the works as we’d planned to have three trials and only got two in. In terms of the new guys that’s a little frustrating because I haven’t had a chance to see them as much. But at the end of the day, I’m a firm believer in the cream rising to the top so those players will get their opportunities.“
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?
“In terms of player management it certainly means you’ve got to have a deeper focus on your squad. Last year you had twenty to twenty-five people that were really necessary for you, this year it’ll be more like twenty-five to thirty. So, you’ve got to get more blokes on the same page because there will be that increased attrition through injury and fatigue, so we’re definitely managing player welfare on that front.
“Fitness-wise, I think there’s a lot of teams out there that peak in the early part of the season, but Eastwood have always been pretty good at timing our run. I guess that’s the nature of being a big team as well. We’re never hitting our straps in April, May or June, we definitely aim for that August, September and October period, and we’ve got the same focus this year.“
You enter your third season as a head coach off the back of a semi final and a grand final. What learnings did you take from last year that might take the club that one step further to another Premiership?
“You’re always learning and that’s good because you don’t want to be set in your ways. You might have a theory on attack or defence but that might be blown out of the water when new players arrive or people are changing up. So I think you’ve got to have that ability to adapt on the run, and last year I thought we were pretty good with our ability to play dry weather or wet weather football. But there’s new trends always coming in so you’ve got to try to be ahead of the curve, and for myself I’m always watching a lot of the higher levels of the game. I love the Six Nations and Super Rugby, and I think in order to win you’ve got to be ahead of the game, so I’m just trying to get our boys into that mindset. It might seem difficult now but it’s going to put us in good stead later on.“
We can’t go past the fact that this will be the last season for the club at their spiritual home of TG Millner Field. As someone who has enjoyed so much success and so many happy days on that famous old ground, this is going to be a pretty nostalgic last hurrah for all concerned, and an era I guess the whole club is motivated to end on a high?
“Exactly. It will be sad times for a lot of people, with fans that have been coming to watch for fifty years and players that have played there for so many seasons. I’m hoping for a big year with a lot of people turning up for their last game at Millner to savour it, because in my opinion it’s the best ground to watch and play footy at in the Shute Shield. It’s got that nice inward atmosphere where the people are on top of you, and on a big day against a Uni or Randwick there’s no better atmosphere. But they say all good things come to an end and we’re securing our future by moving to Castle Hill. If I can squeeze an extra five or ten percent of motivation out of the boys through that then all good.“
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“Really happy. I sort of had a plan last year to bring guys through, and I actually thought Tane [Edmed] would move on eventually and Chrissy Bell would slot straight into that number ten slot. Harry Wilson was our second grade fullback and played a lot of minutes in first grade last year, and he’s been training with the Waratahs so he’ll probably slide into Belly’s number fifteen jersey now.
“Max Stewart is a hooker who has been biding his time in second grade for a long time, and can now follow the really good pathway we’ve had at the club in that position with the likes of Damien Fitzpatrick, Hugh Roach and Ed Craig. With his potential I expect Max to be the next one in line for that progression. So, we had a succession plan and I’m really happy with the squad depth.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“Chris Bell is a really good footballer. He actually plays the game between his ears rather than just physically, and he’s a really good one to keep an eye on. I think two of the guys that got injured last year will go really well in Michael Icely and Lachlan Shelley. They’re both only twenty-one or twenty-two and have lots of potential to go to the next level.
“Harry Wilson is another with all the potential in the world. He’s a six foot three, ninety-five kilos classy outside back and is exactly what you want. And a guy that I’m always banging on about is Enoka Muliufi. I don’t see how he doesn’t have a contract when the Waratahs can’t bend the line to save their life and he’s a guy who will run into a brick wall all day for you. Finally, Matt Gonzalez. Alongside Harrison Goddard, I thought they were the two best nines in the comp last year and they both ended up with nothing here in Australia. So I have high hopes for him as well.”
What about a few new players to get excited about?
“I’ve got a few really good, young locks I’m quite excited about that played lower grades last year. Charlie Cale, Jack Lafolafo and Josh Canham are all 198 centimetres – so they’ll be playing Super Rugby next year as there’s no locks anywhere! But it’s good to have some height coming through.
“Rhian Stowers is a young outside back who has come down from Brisbane, and he’s a Damian McKenzie like will-o’-the-wisp player with lightning footwork. He’s a little guy, only seventy-five to eighty kilos, but he’s a jack-in-the-box who could break some ankles with his running game, so he’ll offer something different for us.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2021?
“I’ve got a lot of time for Rob Taylor at Sydney Uni. He’s got a record of preparing his teams really well, and you saw the effect it had on them when he left last year, they dropped down a bit. So he’s answered the SOS and if Sydney Uni have a disappointing season – by their standards – they come back doubly hard, so I’m wary of them. Billy Melrose is another very good coach whose teams rarely miss the finals, so I’d imagine Gordon will be there or thereabouts again. They’ve lost a lot of troops from what I gather but Billy’s teams are always well-coached, so they’ll certainly be amongst it.
“Easts have got potentially the best squad, so you’d imagine it’s only a matter of time before they really click into gear, and I think Norths played some really good football last year too. They play a different style to pretty much everyone else, which is good. They really use the football and play a highly-based skills game, and from what I gather they’ve maintained most of last year’s squad so they’ll be tough to beat as well.
“And if you want a dark horse I guess you’d have to say the Wildfires. They’ve recruited twenty blokes so they’ll be an interesting one to keep an eye on. But I like having them in the competition and good on them, most teams are recruiting now. All I can say is the Coleman’s must have one hell of a family cheque book!”
What is the target for Eastwood in 2021 – one step further to another Premiership and nothing else?
“I guess it has to be the goal. My philosophy the whole time through my coaching is that we have to get better, and each year I’ve been in charge we have gradually got better. We were runners-up last year so let’s set the bar high, and if we’re going to be better this year that means we have to win it. That puts a little bit of pressure on the playing group. But at the same time, we’ve all tasted that defeat and I’d like to think we’re all hungrier because of it.”