2021: The Big Kick-Off – Manly
Original photo: Adam Mac Photography
2020 was largely a year to forget for the proud Manly club, with a raft of key injuries cruelling incoming head coach Matt McGoldrick’s attempts to put his own footprint on the club he holds dear. A ninth-place finish and no finals footy is most certainly not a position the heavyweight Marlins have been accustomed to in recent years.
But as the old saying goes ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and the adversity suffered last time out, and the enforced introduction of so many first grade debutants, should stand them in good stead as they set out to return to the upper rungs of the Charter Hall Shute Shield ladder…
Looking back at last year the Marlins had an inconsistent season with a few highs that promised better things, but ultimately ended with a 9th place finish – not helped by a crippling injury list impacting key positions. What was your 2020 summary?
“We were able to blood a lot of guys, some of which was by design and some by circumstance, and there’s been some good come out of that. Essentially, we have a much deeper group this year based on being able to give a lot of guys a go that might not ordinarily have had those opportunities, which is good and bad. You can’t sugar-coat it, when you finish ninth there are probably people getting an opportunity before they’re due. But that’s just football in our realm, you’ve just got to deal with it and move on.
“What we didn’t have was the luxury of being able to backload with players because of Covid. So normally, if a five-eighth goes down you can find one in the UK or New Zealand. But we didn’t have that luxury, so the biggest learnings for me was that depth in key positions. You can do as much of the physical prep as you can but ultimately, there’s still so much luck that goes with it.
“You’re five weeks in to a new season having lost several flyhalves and you keep ploughing on, and then you think to yourself ‘Where and how are we going to score our points?’ We kicked as much as any team in the comp because I felt that was what we had to do. It’s not ultimately how I want to play, but you have to be so adaptable. You can’t be too expansive in your play and you can’t play like the sky is blue, because it’s not. That was one of the biggest learnings for me, and I think that helped us get a little bit more street smart too I guess.
“I also learned a lot about our group, about our resilience, about the players and about myself. And I’d like to think that you come through these things a little bit stronger and a little bit clearer on where you are and what you’re trying to do.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations and where did you fall short?
“I think internally we probably didn’t meet any of our expectations, that’s the truth. Externally you’re never quite as honest as you are with each other, and we were disappointed with the year. It was a hard year and we had injuries but ultimately, we just struggled with cohesion and struggled with being able to pick the same team each week, and that meant that we were having to go back to square one all the time.
“I think our set-piece was pretty good last year at times. We were in most games towards the back end, and there was probably only once at Eastwood where it blew out a bit. But on the whole I was happy with the resilience we showed. Stats are funny. They’re like a bikini because they show you a little but they don’t tell the whole story! We were up there in the set-piece stats, up there in the tackle completion stats, and up there in the points against stats. But we were last in offloads, last in line breaks, ninth in points scored and down the bottom in goal-kicking. So you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to work out where we need to improve.”
So how have those takeaways fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“The reality is that we struggled to score points. You could say that a little bit of that is structure, a little bit of that is the athlete, and a little bit of that is injuries, and it’s probably a drop from all three. So, the biggest thing for us this year is to get more line breaking ability within the team, a little bit more out wide, and to get better at what we’re trying to do around our structures.
“It’s still early and we’re only looking at a couple of trials, but I’ve been pretty happy with the progression so far in some of our attack. It’s taken twelve months with a new system, new coaches and new players, but we’re starting to see some green shoots there.
“We also needed to be better in our physical prep – I think we’ve done that. And we needed to get guys in that we think can give us a bit more physical punch – we’ve done that. But ultimately, we’ve got to get better everywhere because we finished ninth and we can’t hide from that.”
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“We’ve had a good ten-week block and been pretty happy with how it’s gone. We’ve covered off a lot of detail, which has been good, and we’re happy with how the guys have been travelling. We trialled against Easts and had a good day, then Randwick, which was not such a good day. But that’s trial footy, it depends who you’ve got and who you’re deciding to rest – all that kind of stuff. So I’m certainly not taking too much out of both of those games, but the bones of what I saw at certain times were good.
“We’ve had a few new players come in that we’ve had to integrate and they’ve added something to the club, which has been great. And the guys have worked hard, I can’t fault their ethic. We had a focus on repeatable basics – our breakdown work, defence, tackling and passing – all those core skills. My philosophy is that if you can do it for longer than the others and do it faster, then you’re a chance to win.”
Last year was a bit of a sprint, this season sees a full 19 rounds. How has that informed your approach in terms of game style, player management, fitness regimes etc?
“With a longer season you just have to have a deeper squad, and you’ve almost got to run two squads. You’ve got to have your pre-Super Rugby squad and post-Super Rugby squad. Sydney Uni are going to tool up like they usually do, as will Randwick and Easts, and you’ve got to be able to go with them post-Super Rugby. You have your squad now that you hope can win you games, and then a group you have later that you hope can match it with them.
“We’ve got Max Douglas, Sio Tatola and Dave Porecki with the Tahs, and it’s about being able to have everyone available at the end of the year. Take Sam Lane for example. He’s played the last couple of trials in thirds because he’s coming back from a shoulder reconstruction, and we’re not rushing him because we think that later in the year he’s going to become important for us.”
Last season was your first in sole charge as head coach. You’ve already touched on some of the learnings you took from it, but what other individual takeaways did you garner that can help the club back up the ladder as a Premiership contender?
“For me it was about understanding what’s important, and not getting distracted by the other peripheral stuff. Being completely honest, I focused so much on trying to get the club back together that perhaps I didn’t push hard enough into first grade. It’s a job where I felt like we needed to correct our club esprit de corps, and my learning was that I spent a little bit too much time on that, rather than doing what I’m needed to do, which is coach first grade.
“Last year I felt we maybe coached short, and you end up doing five things ok, rather than two things really well. This year ‘Hux’ [assistant coach Julian Huxley] is back, and he’ll be better for another year, and Nathan Grey has come on board to do our defence and a bit of consultancy work with us. That has allowed me to focus on the forwards, the set-piece and the team stuff.”
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“We’ve had to look a little bit further this year because we’ve had a bit of a natural turnover in first grade, and you can’t have seven forwards walk out the door and not replace them with seven colts. It just doesn’t work that way. Last year gave us a good opportunity to see what we had – for right or wrong. And essentially, what I felt like we needed to do then was go and get a body shape or type of athlete that wasn’t at the club. Again, I didn’t want to bring in a ton of blokes, but if there’s nothing coming from the colts that I don’t think will complement what we already have, obviously we have to go out and find someone.
“We’ve added size to our pack, that’s been the biggest thing. When we played Eastwood at TG Millner last year, I would guess that my pack that day would have been under eight hundred kilos, and theirs would have been over nine hundred. That makes it really hard to win games of footy. Looking back, we played our best, most abrasive football when Max Douglas was in the backrow for us because of the size and the punch that he gave us. So we needed to find some guys that gave us that, and we’ve brought a few guys into the pack that we think might give us a point of difference. I know that we’re a very different beast to last year, and we’ll probably be closer to the type of footy I want to play and like to play.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“I think Hunter Ward is going to have a really good year. He’s a guy that got a taste of first grade last year but had a bit of an ankle injury. He’s a fast, dynamic backrower who is a real talent.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Ollie Horne played colts with us two years ago and he’s come back to us from Scotland and is going to be a good player. He played fullback in the first trial but will probably be at flyhalf for us in round one depending on a few other things. We’ve also got a young guy named Langi Gleeson, who is in the Australian under 20’s squad and is currently training full-time with the Tahs. He looks a really good prospect. And we’ve got a young prop called Dougal O’Reilly from our colts who we are really high on too.
“Manaia Koko is so raw but just has something about him. He played the second half of the trial against Randwick last week and he reminds me so much of Cliffy Palu, he’s so balanced. He’s probably a year or two away from really popping because I don’t think he’s ever done a proper pre-season or lifted a weight, but he is a natural footballer with footwork and balance. He’s the type of body shape that Australian rugby is looking for at the moment and I see a lot in him. But he’s got to see it in himself.”
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2021?
“I think Eastwood are going to be really good. Last year they had a bit of a turnover in players and a lot of their senior guys move on, and they did incredibly well to make a grand final. I personally thought they were the best team we played last year, and as I understand it, a lot of those guys are back with a few new additions, so I think they’re going to be the team to beat.
“I’m expecting Uni to rebound from what for them is a disappointing year in finishing fourth, especially at the end of the year when they’ll have a Waratah front row and halfback. I think they’ll aim to be in the mix come the end of Super Rugby and then make their usual run. But I think everyone realises how tight the comp is going to be this year, and fair enough, no-one’s talking about us and no-one’s talking about Warringah, Wests or Souths but I think there’ll be some surprises along the way. If you’re off by a little bit, you can get beat by almost anyone.”
What is the pass mark for Manly in 2021 – finals footy a minimum and anything else a bonus, or do you think you are in a position to set grander targets?
“Everyone will say the same thing, it’s about playing finals footy. Otherwise, what are we here for? But we need to get better. We were ninth last year, and for a club like us we’re not happy with being there and we need to improve. Whether that’s just by getting to sixth, I don’t know. Ultimately, I guess a pass mark will be for us to get up the table and be playing at the right end of the year.”