2021: The Big Kick-Off – West Harbour

Original photo: J.B Photography

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Rewind to last year’s pre-season and there were few clubs being talked up more than West Harbour off the back of a pretty healthy list of signings. But the disruptions of Covid played havoc for a side trying to integrate so many new players, while injuries prevented many of them from taking the field in the first place, and the campaign petered out to a disappointing 10th place finish.

Things are a touch quieter this time round, with the number of players departing more of a topic of conversation when it comes to the Pirates. But third year head coach Mark Gudmunson has worked hard in the off-season to identify the mistakes of 2020, and has assembled a squad with a fresh injection of positivity that – even if no-one else is talking them up – has fostered belief behind closed doors of a much-improved showing…

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Looking back at last year there was plenty of promise leading into the comp off the back of some heavy recruitment. But a lot of those players didn’t see much game time through injury, and a 10th place finish was certainly below expectations, although there were some signs that things were beginning to click in the second half of the season. What was your 2020 summary?

“Pre-Covid we had just finished a really strong trial against Souths and were quite confident in where we were at and where we were heading. Then Covid hit and I probably didn’t get the opportunity to keep an eye on the boys to make sure they were still doing the work. I had to take it for granted that what they were saying was what they were doing, and to be honest, that was probably the thing that hurt us, because we came back and we almost had to start all over again. So that Covid period really put us on the back burner and we didn’t pick up until the end of the season when we started to beat teams that we probably should have.

“If you look at the recruits that we had, I picked a couple of guys because of where they had been playing – like the Aussie Sevens boys. And while they were great to have, I probably should have stuck with guys that had been there and finished the season off well for us the year before. The combinations had already started to build by then, and to bring in new guys and then not even be able to be together because of Covid – training in groups of six and eight until a couple of weeks before round one – it was a bit of an error on my part to be honest.”

Where did you meet or excel expectations and are there areas where did still felt that you fell short?

“We had what I felt was a very potent backline but we just couldn’t score points. Round one against Norths we were confident in what we could do, despite a red card early on which didn’t help, and with eight minutes to go we were still within a try of them. Then they went bang, bang, bang and the scoreline didn’t end up reflecting the performance, and that probably knocked the boys about a bit.

“We were creating opportunities and just not finishing them off, and really struggled to do anything when we got into good positions on the field. Whether it was white line fever or just players thinking that they had to do something special to score the try. The points-scoring was one of the big issues after that and we just couldn’t put a finger on it.

“For me, the golden thing was our pack and our scrum in particular. I think our scrum was equal to anyone in the competition throughout the year, and that was probably something that we didn’t play to enough. We had this strong scrum but we had all these good backs that we thought were going to score all these tries, and we probably should have kept it in the forwards given their dominance. But they were the shining light in the team for sure.”

Shute Shield season launch

Mark Gudmunson is embarking on his third year as West Harbour head coach – Photo: Stu Walmsley

How has that fed into the focus areas for 2021?

“We’ve continued to focus on our set-piece, our scrum and lineout, and we’ve gone into a bit more detail around what we need to do when we get into those attacking zones that let us down last year. Just to have the patience to let the forwards do the work and for the backs to just sit and wait for an opportunity to present itself, instead of trying to make something happen that wasn’t quite there in that phase.

“We’ve worked a lot on game management over the last month so hopefully that will come good for us, and we’ve also focused on our skills. Former Wallaby Stephen James has come back to us after a little stint coaching in league, and now he’s free from the NRL Covid bubble he’s worked twice a week with the group and that’s been a really big part of every single session.”

Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?

“You see some clubs have been posting on their Facebook pages that training was cancelled but we said from the start pre-Christmas that just wasn’t going to be an option for us this year. Even in those couple of weeks of torrential rain we managed to find car parks or hockey fields to train on, and we’ve got Clint Hill back at the club, who is a great S&C coach, and he’s really pushed the guys in the gym. So for us, there’s never been a lost night, which is massive.

“At every session we’ve done we’ve talked about how each player has to make the player next to them better, and you’ve got to walk away from that session not knowing that you’ve got better, but that you’ve made your mate next to you better. Clint has really driven that and we’re lucky to have our own gym, which we didn’t think we would have once Concord Oval got knocked down, but the Council and the board have got a really good facility for us to work from.

“The trials have probably been a let down because we had one cancelled due to the weather, so we’re only going in with one game in our legs, which could go either way I suppose. It could keep us fresh but also, potentially keeps us a bit scratchy.”

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?

“It’s an interesting one because last year we went with a tactic of thinking too far ahead. We tried to split the competition into halves and see where we’d be sitting halfway through the season and go from there. But obviously, that just got blown out of the water with those early results. So this year we haven’t thought past round one. That could either set us up to click through the gears and believe in ourselves, or make us go back to the drawing board so to speak. But that was a big learning from last season when we did our coaching review. Our only focus is on Randwick in round one, and once that Saturday is over, we’ll move onto the next one.

“We’ve had to rebuild our squad this year in a few positions because some players have chosen to go to other clubs, and good luck to them if that’s what works for them. But we’re definitely going to have to work around our game management at some stage with the extra rounds. How we do that is not definite yet but you’re probably going to have to pick and choose a couple of rounds, and we’ve got a two-week break in the middle of the season with the June long weekend and then a bye. Whether the boys get away for a time for a rest or whether we just carry on, that’ll be something that we’ll have to think about once we get there. But that’s a massive part of Clint Hill’s job, to keep the bodies fresh. We’ll keep pushing hard and he’ll be the one to tell us whether we need to ease down or go even harder.”

This time last year when we had this chat, everyone had Wests down as a ‘smokie’. Do you think that extra pressure and expectation didn’t do you any favours, and that maybe coming in under the radar a bit this time round might help?

“Yeah, that’s definitely a potential. I think a few guys thought that we would do better than we did, and we probably didn’t do as much as we should have done on the training paddock and maybe started to read our own headlines, for want of a better way to put it. We put the work in, but we probably didn’t put in as much as we should have, and I think we thought we would breeze past some teams and there’s just no easy games in the Shute Shield.

“So there was a bit of a mindset issue around where we thought we were and how we thought we were going, and also looking at some of the names in the squad like ‘Rocket’ Rod Davies, and just expecting him to score three tries every week. But he had a few little niggles and then a head knock in a TV game, and then a hamstring, so it was a bit of a different story unfortunately. And that was probably a part of our results too, we just didn’t have a consistent starting fifteen every week.”

West Harbour Ins and Outs

Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?

“Acquisition-wise definitely, but retention is something we’ve got to get better at. I was really disappointed with the guys that left to be honest but they’re making decisions for different reasons. I wish them all the best and I really wish they could have stayed but the acquisitions that we’ve made, for me and if you speak to people around the club, have added a massively different dynamic to the club for the better. The feeling around the club is really, really positive and it’s an enjoyable place to be. Everybody wants to work hard for each other and get the right result.

“There are always going to be negatives around Wests and people will have their say. But from within, we’re quite happy with where we’re at, and we’re travelling along nicely. There’s lots of talk around our colts’ numbers, and I’ll be the first one to say that we are struggling with that. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and having a strong first and second grade is a step in the right direction for the club.”

Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?

“Pat Pellegrini’s an obvious one off the back of last year but he’s doing everything he can in the off-season to take his game forward. He probably got by on his natural ability last year, but he’s come back in and done the extras in the gym so we’re excited about what he could do for us this year. Otto Wendt at lock is definitely someone to keep an eye on, and we’ve already had Matt Cockbain from the Tahs come along and have a look at him.

“Damien Fleming is another. He’s put on seven or eight kilos and a lot of size and lost none of his speed or dynamic running. And again, Sonny Satuala and Cam Betham. Not just what they bring and what they’ve added to us because they’ve always been good footballers, but the leadership they bring to the group is really important.”

Westharbour 1st Grade v Easts Rnd 2 2020

Lock Otto Wendt is one to watch for the Pirates in 2021 – Photo: J.B Photography

Give me a few new players to get excited about?

“We’ve got a guy that came from Drummoyne in Subbies called Shaun Dixon. I won’t tell you his age because he’s probably the wrong side of thirty! But he was a gun in our trial and is a player to watch out for. We’ve given him an opportunity and he hasn’t taken a step back. He’s really good.

“And we’ve picked up a couple of nines in Isaiah Leota from Melbourne, he’s actually the son of former Samoan prop Trevor, and Dimitry Chipizubov from Randwick. He’s been in and around the Sevens scene and never really got a good crack at Randwick and he’s doing some really good stuff, so I expect him to play a bit of first grade this year.

“I’ve been trying to get centre Faiva Faiva for a while. He originally played colts for the Two Blues and we had a couple of chats with him and he ended up going to Gordon for a couple of years. But ever since he was in sixteen’s or seventeen’s I’ve been trying to get him over to West Harbour and we’ve finally got him. He’s been really impressive with what we’ve seen so far. It’s a big step to come straight out of firsts colts into first grade but I think he’ll surprise a lot of people and play a lot for us this year.”

Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2021?

“I think there’s probably a clear top four of Easts, Sydney Uni, Norths and Eastwood. And then I suppose the teams we’re going to have to get past if we want to play finals footy are the likes of Warringah, Souths, Manly and Randwick, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Gordon because they’ve lost a few. We played the Two Blues in the trial and there’s a totally different squad there and they could hit their straps at some stage too.”

What is the pass mark for West Harbour in 2021 – a few more wins on the board, finals footy or beyond?

“If I was speaking about something that doesn’t have to impress the board then it’s just the right way forward and to continue to build. We had a few wins two years ago and a few more last year, so if we can get to that fifty-fifty rate of wins and losses that’d be a big step in the right direction. But obviously, everybody plays for finals football, so while that’s definitely the goal that’s not what we’re talking about now. We’ve cut back on what we need to think about and focus on. Finals is glorious but continual improvement across the club is what we’re after. There’s definitely a really good feel around the playing group, and whether that translates onto the field I’ll tell you after round one. But we’re looking forward to it.”

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West Harbour Draw

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