2021: The Big Kick-Off – Gordon
Original photo: Andrew Quinn
It was a year to end all years for Gordon in 2020. A first Charter Hall Shute Shield Premiership since 1998 capping off a Minor Premiership, and topped off by a Club Championship that rubber-stamped the dramatic turnaround in fortunes experienced by the Highlanders over the last couple of years. Of course, that success can come at a price, with head coach Darren Coleman heading to a well-deserved professional opportunity in Major League Rugby in the US, and several of his title-winning stars joining him for their shot at the next level.
Given his Sydney club rugby pedigree as a head coach, the decision to offer Coleman’s assistant Brian Melrose the keys to the kingdom at Chatswood Oval was a no-brainer. But the veteran of numerous campaigns with Parramatta, West Harbour, Eastwood and Manly before he joined the tartan revolution, has the task of successfully introducing several fresh faces into the remnants of last year’s squad in order to have a real dash at backing up last year’s triumphs.
Looking back at last year it’s hard to find any negatives with just one loss all season, the club’s first Premiership since 1998, and a Club Championship completing a remarkable two-year turnaround. What was your 2020 summary?
“It was obviously an enjoyable experience and you’re right to say that not a lot went wrong. I’ve had good teams before in the race, and sometimes it can just come down to a player or two who aren’t playing. But most things last year aligned and we had a good crop of players, a good coaching staff, and whilst we had quite a bit of injury, it tended to be in the middle of the season. So we made a good start and had the players available at the finish, who all did well.
“Ultimately, we started very well off the back of the longest pre-season in history, which wasn’t necessarily advantageous to anyone in particular, but possibly to a developing team like us, may have been helpful. We did what we could through Covid from a learning perspective and with physical conditioning. But some of those peculiarities about the situation worked in our favour – like Super Rugby shutting down – and players like Rodney Iona and Tautalatasi Tasi had the opportunity to come back and be a part of things. So I suppose the lesson is, to actually win in a competitive competition, you’re actually not having masses of bad luck.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations, and are there areas where you still felt that you fell short?
“Darren does a very good job in being specific on who looked after certain areas. He looked after the attack, Liam [Winton] looked after the lineout and the contact part of the game, and I was taking care of the backs and the defensive structure, and maybe a portion of my job was the mentality around things. Clearly, we all had our strengths and the team did pretty well in most areas, so it’d be hard to say one that didn’t do so well. Maybe our backline attack could still improve, but we didn’t need as much of it last year with the powerful forwards that we could play off the back of.”
How has that fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“I’ve seen plenty of things happen in life once but often not twice, and I’m not sure how long it’s been since Gordon have backed up two seasons in a row. So the thing we need to improve is actually not related to last year, it’s the ability to do things consistently and for a long time. Last year was a brilliant year and definitively, this year will have to be a good different. It’s a different team, so trying to match them to last year’s doesn’t have a lot of relevance to me. In some cases it does because half of the twenty-three from the grand final are still here, but there are plenty of new players who have come in and others who are building from within. So it just has to be a good different.
“The thing for me that has to push forward is that the next bloke who comes in has to live up to the spirit and standards that, as a group, we have a fairly strong feeling about. As opposed to whether I think our attack or defence needs to be ten percent better or whatever. It’s possible that we might better in one area, or potentially slightly down in one area by comparison, and still be able to win games.”
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“We obviously finished late last year so there wasn’t any pre-Christmas stuff other than a few gym session, so that was somewhat different. Then we’ve had what you’d call a regulation run-in from late January to now, with a bit of a different focus because we went up to Brisbane to play the Australian Club Championship game. It’s clearly a newer and aspiring breed of players settling in, so I never set out to do a lot different to the program we had in place. We needed to evolve it a bit because of that turnover in the team, but I certainly never planned to revolutionise it because it didn’t need it. It’s more a case of evolution than revolution to suit our new mix, and even that will take a number of weeks. But hopefully over the early part of the season we’ll find our way.”
What was your take on that Club Championship game, an overtime penalty-kick loss to Easts Tigers?
“It was a different experience. Travelling up on the day is a new thing for non-professional players, and we took the attitude that it was a difficult assignment and we gave it our best. But we respect the fact that Easts were probably a better team. It was a game between two somewhat different teams to the ones that won their respective Premierships, and we gave it our best shot at the time off the back of whatever preparation we’d had, and only came up a point short in a frustrating loss. It was a pretty tough game in high humidity, which made the attack difficult for both teams. But they nutted us in the end and we just had to move on.”
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?
“You know me, I want to win every game. But eighteen or nineteen game competitions are slightly different than twelve or thirteen game ones, and once you put in a couple of byes as well there is a contrasting element to it. Every team wants to win in round one and you don’t plan to build into a competition, but who wins the Golden Slipper and who wins the Queen Elizabeth Stakes are potentially two different horses. It’s unlikely that someone sprints away and keeps going for twenty weeks, there will be teams that ebb and flow throughout. So while there are more games physically, it becomes a different challenge mentally as well, so you’ve got to manage that situation as best you can.”
Last season you took on an assistant coaching role under DC, and enjoyed a long-awaited first taste of Shute Shield success after many years of guiding teams to within touching distance of glory. What was it like to get that particular monkey off your back?
“It was a fantastic journey. When I came to Gordon it was different for me in club land to go in as an assistant, and I hope I always went in with the right attitude. But always in the back of my mind was that Gordon clearly hadn’t been in the finals for a number of years, so just to get in the top six was going to be somewhat of an achievement. Darren was doing a great job, so the only challenge for me was whether I could add ten or twenty percent – not a hundred percent – but just a bit that could make the difference.
“I’ve been so close to winning so many times, that I did joke with him when we got to the grand final that I wasn’t sure I could do much more from there, and would he rather I just stayed at home! But everyone’s human, and as stoic as you try and be, when we were in that second half and it was quite a nerve-wracking period, I did start to ask myself ‘Is somebody having me on here?’ Once we kicked away it was a great feeling, but at the same time I was only an assistant, not the coach. I just hopefully had an influence and it helped.
“I’ve won a massive amount of games as a coach but not many trophies. Last year we couldn’t stop winning trophies, so maybe life balances up in the long run.”
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“No-one in their right mind would want to have lost the amount of people from our roster that we did. But the great thing about that is, and it’s always been the same in club footy, that our job is to do well for ourselves, but ultimately it’s for the players to progress. And while there’s more players gone than we’ve recruited in, you’ve got to believe in some of the players coming through, and unashamedly, we’ll try and grow some of those guys from within.
We’re hoping that a couple of our colts boys can step up, plus a couple of boys from our lower grades who we’re trying to develop. It may not be in round one, but come the middle of the season a couple of blokes are going to emerge from nowhere and people will find out about them. Outside of that, we will look to a balance of recruited players to reload and have the strength to be a contender again, and I’m hopeful that a few more might come to fruition over the next few weeks.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“I think Tom Silk is a good, young player that with another season of Shute Shield under his belt could do really well. The challenge for him is that once you stick your head up, people want to take it off, so now he’s got to be able to defend himself and keep going. And Jack Margin is a player who had a pretty consistent year and is coming into the prime years of his rugby life, so I’d like to think that he can continue pushing forward.
“Reece McDonald had an unfortunate injury at the start of last year but had a great back end of the season. He came to us as a fullback/flyhalf and would like to move up from fifteen to ten, so I really look forward to seeing what he can bring. And Ola Tauelangi is another who played a few games last year before getting injured. He’s a really good prospect who’s starting to do well.”
Any new players to get excited about?
“Will Bremner is a young hooker who has come up from colts who we think is doing really well. But I do feel strongly that while new players have potential they haven’t done anything yet, so until they do there’s not much to talk about. We’ve got some good, young players who are emerging, but you only emerge when you emerge. Do something and show your worth, and then people will write about you.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2020?
“From what I can see and have been told, Easts’ roster is very, very good, so you’d have to think that they’d be right at the top. Whether they are or not is another matter but they looked pretty decent in the trial we played against them. You’ve also got to have a lot of respect for Sydney Uni all the time haven’t you? They’re probably coming in off a bad year and they’ve rarely not rebounded. They’ve got their coach [Robert Taylor] back, which probably gives them a good feeling, and they’re perennially in the mix and even in a bad year, not far off.
“Eastwood are never that far away and Norths have been very successful over the past five years too, and aside from the obvious challengers who were there last year, Hunter’s recruitment is astonishing. You’d expect a tremendous improvement from them, so they might be one from lower down that could do a bit of damage.”
Expectations will be through the roof after last year but you’ve lost a lot of players off the back of that success. So what is the pass mark for Gordon in 2021 – another Premiership or further improvements across the club?
“When you have a turnaround like this club has had, it’s a different cycle for a club that was down and is now at the top. But you can’t get away from reality. Yes there’s some change, but I’ve seen change before and I’ve seen different teams, so what happened last year is not relevant to what will happen this year – in either a good way or a bad way. It can happen again, and it can not happen again.
“I don’t do that rebuilding stuff, we’ve just got to go again, and it’s non-negotiable for me that we’re back in the finals. My job is to make sure that the players we have this year, at whatever point we’re starting from, will find a way to get in the fight. We may or may not be perfect at the start, but we’ve just got to find a way to win some games and get in the fight. And if we’re in the fight in the second half of the comp, we’ll be there or thereabouts because there’s enough players left at Gordon who know how to win it.”