2021: The Big Kick-Off – Sydney University
Original photo: AJF Photography
For many clubs, finishing fourth on the ladder and going out in week one of the finals by just a two-point margin may have been cause for a positive reflection on a job fairly well done. But for a heavyweight outfit with a pedigree of success like Sydney University – with ten Charter Hall Shute Shield titles in the preceding fifteen years – last season’s premature end to their season was tantamount to failure.
Add in the loss of their long-held grip on the Club Championship to Gordon, and head coach Robert Taylor – back from a challenging but rewarding stint in the UK with English giants Leicester Tigers – has the task of helping them reclaim their throne on several levels. Given he guided the Students to back-to-back Premierships in 2018/19, you wouldn’t bet against him completing the hat-trick…
Knowing what you had worked on in pre-season before you headed to Europe, and then watching some, if not all, of their games from afar, what was your take on Uni’s season and what they did well and where they fell short?
“Harry Potter and Guy Porter, who were with me at Leicester, would catch up with myself on Saturday mornings to chat all things Uni, and I could watch the games through Hudl. I would speed through and have a quick look if it was an interesting match, but I didn’t have much time between Leicester games outside of looking at our next opponent, reviewing our last match or training to be honest!
“Certainly, to win the Shute Shield you need to be the best defensive team in the comp, and we were not the best last year. Gordon really picked up that aspect and ultimately won it, and there was no doubt there was a defence issue for us and some clinical detail was lacking at times. But when I started this pre-season it wasn’t about ‘we need to fix this and we need to fix that’, it was just ‘this is what we do at Uni, let’s get out there and do it’. The results were probably reflective of a few areas where the standards weren’t as high as they’d been in the past, and there were a lot of new faces. So we didn’t run it as a review of last season or looked over old footage and pointed out where guys were doing things wrong, it’s simply been about challenging our standards and seeing where we can be better.“
They had some ups and downs but still finished in the top four, before going down by two points to Norths in the finals, in a game that I know was a bitter pill to swallow for those involved. Do you sense an added motivation in the squad to put things right this year?
“There’s been minuscule talk about last season. For those guys that were involved it would definitely have been an uncomfortable summer, and I think it’s there in the belly to put it right. But those guys are only a small part of the current group. A lot of guys won a second grade title, had a great day out at Leichhardt Oval and enjoyed a great season last year, so it’s been more about building on the success that we had, and there’s similarities there to the 2018 season when a lot of the guys in first grade had won a second grade title the year before.
“Uni were very good in second grade and firsts colts, and third grade made the final, so they were still there or thereabouts. So it’s been business as usual. Get back into pre-season and want to be the hardest working team in the comp across all areas.”
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“Well, compared to the UK it feels like forever! But we started on January 7th with a good core group of guys doing a very wide pre-season program. It’s not about the top thirty guys, it’s very club focused, and it’s a very strong group of really keen players that will be the backbone of first grade, second grade, third grade and firsts colts. We had a good, ugly trial game against Eastwood last week and then a good quality game against Easts, which we won. But I’ve hardly ever won a pre-season game since I’ve been at Uni and I don’t really like winning them to be honest.”
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?
“Both years we won it in 2018 and ’19 we used about fifty players, so that’s why it’s really important to have a wide approach to your pre-season squad. You need to be prepared for those bad weeks, and that when you’re using a third grade player in a certain position does he know what he’s doing and has he got the physical attributes? So we’ve taken the same approach as previous years of making sure we’ve got good depth, getting people into good physical conditioning in order to play any of those grades, and focused on tactical awareness as well.”
In your previous stint at the club your teams were happy to play without the ball for long periods and use some astute kicking and pressure to forge opportunities. Has a season immersed in a similar, albeit largely weather-based, rugby culture, affirmed that approach or will we see any tactical tweaks to the Uni game plan?
“We won in 2018 and ’19 so I don’t see a massive change in that recipe, and if you look at how Gordon won the Shute Shield last year there’s a lot of trends there to how we and previous teams played around the good old rugby fundamentals of set-piece, defence and not messing around with your own possession for too long. So I don’t think you’ll see much of a change tactically. But I definitely want to play better footy because we lost a fair few games in those years too, and I’d prefer not to have those losses. At the end of the day it comes down to the playing group that you’ve got. We have a new group developing at Uni, so it’s more a case of where they’re at as a group. But by the end of the year you’d want to see that they’re playing championship-winning rugby and doing the fundamentals well.”
There’s been a bit of a change on the coaching front at Uni with your long-time assistant Joe Horn-Smith taking a Covid-enforced sabbatical away from the game, and a couple of new faces in Laurie Weeks and Phil Blake as your assistants in his absence. Having won four Premierships – two Colts 1 and two 1st Grade – in four years with Joe, they’ve got pretty big shoes to fill?
“It’s a massive loss not to be working with Joe because there’s so much continuity and we both clearly know what we want to do. He’s been heavily involved anyway, writing the forwards program to give Laurie clear guidance and leadership, so he’s still connected and as soon as those borders open up he’ll be desperately missing footy. He’s highly invested in the program, the people and the players, so he’ll be back for sure.
“Phil left Leicester just as Covid was hitting when it was chaos so I didn’t actually get to cross paths with him up there, but we had a lot of notes to share about our time at the club. I’ve actually known him for a few years and he’s a good rugby man who’s happy to talk and share, and his son has been playing at the club for a few years as well so he knows the environment and all the players.”
As is the norm with Uni, there is precious little movement on the Ins and Outs front. So I guess this year will see further validation of your successful pathways program?
“Yeah, we’ve got the pathways but we just back these players too. There’s a lot of new faces again so it has been a bit of a transition post-2019, and we always knew that was going to be the case. We won the Australian Club Championship game in 2020 before I left and there were no Super Rugby players on that field. There were guys from third grade, firsts colts and second colts, and there’s a little bit of that still going on at the moment. We’ve had trials with guys who were in third grade last year or were a regular second grader. I’m looking at Luke Ratcliff, who was a third grade loose forward last year, as a first grader this year. So rather than go and buy someone, he’s our man.”
Which existing players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“I think the front row of Tom Osborne, Declan Moore and Charlie Hancock. Declan’s experience at the Melbourne Rebels has been really healthy for him, and props Tom and Charlie are the next off the production line of Uni front rowers that Joe has overseen. So they’d be players that I think all Super Rugby teams should keep an eye on.”
Any new players coming up from colts or lower grade to get excited about?
“Maybe Luke Ratcliff as I’ve mentioned. He can play lock or six and came through colts up into third grade last year, and he’s just a good, hard, honest rugby player.“
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2021?
“It’s going to be two halves of the competition – pre-Super and post-Super – and it’s going to be fascinating. Easts have significant Super Rugby players and their ultimate team is pretty stacked, and you can’t write off Gordon too, they’re a Premiership-winning team. They must have a good program, and apart from Darren Coleman leaving every other coach is still there from last season, so it’s not like they’re rewriting a game book. They’ve lost a few players but they’ve still recruited, so I expect them to be up there in the first half of the season alongside maybe Souths. It always takes every coach a while to put in what you want, so watch out for Todd Louden in his second year down there. They’ve got Easts in round one, so it’s going to be a really good barometer for both teams.
“Randwick are a highly talented club who seem to have a lot of representative players being pumped through the program. Their colts were highly successful recently so they’ve got to be producing something soon, and they’ve got the same coaching group so they have consistency as well. The first half of the season in particular is going to be quite an arm wrestle and teams will find out a lot about each other, and it’ll take until round twelve before we’re able to work out who the genuine contenders are. There’s maybe a bit of a gap between that top eight and the rest but it’s certainly an open comp, and I wouldn’t be putting money on exactly who’s going to be in the top five after the first six rounds, that’s for sure.”
What is the target for Sydney Uni in 2021 – a Premiership and nothing else?
“To win the Club Championship. That’s always been the goal every year, whether we hold it or – as is the case this year – we don’t. For every club it’s important that you have a strong club, and that’ll be our primary focus. From a Shute Shield perspective, being number one is the first thing you write up on the board, but you’ve got to win a Club Championship anyway. Again, to win a Shute Shield you’ve got to use at least forty players, so if you’ve got good teams across your club that’s going to help you. If you’re going to try and win a Shute Shield based off ‘we’re getting five guys back from Super Rugby so we’ll be sweet and forget everyone else’, you’re delusional. It’s Club Championship first, hopefully a Minor Premiership, and then let’s win grand finals.”