2021: The Big Kick-Off – Warringah
Original photo: Karen Watson
After three consecutive grand final appearances, 2020 was an unforeseen step backwards for Warringah as they missed out on finals footy for the first time in seven years, with the retirements of a few stalwarts from the Rats ranks at season’s end adding to the air of the unknown around Rat Park moving forward. But head coach Michael Ruthven embarks on his second campaign in charge determined to resume normal service at the pointy end, and with an infectious optimism and excitement surrounding a revamped young group looking to forge their own era of success.
Looking back at last year I guess inconsistency was a problem with six wins and six losses. The Rats never quite put a run together to challenge that top six, and ended up missing out on finals footy for the first time since 2013. What was your 2020 summary?
“Inconsistent is a pretty accurate description of our year. I thought we got to the start line with a really strong squad, and despite the impacts of Covid we’d worked hard and felt we were in as good a shape as possible. But we had two narrow losses to start the year against Uni and Randwick, who obviously ended up featuring at the back end of the year, and I always felt we had to start the season well with the shortened format. We then had a good win against Easts, but not being able to back that up was a good reflection of our consistency.
“There were definitely two games that I think really cost us in the final wash-up of our year. The Randwick game in round two, where I felt we left so many points out on the field and should have won. And then not being able to ice the Southern Districts game at home. They ultimately cost us a finals spot in the end, and it was obviously frustrating for everybody involved.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations and where did you fall short?
“I thought we attacked well, we were never lacking in terms of scoring points. We had a very talented bunch and some guys who love to play attacking footy, and I thought we did that well for the best part of the year. But we weren’t able to compound points through pressure and let teams off the hook easily, and defensively and at the set-piece we were inconsistent.”
How have those learnings fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“Defence was a big part of our season review last year, and we’ve invested time and resource into that this pre-season. We’ve acquired ourselves a defence coach in Nick Piva-Giblett, a young guy who came out of Melbourne and spent some time as part of the Rebels system and Super W program. In terms of set-piece we recognised that we were probably short of a genuine second-rower, and that props are always a dime a dozen. So we knew that we had to bolster our squad a bit in that department, and we feel we’ve done that, and are definitely looking at being a lot stronger in both those areas this year.”
Less Covid disruptions thankfully but plenty of wet weather lately, how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far?
“Pre-season has been great. With Covid last year and the competition starting later and finishing later in the year than what we’re normally used to, we didn’t get back into it until the second week of January. But I think that situation has led us to potentially look at how we do pre-season in the future.
“The guys got a reasonably good break, and then the challenge for us as coaches along with our S&C staff, was to look at a reduced pre-season campaign and how we could make sure we were as productive as normal. Making sure the playing group still had the kilometres in the legs and were at a point physically where we needed them to be, and I think it’s been refreshing for everyone. The boys have responded well and worked hard, and I feel that we’re in really good shape. We’ve had really good participation across the club in terms of numbers and we’re looking healthy.”
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?
“In terms of game style it doesn’t really impact on us. I think as a coaching group we’ve got a really good understanding of the footy side that we are, and how we want to play our footy. So I don’t think that would matter if we were playing eleven rounds or the eighteen we’ve got this year.
“Fitness-wise, again you relate that back to the challenges of a shortened pre-season and the work that we’ve done with our S&C staff to get the boys in good nick. We’ve had to make a few alterations around that, and probably drive a few areas a little bit harder than what we normally would have. But playing over four or five months as opposed to eleven weeks, you’ve definitely got to manage your load throughout the year.
“We’re fortunate with the competition bye as well as the two round byes that we’ve got, to have three footy-free weekends through the season. Some people may look at that as positive or negative. But we’ve had to look at it from a positive perspective because you can only play the cards that you’re dealt with. So we’ll make sure that we manage their load and that they’re working hard up until those weeks that they get off, so that those down weeks are really there for them to go and recoup and freshen up.
“In terms of playing roster we’re quite fortunate. We’ve got a young group now who are definitely energetic, and at an age where they should be comfortable playing as much footy as they can get under their belts. So we’ll be playing our strongest roster week-in, week-out. You always go into a season knowing that you’re going to have to draw on a number of players throughout the year, so depth across the grades is really important. That’s helped by sheer weight of numbers, and we’re lucky that we can comfortably field five grades, so I think we’ll be in reasonably good shape in terms of having to call on players as and when needed.”
Last season was your first in sole charge as a head coach in the Shute Shield. What was that like as a learning experience, and how have you applied that towards taking the Rats back up the ladder as a Premiership contender in season two?
“Being a head coach certainly isn’t all bells and whistles, and it was a real eye opener last year as to how many hats you have to wear throughout the year. It’d be great if you just turned up each week with your whistle and coached a footy side but there’s a lot more to it, and that was definitely a learning curve in terms of how well you manage your time and where you devote your energy and resources. Also, learning to be a bit more patient and not expecting everything to happen straight away. You’ve got to keep investing and keep working hard at it, and if you keep asking players to work harder you’ve got to practice what you preach and put the time and effort into it yourself.”
You lost a few more stalwarts of the club to retirement at the end of 2020 with Sam Ward, Josh Holmes and Rob Kelly all hanging up the boots. With a younger group now, are you looking to some of the ‘older’ heads like Sam Needs and Tyson Davis etc to step up and be the ones to drive this team forward?
“For sure. It’s always challenging for any group when you lose quality players, but probably more so when they’re quality men as well like Wardy, Josh and Rob Kelly, who’ve been around for a long time and had such a huge impact on the club. You’ve got to look a little bit deeper than just what they did at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. We’ve definitely got some experienced guys who may not have age on their side, but have been through the successful years including the 2017 victory, as well as the challenges of last year. The likes of Tyson, Sam, Seb Wileman, Max Girdler and Rory O’Connor, who has come back to us this year and is a genuine Super Rugby footballer and a guy with a huge amount of rugby IP.
“We’ve also got some younger guys like Ben Woollett and Ben Marr, who have both had a taste of a Super Rugby pre-season in the last two years and drawn a hell of a lot of maturity and experience from that. So, whilst we have lost some older heads and experienced guys, we’re confident in the group that we’ve got around us, and it’s quite an exciting time from a leadership perspective as we bring through some new leaders.”
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“Definitely. Our player retention is always a priority, and we try to make sure that we are hanging on to the majority, if not all, of our squad at the end of any season. If you can do that when guys are retiring or moving on to a professional environment, it’s a reasonable reflection of your rugby program and your culture. We were really happy to not lose players to any other clubs and were quite selective in terms of our recruitment process this year, and we’re really happy with where we’re at and the guys we’ve got. We’re confident in our squad heading into the year.”
Which existing players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“Sateki Latu, one of our front-rowers who came through from colts last year. Unfortunately, he did an MCL towards the end of last season but there were some pretty good raps on him amongst the rugby community here. He’s had another really big off-season and we’re expecting him to really kick on.
“Max Girdler, who has had a pretty disruptive two seasons with injuries, has got a really good opportunity now to step in to fill the void of a Sam Ward. He’s a big, robust young kid with a lot of ability and we’re pretty excited to see him get to the start of the year nice and fresh and injury-free. And probably Charlie Tupu as well. He’s been with us for a couple of years now and for me, he’s a Super Rugby player every day of the week. He works hard, trains hard and is highly talented, and if he can remain injury-free this year I think he’s going to be one of the most exciting finishers in the comp.
“Ben Marr is our captain this year. There’s no better competitor at the club, and I’d challenge you to find me a better competitor anywhere in the Shute Shield. The guy just loves winning, he works hard, and he has grown a lot of maturity in his footy over the last couple of years. He’s certainly well-endorsed by the playing group in that captaincy role and we’re really excited for Ben.”
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Giovanni Mountain-Silbery is an interesting story. He grew up playing rugby league in New Zealand but then got an international AFL scholarship with St Kilda and moved to Melbourne. He spent three years in that program but it didn’t work out for him, and he switched to rugby and has been playing club footy down there and had some experience with the Rebels Rising and Rebels A squads so he’s quite a talented kid. He’s a big unit who’s athletic and skilful but still a little bit raw in terms of his set-piece stuff as a second rower, but an exciting prospect.”
“Dean Blore is a young kid who’s come in from Penrith, and is another really exciting prospect. I’m in a pretty fortunate position at the moment where both he and Ben Marr can be reasonably interchangeable throughout games at ten or fifteen, and I’ve put a lot of thought into that as to where their skill-sets can be best attributed. If he can wrap his head around the game management side of rugby I think he’s going to be a real talent.”
Who do you have your eyes on as your biggest challengers in 2021?
“If you base it on form and consistency this year in terms of coaching groups, there hasn’t been a lot of coaching changes and I think that’s a positive for a lot of clubs. I think it’s going to be a really competitive year but if I was to highlight a couple of clubs then I definitely think Sydney Uni with Rob Taylor will bounce back, and Pauli [Taumoepeau] is going to have a pretty big year at Easts. They’ve had the roster for the last few years and he’s obviously a really good coach, so I think his time is just around the corner. I’m expecting them to feature heavily and they’ll be a tough opponent come the back end of the year when Super Rugby players filter back in. They’re probably my two standouts.”
What is the pass mark for Warringah in 2021 – finals footy a minimum and anything else a bonus or do you have grander targets?
“It’s a competitive group and we’ve set our heights pretty high, so we’re definitely playing finals footy again this year, that’s a minimum pass mark. The expectations we have within our community of supporters is pretty high again. They’ve been accustomed to winning, and it’d be fantastic to see Warringah featuring at the pointy end again. Obviously, last year was an exception. But we played three consecutive grand finals before that so they’re used to seeing that level of success, and we want to reward their loyal support and make sure we give ourselves every chance to be there on grand final day.“