Tales from the Halfway House: Warringah

Photos: Karen Watson

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Warringah headed into the new season minus a few old heads, and looking to lift themselves back up the ladder having not featured at the pointy end of the season for the first time since 2013. But head coach Michael Ruthven presented a positive air before a ball was kicked, and his new-look squad has duly put together five wins from eight games to leave them inside the all-important top six at the mid-season break, and on course for knockout footy once again.

Versatile back Tyson Davis is still only 25-years-old, but has assumed the role of one of the experienced heads in the leadership group this season with the key retirements of several of his peers. The dynamic and reliable inside centre has started all of their matches so far, including a stint at fullback, and has enjoyed a close-up view of the Rats resurgence in full swing as a result. So Behind the Ruck tracked him down for his take on the story so far…

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It was a disappointing season from the Rats last year compared to their recent history, missing out on finals footy for the first time in seven years. Several club legends also hung up the boots after the final game, so what were the expectations around the playing group going in to the new season with several new faces?

Shute Shield 2021

Tyson Davis – Photo: Karen Watson

“It was a new year and a new chapter, and after a few guys retiring it was an opportunity to put all of that past history on the back burner and focus on 2021. It actually gave us a good chance to put the missed finals series to bed and welcome some new players to the group, and there was a lot of excitement and a bit less pressure after an underwhelming 2020. It wasn’t like we were going into the season as one of the favourites as we did last year and ended up letting everyone down, and I think that was a good thing.

“Although we didn’t ultimately get the results last year in a shorter season, there was a lot of good football and a lot of good signs. Finishing the season by beating Norths at home, who went deep in the finals, was a real positive, and something we have built off going into this season.”

You’re still only 25-years-old, but with the retirements of Josh Holmes, Sam Ward and Rob Kelly – off the back of Hamish Angus and Dave Feltscheer hanging up the boots in recent years as well – you’ve become one of the ‘older’ heads this season. Do you feel any extra responsibility and if so, are you enjoying it?

“It’s definitely different because in all my previous seasons I’d been looking to guys like Josh, Wardy and Hamo, and in a selfish way just worried about my own game. I’d turn up to training and train hard myself and not really have too much else to worry about. But this season is totally different in that I need to lead by example and help to bring the other guys in the squad along with me. So there’s definitely a lot more responsibility to try and bring that success that I’ve experienced at the club in 2016, ’17, ’18 and ’19, and pass that onto the next generation of players coming through as those older guys did with me.

“It’s a totally different role this year in terms of where I stand in the leadership group and the team, and they were the things I had to kind of touch on and work on early in the pre-season to pass on some of that experience and knowledge. It’s not easy to fill the shoes of those guys, and it is strange to go from being the youngest in the team alongside Harry Jones when we were eighteen or nineteen-years-old, to now being twenty-five and one of the oldest. But I’m enjoying it and it’s really great to work with ‘Rivo’ [head coach Michael Ruthven] on some of our strategic stuff and helping the younger players come through.”

Let’s talk footy then. The Rats had the bye in the first week but ripped straight into round two with a 29-12 win over Randwick at Rat Park. A great way to start against a top six side from last season, and one expected to figure again in 2021?

“Definitely. We didn’t get to play many trials before this game, so getting the win and the monkey off our backs early just reinforced that we were where we wanted to be at the start line of the competition. Every team can believe that they are capable of being in that top four and one of the teams to be reckoned with, but beating Randwick at home set the pace for our season and gave us that extra level of belief. 

“Also, I think the new guys to the club that possibly hadn’t been in successful programs before really bought in to the culture after this result. That game was up for grabs for the whole eighty minutes so we had to dig deep, and it really showed them what the Rats was all about. It was a good first round for us.”

Shute Shield 2021

Rory O’Connor has made a welcome return to the Rats in 2021 – Photo: Karen Watson

However, a week later you went down to the Shire and were edged out by Southern Districts 31-25, despite leading 12-0 early on. It’s always a difficult road trip and the Rebels came in off the back of a couple of losses and were desperate to kick-start their season, was that the difference on the day?

“The first twenty minutes we came out firing, and the things we’d practiced during the week came off perfectly. Then – not that we took our foot off the throat – but we kind of went into cruise mode. I don’t know if that was down to a lack of experience in the team but we didn’t really capitalise on some back-to-back points, and then Souths applied a lot of pressure in the second quarter and I think we went in behind. But it didn’t feel like it because we’d been all over that game early on.

“The bounce of the ball had us on the backfoot at times and we ended up chasing the game, and I feel like we played some really good football and still put ourselves in enough positions to win but we couldn’t close it out. We missed one or two penalties late in the game, and it probably came down to the level of experience in the group and not having been in that competitive environment for very long. But I think tasting a loss early set us up for the rest of the season and put us on the right footing going forward.”

You were back at Rat Park for the round four clash against West Harbour, and it took a while to shake the Pirates off before you came home 47-24. What are your memories of that one?

“West Harbour are always a bit of a wild card. They’re a very good team when they play some footy and while we always knew that first twenty minutes was going to be very tough we maybe didn’t give them the respect they deserved. We tried to play around them a lot in that first half hour and they defended very well in the backs and made some good reads, and it wasn’t until we switched on and started going direct and got some pay from our forwards that the game opened up.

“The likes of Ben Marr and Ben Woollett really found some space in the second half, and once they got some rhythm it was tough for Wests to hang on. So I think that game was good for us in terms of developing our open-field attack, and the learning we took from it is that you still need to go through them before you can go around them!”

Shute Shield 2021

Ben Woollett on the charge – Photo: Karen Watson

Arguably the most eye-catching result of the season so far, if maybe not the performance, was the 40-37 win at TG Millner over grand finalists Eastwood a week later. A real see-sawing affair that could have gone either way and a massive shot in the arm for the team?

“That was a good win and once again, reaffirmed the belief in the group. It was a good set-piece battle, and having good set-piece ball made our life easier in the backs. It was a bit back and forth and ultimately a few calls went our way. But we had good discipline, we didn’t give them too much easy ball, and we ground it out for a full eighty-minute performance. And that goes back to what we’d learned from the Souths match, that you can’t switch off in those tough games.

“It was probably closer than it should have been. We definitely left some points out there and it didn’t feel as close out on the field as the scoreline suggests. But that was my first win at TG Millner in seven or eight attempts and we enjoyed it.”

It was a game that saw fullback/flyhalf Ben Marr add to his burgeoning reputation with another 20pt contribution. It must be great to see another talent off the Rats production line come through and kick on the way he has?

“Definitely. He’s come through the colts program at the Rats and I remember watching him as a 19-year-old playing alongside us in Sevens, and now he’s doing it in first grade week-in, week-out. He’s the fittest in the team and he plays a very fast up-tempo style of game, and when anyone makes a half-break he’s going to be catching it, so if you follow him you’re usually in a pretty good position to get some points. He’s extremely competitive and extremely fit and I think that’s half the reason why he scores so many points, because when it’s the eightieth minute he’s still got plenty of gas in the tank. His energy around the group and on the field is something to admire.”

Shute Shield 2021

Ben Marr has been on fire and sits third on the competition points-scorers list – Photo: Karen Watson

Round six saw a seemingly regulation 44-15 win over Penrith, without the inflated scoreline that some other sides have racked up against them this year. Sometimes these matches that you would expect to win can be used as an opportunity to try a few things out, but does that do a disservice to the way the Emus played on the day?

“A few things were tried out that day. Our defence coach Nick Piva-Giblett is pretty good at mixing up what we are doing and he was looking a few weeks ahead and trialling a few things, some set-piece stuff and some trick plays in defence etc. But full credit to Penrith, I think that was the best Emus side I’ve ever played and we certainly didn’t run riot that day.

“Their ten bossed them around and showed some direction and they were very good, and I think that scoreline does justice to the game. We made some changes but nothing major, and they were very much in the contest. It was only when a few of their boys got tired that some of our fitter fellas started cutting them up but yeah, that was a good effort by Penrith.”

Going into the round seven clash at Sydney University, both sides were in red-hot form and there was plenty of interest in seeing how this new-look Rats would go against the table-toppers. Unfortunately, you never really clicked into gear as Uni put a choke-hold on the game, controlled large parts of it and came home with a wet sail to win 45-12. A disappointing day?

“We’d reviewed Sydney Uni pretty well and we knew the style of football they were going to bring. They maul to penalty and kick to the corner, so you’ve got to have clinical discipline and be clinical around your set-piece and exits. But remembering the stats from the game I think we had forty-seven percent possession and spent eighty percent of that in our own half, and if you look at our entries into the A-zone it was very little.

“I think we entered twice and scored twice, which were both Ben Marr tries off good set-piece that was what we had planned for. But we really struggled to get out of our end and as you said, they really put a choke-hold on you. You’re trying to stop a dam wall leaking pretty much, it’s very tough, and we made errors because we were under so much pressure. They had a very connected defensive line with a lot of line speed, and out there it felt like we couldn’t really punch through them or go around them, and we weren’t kicking well. So you end up looking for these miracle plays to get in their end and if they don’t come off you can get punished.

Shute Shield 2021

Dean Blore has been a valuable addition at flyhalf – Photo: Karen Watson

“If we’d executed our kicking game well maybe we would have been under less pressure, but Sydney Uni were clearly the better team on the day. That’s one of those losses that is a bit easier to swallow because you were just outplayed, whereas the Souths loss was harder because I thought we deserved to win. But we used it as a good learning curve in terms of working on our exits and kicking game, and how to manage pressure from a team that has their foot on your throat for the whole eighty.”

Head coach Michael Ruthven rightly told Behind the Ruck afterwards that it’s a long season and you just had to put it to bed. But things didn’t get any easier a week later as you travelled to Chatswood to take on the reigning Premiers Gordon, and fell just short 24-20. It wasn’t the win you were after but a much better performance against an in-form side?

“That one is actually the hardest to swallow because we were playing some good footy and it was a genuine arm-wrestle. They scored two tries from very good individual efforts, which hurts because our game plan and structures were on-point. While ours were really good team tries and we were in a very good position with twenty to play. Unfortunately, I then got a yellow card, which put us under a bit of pressure, and we fell short in the seventy-ninth minute off an error.

“The good thing was the learnings we’d taken from the Uni game the week before. Our kicking game was much better and well executed, and that put us in a position to win the game. And once again, it reinforced to the playing group that we were here to compete. We beat Eastwood who were second last year, and then went up against the Premiers and really set the tone before going down late. So each week we’re either learning or adding a bit more belief, and while we can’t afford too many more losses, it’s definitely left us in a good place as a squad.”

And then the big one, the derby at Rat Park. No matter where the two teams sit on the ladder this is always a seismic clash, and you would have been wary of facing a Manly side who were looking for a boost to their season with victory. But it doesn’t get much better than a 40-14 win in front of the Hillbillies – especially in the 50th year of this great rivalry?

“Like you said, it doesn’t matter where you sit on the ladder. I remember back in 2015 it was my debut derby and I was eighteen-years-old playing at outside centre. We were around ninth or tenth on the ladder at the time and that was the year Manly went onto the grand final, but we actually beat them at Rat Park. So I knew from experience that it didn’t matter how you were going, it purely comes down to the twenty-three guys that get to go out on the field and it’s always a tough game. That was shown from the first few hits and the passion that Manly showed.

“It was obviously a very emotional day as the lives of Lachie Ward and Col Crawford were celebrated, and with it being the fiftieth year of the derby. But we’d previewed them well and knew they would be running purely on emotion, because they needed a win for their season and had everything on the line. So we spoke about how there didn’t need to be any extra emotion for us and that we just needed to focus on process, and we felt that was what was going to win that game. Ultimately, we stuck to that and applied the pressure in the same way that Uni had done to us and squeezed Manly out of it. It was very pleasing to put together an eighty-minute performance and get that win on the board.”

Shute Shield 2021

Hugh Margin has been a highlight of the Rats season so far – Photo: Karen Watson

Given you didn’t get to play them on your own turf last year because of the Covid-enforced shortened season, I imagine it was a big occasion for the Hillbillies and the home faithful to see both teams face off at Rat Park, and the win would have been suitably celebrated?

“I think they were worried about tickets selling out on the Wednesday the week before, and to have full crowd numbers off the back of the fiftieth derby anniversary lunch on the Friday, just added to the hype. It was an awesome day.”

It’s a physically demanding competition, what is the squad’s injury situation going into the home stretch?

“Ben Marr dislocated his shoulder last week against Manly and we’re looking best case at him being out for seven weeks, so that’s a big blow. He’s very hard to replace and that obviously stresses our backline a little bit, but it moves Ben Woollett to fullback and allows Seb Wileman to stay at thirteen, which is equally as strong. But other than that, everyone else is pretty much fit and ready to go and available for selection. That’s full credit to our strength and conditioning staff, who work very hard.”

And I’m pretty sure you don’t have any Super Rugby players to come back into the fold?

“We have no-one! But if you look at our successful period from 2016-2019 the only person to get a Super Rugby contract from that was Rory O’Connor, so it’s been pretty much club players for the last however many years. If the Waratahs do get a guy in who wants experience and players that can come straight in and do a job, rather than signing the next nineteen-year-old that has played in the Australian Under 20’s, then maybe a few more of us might get a look in!”

You’ve started every match so far, who has impressed you in the Rats jersey in 2021?

“Well, Ben Marr we’ve already talked about and we can’t wait to get him back but I’ve also been very impressed with Hugh Margin, who’s come across from Gordon. There’s been a big hole to fill since Sam Thomson left and he’s made a big impact in our second row and been doing an awesome job. Max Girdler coming back from injury has made a massive difference at number eight, he’s made a physical impact there which we missed after Sam Ward. Rory O’Connor is fantastic, you can’t take anything away from him. And our new flyhalf Dean Blore has been pretty impressive too. He has a league background but he’s fitted into our team pretty well. They’re just a few off the top of my head but the whole forward pack has been doing very well to be honest.”

So, eight games in and nine to play for Warringah – with another bye, and you’re sitting just inside the six. Happy with the first half of the season and ready to rip into the second?

“I think the football we’ve been playing is a pass mark and I’m happy with where that stands, but those two losses we spoke about to Souths and Gordon probably hurts us a bit on the ladder. But they did give us some work-on’s and we’re in a good place, and it’s a positive eight weeks that we have coming up. We just need to keep learning and keep getting those crucial wins, and I feel like we have plenty of exciting footy still to play.”

Warringah Results

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