Tales from the Halfway House: Manly
Photo: Karen Watson
As with their arch-rivals further up the peninsular, 2020 wasn’t a year to remember for Manly either, with just four wins and an earlier Mad Monday than they have been accustomed to across the last decade. Head coach Matt McGoldrick was determined to revive their fortunes in his second year in charge, and was keeping his fingers crossed for a cleaner bill of health across his squad compared to the injury curse that had struck them down in the previous campaign. But it’s been a case of deja vu so far for the Marlins, with depth tested in key positions and only two recitals of the club song leaving them in a lowly 11th place on the ladder.
Flanker Harry Bergelin has been a stalwart of the club for almost a decade, recently racking up 150 1st Grade games. So who better to run Behind the Ruck through the season so far, and to offer some perspective of where this current side stand against their forebears, and how they turn the corner…
2020 was Manly’s poorest season in years, what was the feeling around the playing group about what could be achieved this season, and was there a determination to improve?
“Absolutely. Last year was a funny one, Covid affected us a lot and we didn’t really have many semi-professionals that were continuing their training throughout it and a lot of guys just stopped. Whereas, other clubs took advantage of it at that time. So this year was more about getting back into our standard schedule with a proper pre-season, getting a few new guys into the team, and sprinkling together what we had and a bit of new stuff and having a good, solid year and seeing where we ended up.”
You started the campaign with a chance to set your stall out against Premiers Gordon, but to say things didn’t go according to plan would be an understatement as the Highlanders ran out 78-10 winners. I can’t remember a bigger defeat for the Marlins since I’ve been covering club rugby, what on earth happened that day?
“I think the new guys took a lot of emotion and a lot of anxiety into the game, and were probably trying to do too much and ran themselves ragged and Gordon exposed a lot of weaknesses in our defence straight up, which was concerning. We missed a lot of tackles and they seemed to always lead to tries, whereas usually when someone misses a tackle there’s someone else to support him. There seems to be a real structural issue around our ruck sometimes, but it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. But in that first game it was definitely a case of guys putting themselves in the wrong position and giving away easy tries.”
This was the only game this year where you didn’t start but came off the bench. But where does it stand in terms of your worst experiences as a proud Marlin?
“It was pretty shocking. I was talking to a few regular patrons that come to the game and they said that it just seemed like some of the team didn’t care, which was really shocking to hear. But as I said, I think it was more a case of guys just trying to do too much and trying to make things happen magically and running themselves into the ground, which meant they fell off tackles. It just went back to structure and to fitness.”
The only way is up from there, but what was the week like after the game leading up to the Easts match in round two. Was it a case of hitting the reset button, a few home truths, or not panicking after just one game?
“There was a bit of a deep, hard look at ourselves, there were a few personnel changes, and from memory it was a really tough week at training where we bashed each other, which you’d expect.”
No-one gave you a hope when you travelled to Woollahra to take on many people’s favourites for the title, but despite trailing 14-3 you hung in there and kept the scoreboard ticking over with penalty goals, before grabbing a dramatic 24-22 win late on. Given what had happened just seven days earlier, that must have been a pretty satisfying win?
“It was very exciting. A lot can happen in seven days, and it seemed like an effort thing that day. They weren’t playing amazing, we weren’t playing amazing, and there wasn’t much attacking footy. But we just appeared to try harder than them on the day and ended up on top at the end. That’s almost been our strategy all year, try and be there at the end and see what happens. But it hasn’t really worked since.”
A bye in round three allowed a fortnight’s prep for the visit of the Two Blues, but things didn’t start well as they opened up a 14-0 advantage. And they refused to go quietly, pushing you all the way before you came through 38-27. A sigh of relief after that one?
“Absolutely. Those are the games – the Two Blues, Penrith – where you feel like you should get a few but its not always easy. We still weren’t perfect, and we were still suffering from a lack of experience – especially in that backline. Losing Jimmy Ohmsen in one of the trials really threw a curveball at us, so we had a new five-eighth finding his feet and guys playing positions that they hadn’t trained for in pre-season, and it just wasn’t clicking.”
Two wins from three and things were looking a bit rosier for the Marlins as they headed to Uni Oval. But a clinical Students outfit put you to the sword – as they have with pretty much everyone else so far – 48-13. Was it simply a case of them being too good on the day?
“Yeah, across the park structurally and fitness-wise they were too good for us. We tried to play territory like they did, but it exposed weaknesses in our kick-chase defence. We tried to out-Uni Uni and it doesn’t work because they’re bloody good at what they do. They lure you into running at them and then if you kick at them instead they’re pretty good at counter attacking as well. They have a better structure but are still full of young guns who are all on the same page and all want to win for each other. They just have that inbuilt desire across the whole club and they’re definitely strong again this year.”
Round six brought West Harbour to the Village Green, and a game that went backwards and forwards but ended with a late 33-32 win for the Pirates. How disappointing was that result?
“Disappointing is an understatement. I thought we had them and were going ok, but like we have done against Wests the last couple of years we found a way to lose. They weren’t special but we let them run through us or around us and it was very frustrating. It was like they could make a break at will and again, it was missed tackles. If we were worried about not having a great season it was becoming a reality after that one.”
The game was delayed for a lengthy period after a worrying-looking injury to Dion Spice, and I’m sure the news that he was ok outweighed the disappointment of the result. But it’s never nice to see anyone go through that – especially a team mate, and must have brought back memories of the Kotoni Ale injury years before on the same pitch?
“Yeah, a little bit. You never want to have to stop a game because you’re concerned for someone’s health, and you have to do what’s required to make sure the player is safe. But it also has a big impact on the momentum of a game when it gets drawn out like that. That’s probably the only other time we’ve had to stop for that long, and it’s definitely a reminder of how serious things can get, it’s not just football at the end of the day.”
You made the trip down to the Shire a week later to take on an inconsistent Souths side, but never got out of the blocks as they built a 35-3 lead before you rallied in the second half to narrow the margin to 42-30 at the final whistle. Was there a concern around the number of points you were conceding at this point?
“We’re slow starters, that’s been a problem all season. We weren’t against West Harbour but other than that we consistently haven’t got out of the gates at all. Souths at Souths and training out on the back field can sometimes be a pretty demotivating experience. I actually really like playing down there but it just seemed like not everyone was there with their game faces on that day, and Souths were very fired up. I think off the back of us beating them there last year they had something to prove, and they were a lot more physical than us. We just didn’t turn up.”
Round eight saw you host Northern Suburbs, and another slow start allowed the Shoremen to take control on their way to a 36-18 victory. They are a very well-drilled outfit that are hard to reel-in once they are in front. Were there any positive signs to take from this one?
“No, and personally it was my worst game of the last couple of years for sure. I wanted to trade a bit of fire but it went the wrong way, which it can do sometimes, and I got a yellow. A very well-drilled side can create frustration and that can boil over, and it did. It’s hard to get a turnover off them and they can just kill you if you make a mistake.
“The Simon Cron DNA is still there. It was given to them on a platter and they still live and breathe it, and it just shows how good he was. You look at Brad Hemopo who used to play with us, and we didn’t use him the way they do. He sets some high channels and he’s a big body in a lot of space, and it works.”
If you wanted to go into the mid-season break on a high, nothing offered more than the chance to down arch-rivals Warringah on their own turf in the derby. Unfortunately for the Marlins and their followers, things went very much the way of the Rats as they triumphed 40-14. Losing any game is hard but losing a derby much worse – especially in the 50th year of the rivalry. What was the feeling afterwards?
“We were very disappointed but again, it was another reality shock. This was a top four or five side we were playing and there’s a gap between us now, we’re just not there and haven’t been there for most of the season. We’re a bottom three side and we need to start acting like it.
“I thought we actually played well in the first twenty minutes. We had all the ball but we couldn’t put them away or convert when we needed to, and that’s what you have to do in those big games. And again we just seemed to miss one tackle and it led to a try. Missed tackles are going to happen and your team should be there to help when it does, but with us it seems to end up with points, which is surprising. I don’t know what we’re doing wrong, but there’s someone not in the right spot somewhere.”
What is the squad’s injury situation going into the home stretch?
“Well, we’ve obviously been without Jimmy Ohmsen all season and Sam Lane for most of it, but they’ll hopefully both be back as an option soon. Tevin Ferris can’t get on the field and he was touted to be a big player for us, and Manaia Koko is just coming back and he’s a big body we could do with. Outside of that I’m not too sure but I think we’re ok.”
You’ve started every match so far bar one, who has impressed you in the Marlins jersey in 2021?
“Hunter Ward is looking good. He’s got a bit of Sevens in him, and if he gets the ball and tucks it under his arm he’s a bloody good runner. But if I’m being honest, no-one has been killing it and that’s why we’re coming third last.”
So, two wins leaves the Marlins in fairly unchartered recent territory down in 11th. You recently racked up 150 1st Grade games for the club, is this the lowest point you can recall in your time there?
“Yeah, it’s pretty low. To be honest, I’d rather see the club doing better, and if that means me stepping aside to bring younger guys through and building towards the future, then I’m more than happy to do that. We had a meeting last week where we said to some of the younger guys like Hunter Ward and guys in second grade that look, it’s time for you to start stepping up now. No-one wants to see us running the ball anymore, we’re too old and slow, so they need to take control and do all the crazy stuff that we used to do. That’s what we’re missing I think, a young fiery group that are coming through.
“Our colts side are pretty good and there’s a few guys in there that could probably play first or second grade. So if we start taking a few of them and start stringing together some wins with those guys leading into next year, then that could be a good end to the season for us.”
Nine games left but only four against the current top six, so a chance to grab some wins and make up some ground. Can you turn it around and if so, how?
“We can, and hopefully getting some personnel back will help. We’ve just got Sam Lane back and Jimmy Ohmsen is meant to be coming back soon, and then potentially we’ll get guys like Sio Tatola and Max Douglas as well. Also, Tom Connor has just joined us and he’s looking fresh, so two or three sprinkled in the forwards plus Jimmy or Laney in the next few weeks would help steer the ship a bit I think.
“I feel like we’re going to win more in the second half of the season, but then I felt like we would win more than we did in the first half! We’re still struggling to find our identity, and we just need to find what works for us and stick to it and do it well. It feels like one step forward, two steps back at the moment. If we can keep building for a couple of weeks that’d be a start, and then we can hopefully get a few more wins.”