Tales from the Halfway House: Randwick
Photo: Ric McLallen
2020 saw an impressive resurgence from Randwick under the stewardship of incoming head coach Ben McCormack, who steered them back into the finals where an agonising one-point loss to eventual Premiers Gordon ended their season. The mission for year two then was to build on that platform and cement themselves as a genuine title challenger, but McCormack had to prepare for the new campaign minus several of the young starlets he had helped to groom as they spread their wings at the next level. And it’s proven to be a difficult task, with the Galloping Greens sitting seven points outside the top six with a fifty percent win rate.
Overseeing on-field matters as skipper this season is scrumhalf Mitch Short, who has returned from an all-too-brief Super Rugby stint to try and help his beloved club claim the elusive trophy they haven’t held in their grasp since 2004. He gave Behind the Ruck his match-by-match breakdown of the season so far from his view as leader and playmaker, as he gets ready for the rollercoaster ride home…
Last time we chatted you were finally enjoying some starting game time with the Waratahs, then the world stopped and everything was put on hold, and here you are back in club land. Life’s rich tapestry eh?
“Yeah, it’s disappointing. There were a few injuries at the Tahs last year so I got an opportunity to get some game time, which was good and I was enjoying that. But yeah, as a year to come off contract it’s probably not the greatest because, as with everywhere in the world, it’s been an interesting year in the market to say the least. I was obviously keen to continue professionally but with the way the world was it was just hard trying to find gigs overseas, it’s certainly not as straightforward as it may seem.
“But that’s in the past and now I’m back at Randwick – a place I love – and it’s all about trying to go deep in the finals. We’ve had our moments at times throughout my career playing first grade here, and it’s still a big driving factor to play good football and be up at the pointy end of the ladder. We’re at the halfway point now and it’s an interesting time. We’re not where we want to be obviously, but we can’t really hide from that so we’ve just got to start putting in the work and turning it around.”
You’ve managed to get back and play a few games for the Wicks in the last few seasons while with the Tahs. But while you were obviously disappointed not to be involved in Super Rugby again this year, were you relishing the prospect of a full season of week-to-week club footy, and the cherished role as captain of the Galloping Greens?
“Definitely. At least I knew early that it wasn’t looking likely that I was going to get a gig somewhere, so that gave me the chance to re-evaluate my goals and what I wanted to do. As good as the Super Rugby stuff is, at times you can be in and out of the squad and moving around a bit without playing, and that can be frustrating. That sounds like I’m whingeing and I’m not, but it’s just been nice to strip it back a little bit and just keep playing pretty much eighty minutes every week. The added leadership stuff is good and I’m enjoying all that extra responsibility, but it’s just frustrating with where we’re at. I’d love to have more wins on the board as captain, and as a team.”
Plenty off turnover in the off-season at the club with all the Sevens boys heading back to duty and a few players getting their shot at the next level. What was the expectation around Coogee Oval of what could be achieved this season?
“I know everyone says it but we’re genuinely out there to win it, and that’s no different this year. It’s nice to see guys moving up, that’s what Randwick’s always been about and they pride themselves on that, and the in and out is all part of it. So we don’t want to use that turnover as an excuse because I think every club goes through that to be fair. We have that mix of youth and pro guys that are in and out, it’s just a case of bringing that all together and getting the results on the weekend, which as you can see from the ladder, hasn’t been as easy as we would have liked at this point in time. But our expectation’s are as high as ever.”
Things got underway back in round one at the picturesque Drummoyne Oval, with a comprehensive 52-17 win over West Harbour. That must have been a pleasing start, and good to see the attack in particular gelling nicely so early?
“Even in the trials we had a couple of good hit-out’s where the boys played well, and I know trials are trials but we felt we got a lot out of them, so for that round one we were in a good space. Everyone had a good pre-season working under the coaching staff and we were all ready to go, which was probably reflected by that result.
“Wests have a very solid set-piece and they’ve got plenty of big boys out there, so we tried to keep the ball moving a little bit, which worked for us in that game and I think it was a good match up for us. It was a nice day down at Drummoyne and I thought we played quite well, and probably played the way that we’d like to. We didn’t really overthink it, it was just nice to get out there and play footy and get a win first up. It was really enjoyable.”
However, a week later you headed to Rat Park for a clash with a Warringah side looking to get their campaign off to a positive start after an opening round bye, and went down 29-12. Was that a fair reflection of the match, and what did the Rats do better across the eighty minutes?
“That was just an ugly one to be honest. I think I said in the post-match speech that you could tell it was their first game of the year and they were back at home because they were just out of the blocks and full of energy, and we were probably a little bit off in that area. That was, in my opinion, the difference between the two sides. For whatever reason they were just a bit hungrier than us, whether it was a case of coming off a big win the week before and just thinking it was going to happen I’m not sure. But Warringah worked hard, scrapped well and were full of energy.
“There are a lot of new faces in that side and to be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect. But it’s always a tough place to go and play, and always a genuine hit-out up there. Last year obviously didn’t go the way they would have liked it to and maybe that gave them a bit extra too to stamp their mark, whuch to be fair, they did.”
Round three was a chance to bounce back in the best way possible, with a derby clash at home to Eastern Suburbs. But a see-sawing affair ended with the Beasties kicking clear at the end for a 31-22 victory – their first at Coogee since 2013. Back-to-back-losses but particularly tough to take given the opposition?
“Yeah, that one’s always a tough one to take, no denying that. It was just frustrating the way it went. You throw out the form guide in these games but Easts have been a pretty consistent top six team in recent times, and add in the spice of the rivalry it always makes this a tough game. They played well, it’s a derby game and they were up for it, but we just made mistakes and gave it to them. I think there was a try off a twenty-two drop-out, where we shanked the kick and it landed in their arms and they scored. Just silly things like that hurt us, that’s the most frustrating part.”
You then headed up the M1 to Newcastle to take on a Hunter Wildfires team that were still hard to gauge given the influx of players they’d experienced in the off-season, but came away with a 38-8 win. How important was that game in terms of getting some confidence going again?
“Back-to-back losses wasn’t great so this one was pretty important. It was a good trip and a nice day up there in Newcastle, and they were very welcoming. We were actually meant to have a trail match up there in pre-season but the floods prevented that from happening, so we stayed up there afterwards and had a few beers with the boys, which was good fun. To get that winning feeling back in the changing rooms was good too.
“I was quite impressed with Hunter to be honest, and I’m sure that’d be the consensus from a lot of other people. They’ve got some genuine talent there and some big boys that were causing us a few issues with their offloads, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they knock off a few bigger scalps later this year. That’s a danger game for anyone.”
A bye in round five gave you a good two-week lead-in to the home game with Gordon, and a real chance to test yourselves against the Premiers. However, despite going toe-to-toe for large periods they finished with a flourish to run out 47-27 winners – helped somewhat by a couple of yellow cards to the Wicks. What are your memories of how that one played out?
“It was a big game obviously, and there was a real buzz because we’d had the bye and were really ready to fly into that one. They’ve been consistent performers in recent years so we knew it would be tough but from memory we didn’t start too well and it ended up as a real disappointment. We’d got ourselves into it but scoreboard pressure got to us and we leaked too many. We’d score one and then concede one and that’s how it went throughout until we fell away late, which was very disappointing.
“There were a few lapses there where we didn’t defend well and to be honest, we hadn’t defended that poorly up to that point I don’t believe. But they’ve still got a consistent back row that are very good, and they did well to keep the points ticking over and keep us under pressure. Given the changes they’ve experienced as a first grade side I thought they were pretty impressive, and to hold it together under the expectation of being defending Premiers so far, you’d have to say they’ve done quite well.”
A trip to the foot of the mountains was up next, and four tries from flying winger Christian Yassmin helped you to a 54-17 victory. Was that a box happily ticked or not as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests?
“I’ve only played Penrith once before, but I was actually quite impressed with them. I know they’ve leaked quite a few points but I don’t think the gap has been as big as everyone may think, so we were pretty happy with that result. The three tries we leaked we weren’t overly happy with, but we were desperate to put some wins together and happy to get this one.”
Christian Yassmin is enjoying a profitable season, sitting second on the try-scorer’s list with nine. He’s been in and around 1st Grade for a few years now with first Sydney Uni and now the Wicks, but he seems to be enjoying his best season yet in 2021?
“He’s a bit older now and playing consistent minutes, which helps. I actually went to school with him and he’s always been an impressive athlete, but I think you’re seeing that more now in this team. As a nine I’m always looking for him because he’s quite high on the list for competition tackle busts, and he’s hungry to get his hands on the ball, which is why his numbers are so good this year. As a team, we’ve got to look to find guys like that who are in a bit of form and put them in the right areas. I like seeing our wingers high on the scoresheet because it means we’re doing our bit to get them over the line.”
While we’re talking about players you look to link with, it’s obviously an integral part of your game to work well in tandem with your flyhalf. And this season your partner in crime has been Ben Starkey, a player who is enjoying a bit of a renaissance having been one of the best inside centres in the competition a few years ago, but who has spent the last couple of seasons largely donning the no.10 jersey in 2nd Grade. How has that relationship blossomed as the season has gone on?
“I went to school with ‘Starks’ as well, and he was always a ten or twelve going through from Year Eight onwards, so he’s always had that ball playing ability inside him. When he went back to second grade he started playing a bit more at flyhalf again, and that’s probably why you’re seeing him used at ten this year. Obviously, Ben Donaldson has gone on to Super Rugby along with Will Harrison, and Dave Horwitz has hung up the boots to concentrate on his post-footy career, so an opportunity opened up and he’s taken it. He’s a very consistent and reliable player, and as a nine it’s good to play with someone like that because you know what you’re going to get. He’s got runs on the board and he knows how to direct a team around.”
By the time you got to round eight and the visit of Southern Districts to Coogee Oval, the ladder and the points acquired by the teams above you made this almost a must-win – particularly given the Rebels were one of the sides competing with you to squeeze into the top six. You came back from 17-3 down to register a vital 29-25 win, thanks to a match-winning try from yourself. A huge win in the context of the season this one?
“Massively. Playing a team that are around you on the ladder makes it a huge game, and it’s a shame that it’s already like that this early in the year but it is what it is. You’ve seen the close losses that Souths have had this year, they’re a dangerous team and well-coached. So getting that one for us was very important, and at home as well because we hadn’t won there yet this season. We were all aware of that going in and we managed to sneak home, which was great. A loss to them would have made life very difficult.”
The last match before the mid-season break was the annual grudge clash with Sydney Uni, who were flying high at the top of the table. And they showed their credentials with a devastating opening helping them to a 26-0 lead before the Wicks had really got going, going on to win 57-17. A third loss in four on your own ground and a big reality check that must have given you plenty to think about over the break?
“That one definitely hurt. We knew they were the benchmark the way they’d been playing, but for us to lose in the way we did was very disappointing. We never felt like we really gave ourselves a chance. Our start was poor again, and if you give away that many penalties against a team like that you know what the result is going to be. There were too many little errors and we were inconsistent in key areas, and it really showed that day.
“The difference playing them is that you actually get punished for your mistakes, and for not playing in the right areas or competing in the right areas. You give away a penalty and you’re more than likely facing a maul ten metres out and tight to the line, and around the field they’re a fit side that can defend well for long periods of time. You know what’s coming with Uni but you’ve got to be smart enough to stop it, and not just the mauls. We didn’t get into that contest at all.”
It’s a physically demanding competition, what is the squad’s injury situation going into the home stretch?
“Zac Shepherd did his shoulder I think but other than that we’re not too bad.”
One bonus is the number of players that could be available to return to the Wicks from Super Rugby, with Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson, Tiaan Tauakipulu, James Ramm and Triston Reilly all possible additions. Given the state of play, that could be a rather handy cavalry to call upon?
“Those boys will be excited. They’re all proud Wicks guys and they’ll be keen to come back I’d imagine but it’s also how you bring them back in. Also, you’re never sure who you’re going to get. It sort of changes week-to-week and that makes the comp exciting I think. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks to say the least, and bringing in full-time professionals really does change the dynamic of the comp. The games are going to be big.”
You’ve started every match so far, who has impressed you in the myrtle green jersey in 2021?
“We mentioned him before but Christian Yassmin has been good, and it’s been nice to see him going at it every week. Valance Yates is a hooker who’s been thrown in a bit through injuries, and it’s just exciting playing with a young guy like that who’s keen to rip in. He’s good around the field and his set-piece seems pretty solid, and he’s just a good kid who’s enjoying his footy. Also, Jamie Rickward, a backrower who came in this year from Brisbane. He’s a tough footballer who just goes about his work but he’s also one of the great blokes, and I’d say most of the team would say they love playing with him. Keep an eye on him.”
So, four wins from eight, 8th on the ladder, and 10 games remaining – six of them against sides sitting above you. The Wicks are going to have to step up several levels from here if you want to play finals footy?
“Definitely, there’s no denying that. We’re at that point where we’ve got to be consistent across the field, but probably need to strip it back a little bit and worry about controlling our own performances, otherwise it’ll be a tough year. But there’s a lot of footy to play and that’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s a long season and you’ve just got to ride with your form. We’ve traditionally started well and then faded around finals time, so they way I’m looking at it is that we’ve got to turn that around and go the other way so we’re peaking when we need to.”
What can we expect from the Wicks in the second half of the season, what have been the focus points over the last fortnight?
“I think you’ll see a more consistent team. I don’t want to pinpoint too many areas but across the board we need to be more consistent with what we’re doing. Whether that’s ball control or discipline, or defending for long periods of time and being comfortable doing it, they’re the sorts of things I’m after and will be driving. We’ve got no choice; we’ve got to be on it from the get-go.”