Tales from the Halfway House: Penrith
Photos: Karen Watson
Penrith returned to the Charter Hall Shute Shield competition last season determined to improve their fortunes, and although they were unable to break through with a much-needed win, there were signs of a club moving in the right direction under head coach John Muggleton. What he wanted going into 2021 was the chance to build on that promise with the nucleus of the same squad, but a raft of departures left the Emus requiring a fresh start. However, just two games into the new season, a new-look outfit finally broke the seven-year drought with victory in the derby over the Western Sydney Two Blues.
They haven’t added to it since but have garnered positive reviews from many of the teams they’ve faced, and go into the second half of the season in search of further success against the backdrop of a fresh threat to their very existence. Loose forward Mathew Faoagali followed his brother all the way from New Zealand to the ‘Riff’ back in 2016, and has experienced the highs and lows of life at the foot of the mountains. Behind the Ruck caught up with him for his take on the season so far, and the impact of the recently leaked Participation Agreement…
This is the second season back for the Emus after their return to the competition. I know head coach John Muggleton was hoping you would be better this year for the experience but there was a lot of player turnover in the off-season, so he’s having to try and gel together a lot of new faces again. So what was the expectation amongst the playing group of what could be achieved this year?
“Last year was a big step up. I’ve been playing with Penrith for a few years and last year I thought we took a big step forward, so this year was pretty much just trying to pick up from where we left off and progress from there. Start winning some games and take on the competition with the players we had. We’d had Julian Huxley here and Jeremy Paul here before and they were good. But last year I just felt we were definitely moving forward with the group of players we had and I could definitely see us improving this year if we had that same team.
“But then early in the year we started losing these players we had from last year, they were getting picked up elsewhere or they left for another team. And it was difficult to understand their reasons for leaving. Yeah, we lost all our games, but there was definitely improvement and positive signs for Penrith. So we’d wanted to pick up from last year but it just didn’t go to plan. We couldn’t hold on to those players and it was pretty much back to square one and starting from scratch again trying to bring new players to fill in.”
Things didn’t get off to a good start with a 73-0 loss to a very good Norths side in round one. I guess when you’re still trying to knit together a new side with combinations etc, coming up against a smart, well-coached footy side like Norths doesn’t make life any easier?
“Definitely not. To come up against one of the top four teams in the comp was always going to be a tough game. They’ve been together playing and training with a lot of that same team for years, while we were still trying to figure out our combinations and who fits where. It was tough.”
The bye in round two probably came at a good time and enabled a few new faces to arrive and a bit more time on the training paddock ahead of the derby against the Two Blues. How was the lead-up into that game, and the desire amongst the group to break that seven-year hoodoo?
“We had some new players fly over, so having that week off definitely helped in trying to get them here and then training with them to get some combinations going. We knew that the derby game with the Two Blues is the one that everyone in Penrith looks to win, and I was just confident with the boys that came over that we could get one over them this year. We prepared well, got those combinations working and were lucky enough to come out with the win.”
It wasn’t a classic but the Emus fronted up, took their points when they could, and defended for their lives to get home 11-7 to record a first win for 1st Grade since 2014, and kickstart some wild and well-deserved celebrations. What are your memories of the game and the feeling afterwards – was it more joy or relief to get that monkey off the back?
“Joy and relief – pretty much everything! I’ve been there for half of those seven years and I was just so relieved and so happy for all the boys that had been there before me. All the supporters running onto the field was a special feeling, and the celebrations were special.
“We knew most of the boys from the Two Blues too – we’re all friends off the field- and I think that just made it extra special too getting one over them because the derby means a lot. I’ve seen Manly and Warringah and the crowds they get and the feeling is similar between us – it’s the battle of the West and it gives you that extra boost to want to win.”
Unfortunately, there was an instant reality check the following week as table-topping Sydney Uni turned up at the foot of the mountains and put a half-century on you. In saying that, teams higher up the ladder have conceded more against them. What was your take on that match and performance?
“I think it was just our preparation that week. The boys mindset from the week before – I guess we just needed to come back down to earth and re-focus – and that was a big wake-up call. Sydney Uni came to our backyard and gave it to us, and it took a hiding from them to bring us back to earth. They’re a very good team, you’ve got to give it to them. They prep well, they train hard and it’s credit to them, they wanted it more and it showed on the field.”
Looking back at all the results so far, I think the one that surprised me the most was the 86-10 loss to Hunter Wildfires in round five. Specifically because they hadn’t been going too well themselves, and because you conceded almost double the points you had against an unbeaten Uni. What went wrong that day, and was it the worst performance so far?
“That was just a bad performance. I can’t really blame preparation because that was one of the best weeks for training. Hunter were definitely on the target list for us of winnable games, and we did well for the first fifteen minutes. We were going backwards and forwards – we’d score and they’d score – and then I don’t know what happened, they just ran away with it. We made too many mistakes and they ran off and scored tries, and by the end of the half the scoreline was already too far for us. They were the better team on the day and just took every opportunity.”
Seven days later you fronted up at Rat Park to take on a pretty handy Warringah outfit, and briefly led before going down 44-15. Was that off the back of some serious chats during the week?
“Yeah, definitely, ‘Muggs’ [John Muggleton] just drilled into us that we had to bounce back because the Hunter result was unacceptable. So we had to focus on Warringah and improve, and he kept drilling that into everyone and we had to play well. We got some good feedback from some of their coaches and players and ex-players, coming up to us and telling us to keep our heads up because that was one of the hardest games they’d seen against a Penrith side. So there was definitely positives we could take from that game.”
Again, a week later you were level with Randwick early on before they cut loose. But the fact that you were beginning to rack up some tries and offer more of an attacking threat was promising?
“Yeah, we had a good first half but then we made too many mistakes, easy mistakes we could have avoided. We just gave them too much of the game and they started scoring tries. In the second half we were trying to play a catch-up game and that’s very hard because everyone can be panicking and trying to do this and that, which takes your mind off the game plan. Their backline really hurt us in that game, they had some really good players.”
Round eight saw a highly-rated Eastern Suburbs side travel to Nepean Park, and although they got out to a healthy lead you rallied hard and scored two of the last three tries to go down 35-17. Was that the best effort of the year so far?
“I’d say there was one of our best halves of the year, they even admitted that we won the second half. But it’s the same thing, we gave them their lead in the first half and it’s always tough to try and chase a team down. But we were definitely proud of the boys for that second half effort and it gave us a lot of confidence. There’s been a lot of talk about Easts and their signings to take out the comp, so to play like that against a decent side, we have to take positives.”
However, if things looked like they were starting to turn it was back to the drawing board last week with an 80-3 loss to a rampant Southern Districts down at Forshaw, where their set-piece appears to have done plenty of damage with five tries coming from their front-row alone. Was that a big factor in the game?
“It’s always tough playing at Forshaw. They had a good pack and played good as a team, especially having a big crowd behind them to give them that little boost as well, and they just played off our mistakes. We’re just too inconsistent, we get something going and then go backwards.”
So, eight games down and nine to play, including the visits of West Harbour, Hunter and the Two Blues to Nepean – three of the current bottom five. What are the targets for the rest of the season – simply to keep improving, is it shoring up that defence, or do you have designs on another win or two?
“Definitely improving, but also trying to pick up more wins and hopefully upset some teams towards the end of the year. Muggs has been drilling us on defence and working hard on our set-piece as well, it’s very important that we get our scrums and lineouts together. So we’re targeting those teams and hopefully we can improve as we go through.”
Of course, this is all playing out against the backdrop of the Shute Shield participation agreement that may come into force ahead of next season, and it’s potentially disastrous ramifications for several clubs including the Emus. How has that news affected the club and the playing group?
“I think it’s given all the boys that little boost to prove them wrong. They’ve tried to deal with it positively to go out and prove a point that we belong in this comp. We sat down and talked about it and how we just want to improve and prove those doubters wrong. The first time was tough and if we were to get removed again, I don’t know. We’re still alive out West and we’ve got more to give.”