Tales from the Halfway House: Gordon

Photos: Andrew Quinn

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It’s fair to say that 2020 was a year to remember for Gordon. But the chance to try and back it up would require the same heights to be reached by a squad that had experienced both coaching and roster changes. Eight rounds in and things were ticking along rather nicely with just a solitary loss, but back-to-back defeats either side of the mid-season break have left the Highlanders in sixth, and looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack.

Lock Jack Margin experienced first-hand the rise of the club from the nadir of 2018 to Premiers just two years later, and was one of their best in the run-in to the title. He has continued to be a reliable cog in the side’s tight-five this season, starting every match, and took Behind the Ruck through the trials and tribulations of their title defence thus far…

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The club scaled a pretty big mountain last season with a Premiership and Club Championship. But as they always say, it’s one thing getting reaching the pinnacle, it’s another to stay. A change of head coach and the departure of many of last year’s stars didn’t make that challenge any simpler, but what was the belief in the squad around what was possible in 2021?

Jack Margin_Gordon v Two Blues_crop 2021_AQ

Jack Margin – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“I think we just had to realise that 2020 was a good year and to learn our lessons from it, but that 2021 was a new year and that we had to make our own destiny. You can’t think that just because you won it last year that it’s going to be the same this year. Our attitude was that we have to essentially start from the bottom again. So we started off thinking we’re equal with everyone else and that we have the same chance as everyone else.”

Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose has obviously made the move from assistant to head coach following the departure of Darren Coleman. Has that seen any significant change in-house around the team’s approach to games, or just a few subtle tweaks to an already successful formula?

“There’s been a little bit of difference but we’ve kept a lot of it the same because you don’t change what’s good. Billy’s been really good, he’s encouraging guys to throw the ball around a bit and play a bit more instinctively, which some of the boys like. So it’s been a different approach in some ways but much the same.”

You headed to Manly for the opening round with an air of intrigue surrounding what the Marlins could bring this season, and how this new-look Gordon would fare. To say the Highlanders went ok would be an understatement, a resounding 78-10 win that sent shockwaves around the comp. Even in your wildest dreams you can’t have expected to hit your straps that well in game one?

“Looking back now it was probably a bit of bad luck that it was round one because we played pretty much our best footy that day – except for the tries they scored against us! In our trials we’d had some pretty poor form so we were really up for that game, and it was just one of those days where everything worked for us. You’d throw the pass and it’d stick, people were always in the right positions and everyone was having a great game. There were no crazy tries or special moves or anything, it was just good skill execution and good, standard rugby. It was one of those games that I don’t think will happen again, and if we came up against Manly again it would be a different story.”

Reece MacDonald_Gordon v Manly_2021_AQ

Reece MacDonald helped the Highlanders to a seismic opening day win at Manly – Photo: Andrew Quinn

The problem with a result like that is that the only way is likely to be down following it. But you faced the Two Blues at Chatswood a week later and did a pretty good job with a 50-5 victory. So the group must have managed that week pretty well, and maintained their composure and discipline to do a professional job?

“If you actually watched the game you wouldn’t have thought it was a fifty-to-five result. It was a lot closer than that and full credit to the Two Blues, they were bashing us left, right and centre, and I know plenty of boys walked off that field that day wondering what had just hit us.

“I don’t think many people understand but when Gordon plays the Two Blues we always seem to get the best version of the Two Blues out of them. They were extremely physical and extremely fired-up, and the first half was pretty close to be honest. It was a bit of an arm-wrestle but as the game went on we started to score a few more tries and get back to our good form. But they definitely brought us back down to earth that week and we learned a few lessons. Our physicality was a bit off and they gave us a bit of a reality check, which was good.”

However, a week later that winning streak was ended by your north shore rivals, as Northern Suburbs beat you 33-17 to rack up back-to-back derby wins – at the time Gordon’s only losses since the start of the 2020 season. What did they do better on the day and why do you think they seem to have the wood on you at the moment?

“I think the game plan that they play is really well executed by those boys, and they’ve got a really strong core in that team with guys like Angus Sinclair, the Burey brothers and James Margan. They’ve been there for a few years now and been around each other without too much change to their squad, so they know each other like the back of their hands. That day just showed how combinations and experience can make a difference in the Shute Shield, whereas we’ve got a few more new boys with a bit less experience and are still learning those combinations. We copped a lot of injuries that day as well, so it wasn’t a good day for us. But fair play to them.

“Norths beat us last year and this year they taught us another lesson, so we’re learning each time we play them. All across the park they have really crisp skill execution, they get off the line quick and are really good in defence, and they were really good that day. We’re a very set-piece heavy team, but there’s more to life than that sometimes when teams are able to match you there. They showed us how to throw the footy around the park and play good football. I love the north shore battle, it’s always a good battle and one that I savour. Hopefully it rivals the Battle of the Beaches eventually.”

Then came the bye followed by another big clash at Chatswood against a Southern Districts side that were slowly building momentum. They really brought it that day and led for long periods of the match. But the Highlanders showed great resilience and belief to bring it home off the back of a dominant scrum late in the piece, and win after the bell. Nice to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in that way?

“I think the belief came from the guys that came off the bench that week. There’s not much difference between first and second grade at Gordon, and there’s some pretty tight clinches for some positions – even down to third grade, and it was the boys off the bench that really brought the energy and confidence we needed. I think the backs were getting a bit cold out there because all the forwards were doing all the work as usual! But some of our big boys were starting to blow, because you do a scrum session and it’s ten minutes of straight scrums but in a game, especially at the end of the game when players are really emptying their tank, it’s a tough ask. There’s only so many scrums you can do before you start to see stars and your body is starting to hate you, so it was a good, combined effort.

Jacob Abel_Gordon v Souths_2021_AQ

Jacob Abel scores a late winner against Souths – Photo: Andrew Quinn

“Souths had been towelling everyone in the scrum for weeks and we actually got one over them, so it was quite cool to beat them at something that we thought was going to be a big threat to us. It was quite surprising because winning a scrum to take the game wasn’t something that we’d planned for, we had other plans, and it was good to show that we could grind out a game in many ways. Souths are a super-physical team, probably the most physical team that we’ve played so far, and they’ll be really good come the end of the year. They should be touching up quite a few teams in the second half of the season because the style of footy they play is just relentless. They just keep coming for you.

Round six saw a trip to Coogee Oval to take on Randwick, and a pretty comprehensive display saw you run out 47-27 winners. The attack was really starting to click by that point wasn’t it?

“Coogee Oval is a fast pitch and I think you always see scores there that reflect an attacking style of rugby, so the thing for us that day was to really focus on our defence. Unfortunately, they still put twenty-seven points on us, but the good thing about rugby is that you just have to score more points than the other team, and our attack was pretty good. It’s always the way you expect Randwick to play at Coogee Oval, and it’s always a good fitness test playing them, so you’ve just got to run quicker and take your chances and hope the chocolates come your way. We moved the ball around a lot and it was a good win.

“They’ve lost quite a few boys from last year for various reasons so they’ve got to build up the core of that squad again. But I think getting a lot of the Tahs boys back will be good for them and I think they’ll come home strong, which will only add strength to the competition.”

West Harbour were up next and you racked up a 31-17 win without having it all your own way against a Pirates side that can cause plenty of problems?

“Yeah, it was lucky that we were switched on in the first ten or fifteen minutes and we got two or three quick tries because they definitely brought it home. They scored a try right on half-time which I’d say would go pretty close to being try of the year. It was offload city and blokes backing up and that kind of footy gets really hard to defend by the end. It wasn’t like we were missing tackles, they were just getting a hand loose and offloading the ball, and even when they scored I was thinking that our post-match review would be interesting because there wasn’t much you could do about it.

“They were very tough and have a very big pack, close to the biggest in the Shute Shield, and we knew we had to tackle them low and get up in their face and make sure they didn’t get any big run-ups. They played really good footy against us and we found their style was very similar to Norths. They make their runs and then get back up where they are and move the ball and rely on good offloads and quick ball, and that suits them well because they’re very athletic and skilful.”

Mike Pavlakis_Gordon v Warringah_2021_AQ

Mike Pavlakis dives home against Warringah for one of his eight tries in 2021 – Photo: Andrew Quinn

A tense encounter with a much-improved Warringah in round eight that could have gone either way. But another narrow 24-20 victory further demonstrated a happy knack of getting home in the tight ones, even when you’re not firing on all cylinders?

“That was an interesting day for me, my fiftieth first grade cap and I was playing against my brother Hugh for the first time, so there were a few different emotions going on at the time! When we played them last year I don’t think that Rats attitude of kill or be killed was there. But that attitude is back this year, and it was a case of getting the win no matter how it came, and grinding it out. It wasn’t the prettiest that one by all means and it wasn’t our best footy, but at the end of the day we stuck to our strengths and came up with the big moments to get across the line.

“I had a fair idea I’d go up against my brother at some point, and it’s great because he’s playing some pretty good footy. It was actually his team mates who were giving it to me more than he was, they must have put something in the water before the game, but it was good fun. He was a lot better than me that day and taught me a few lessons, and I’m happy to be humbled every now and then. I can’t wait for the rematch though!”

The Highlanders did come unstuck a week later however, and headed into the mid-season break off the back of a 20-12 loss to an Eastwood side who gained some revenge in what was a rematch of last year’s grand final. What didn’t go right that day, and did that make the following two-week break particularly frustrating because you wanted to get back on the horse asap?

“I wish the grand final rematch had come a bit earlier because when it happens in round nine it’s not as exciting as if it had been in round one. And it was a frustrating game and another one that was a bit of a grind, I don’t think either team played their best footy. We definitely had enough opportunities to win but Eastwood executed better in the areas that mattered. Chris Bell controlled the game really well and put us under pressure back down in our own half. His kicking game is always good and you know you’re going to struggle in that department, and they were just good in the big moments and came up with the points. We also had a bit of an off-day in the set-piece, which was a bit different for us, and I think we have to start looking at what we do when things don’t go our way.

“But that’s hats off to them and we learned a lot of lessons and reviewed that game really hard. These tight games often come down to one or two moments and you’ve got to make them count, and we didn’t. Eastwood actually beat us in all grades on the day, which is not something that we’re proud of having won the Club Championship last season, and it will require a big effort when we come up against those guys again.”

You returned from the mid-season break to head to Camperdown for the toughest trip in the comp right now, against Sydney University. And the Students further illustrated their title credentials with a 26-5 victory that leaves you hanging onto a spot in that all-important top six. Was this simply a case of losing to the better team on the day?

“It was definitely a case of losing to the better team on the day. They were really strong in their scrum and have the best maul in the competition, and made us pay for that. They just do the basics extremely well and back their defensive line to get the turnovers. And they constantly put you under pressure, whether its set-piece, line speed or their box kicking game. You are just always under pressure.”

Brandon Quinn_Gordon v Eastwood_2021_AQ

Brandon Quinn has made a welcome return in recent weeks – Photo: Andrew Quinn

The loss meant back-to-back defeats for the Highlanders for the first time since 2019, which is a fine record in itself. But how do you return yourselves back to the consistency needed to go deep in the finals?

“I think our execution just needs to improve, whether that be set-piece, catch-pass or running lines. It’s our skill execution that has been letting us down, but they are all easily fixable things. One good thing we never lack is effort and energy, if we were lacking that aspect of our game then I would be worried.”

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

“Lucas Price suffered a really bad one against Norths and it was really hard to see him gone for a while. Alesana Pohla got injured at the start of the season but he has just come back, and Ah-mu Tuimalealiifano could be back soon too. But in terms of long-term injuries I think we should get most boys back by the end of the year, and we’ll gel better as a result and improve because it will create better depth across the club.”

A few sides will get the boost of a number of Super Rugby injections to their squad, but I believe the Highlanders may only have a couple to call upon?

“Joey Walton and Robbie Abel will be our main two that come back. ‘Demmo’ [Jack Dempsey] might try and sneak in a little sojourn with the Stags because he loves playing for us, but his plan is to head overseas. You never know with him!”

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

“When he was playing in the first few rounds I think Alesana Pohla was one of our best. If you watched the Australian Club Championship game against Easts of Brisbane you’d have seen him go off on a run where he palmed off about five blokes, and if it wasn’t for a dodgy touchie call he probably would have gone the length of the field. He’s a really strong guy who always beats the first defender. Will Bremner is quite a small hooker but he’s loving his opportunity and is making the most of it, and guys like Ben Pollack and Mike Pavlakis have also been putting their hands up. It’s not easy stepping into grade, so I’ve also liked watching a lot of the young guys who have slid in seamlessly.”

So, nine down, nine to play for the Highlanders – Covid permitting, and you’re sitting in sixth spot with six wins and three losses. Given the turnover in the off-season would you have taken that before a ball was kicked, or are you behind the expected curve?

“I knew this season wasn’t going to be the same as last year, and it’ll be good to play a few teams for a second time as well. Last year you played everyone once so you didn’t get that chance, and I think a few extra games will make that finals series really interesting. The top six will be extremely tight this year and it will come down to the wire in those last few rounds. I couldn’t pick it right now.”

It’s a pretty tough run home with games remaining against four of the other teams in the top six as it stands. But could that be exactly the prep you need if you are to go on and defend your title?

“I think so. If you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best, because if you want to play in a grand final you’re going to end up playing three of the top six anyway. So you may as well do it on the lead-up and hopefully find a few weaknesses in other sides and also where your strengths are. You can map game plans when you’ve played teams two weeks out because they’re not going to change that much in a short period of time, they’re likely to have the same weaknesses and the same guys. It’ll be good.”

Gordon Results

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