From the sheds… Warringah v Hunter Wildfires

WARRINGAH 42 (Conor Hickey 2, Esera Chee-Kam 2, Max Girdler, Rhett Butler tries; Ben Woollett 6 cons) defeated HUNTER WILDFIRES 21 (Philip Bradford 2, Morgan Inness tries; Connor Winchester 2 cons, Tute Grant con) at Pittwater Rugby Park – HT 28-14


Warringah bounced back from defeat last week to run out 42-21 winners over Hunter Wildfires at Rat Park on Saturday, in an imposing performance that moves them up to 5th place on the Shute Shield ladder. The damage was done in the opening half hour, with the Rats racking up two set-piece tries and a double from open field to forge a 28-0 advantage as the visitors struggled to contain a side marshalled superbly from flyhalf by Conor Hickey. A double from try-machine Philip Bradford got the Wildfires back into the contest before half-time as their forwards went to work, but a second score shortly after the restart for the impressive Hickey effectively sealed the deal at 35-14. To their credit, Hunter played to the final whistle and grabbed a third five-pointer with seven to go, before being picked off as they played catch-up footy, and Esera Chee-Kam ran home his second of the match to cap a fine afternoon for the Rats.

Behind the Ruck got the post-match reaction from both camps…


Michael Ruthven (Warringah head coach):

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Michael Ruthven – Photo: Karen Watson

“They’ve been a really formidable outfit this year. They’re well coached and have some really talented guys in there alongside a hardworking forward pack, so it was never an opportunity for us to be complacent. They had a lot of momentum with four wins on the trot and they were above us on the ladder, so we knew we had to start fast and sustain that theme. They’ve been very strong around their set-piece, so we knew that was an area that we needed to be particularly strong and accurate in today. I thought we scrummed really well and that gave us a good platform to play off, and the backs finished some nice opportunities off the back of that.

“We just had to stick to our guns at half-time and stay true to what we were going to do. We’ve been pretty consistent in scoring points early in second halves and it was important that we did today. We started that half well and got back on the front-foot, although I thought we got a little disrupted as the half went on. But all in all I’m really proud of the boys. We worked hard during the week and it was a little disjointed around the weather and access to fields, but their attitude through it all was really reflected in that first half performance in particular.

“Conor (Hickey) is a talented guy and he’s been really consistent all year at ten or fifteen. He was back at ten today and I thought he was outstanding. He’s got a great skillset and unbelievable feet, but he’s also a really hard worker who deserves to be playing with the form that he’s got at the moment. He’s a local guy with a touch footy background who came through our colts program, and had a bit of a disjointed entry into grade footy due to a nasty shoulder injury. But he’s come back really strongly from that and been great for us this year.

Conor Hickey_Warringah v Hunter_2022_KW

Talented Rats flyhalf Conor Hickey ran the show at times – Photo: Karen Watson

“It’s been a really interesting competition so far with some strange results week-to-week. For us it was important to get that win because we need some momentum and we need to string a few together now. Next week will be important going into the bye in terms of confidence and momentum, and enjoying that week off before we get together again and get ready for the back half of the year. The competition is super-tight at the moment, and any win or loss can really impact where you sit on the ladder.

“The back half of the year is not something we’ve specifically targeted but it’s certainly going to be important in terms of how deep we go and how well we perform in a finals series. We’ve got a reasonable end to the season in terms of our draw and again, it’s just about building momentum and putting some consistent wins back-to-back.”

Scott Coleman (Hunter Wildfires head coach):

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Scott ‘Bubba’ Coleman – Photo: Stewart Hazell

“We actually thought we’d had a really good warm-up and came in prepared but full credit to the Rats, they came out and smoked us. We knew they would go side-to-side and play wide on us but you’ve still got to contain that, and we didn’t. That’s full credit to them and not just their backs, I thought their forwards really stood up today as well.

“We’ve put a lot of time into our set-piece and they knew they’d have to come and stop that and they did. Their scrum was solid and they got us early, maybe with a bit of infringing but they got away with it. But their lineout and their maul defence was phenomenal. I think we got a little bit of ascendancy over them in the second half but they stuck to their guns and held us out there at the end.

“We spoke at half-time about our poor start and that was done and dusted, but we knew that if we played the way we had that last ten minutes that we could get back into the game. Their try after the break took the wind out of our sails a little but then I thought we did well for about twenty minutes of the second half before it opened up again, and I think we kicked away too much of our possession.

“I’ve got full support and love for my boys. They’ll play for eighty minutes, they’re a good bunch who all play for each other and there’s some really good team harmony and culture at the moment, so I knew they’d never chuck the towel in. But we had to chance our arm at the end and that’s pretty dangerous against the Rats if you turnover ball. The beauty of the Shute Shield this year is that if you turn up to any game and you’re not switched on you’re going to get your pants pulled down, so we’ve got no excuses. We knew what we were in for and the Rats at Rat Park is always going to be hard. But I’ve got nothing but admiration for them and they way they held themselves and the way they played. They turned up ready and hungry and out-enthused us.

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The Rats’ ability to stop Hunter’s forwards getting on a roll was key – Photo: Karen Watson

“We’re definitely in there with a shot and in finals footy who knows what happens on the day, you’ve got to turn up. If we can get to the semis we’ve got a few good outside backs to return from injury, but our biggest problem is depth at the moment. We’ve got a really good top squad but it’s really hard to get our second grade, which are our best local players, to make the bigger commitment that this competition requires. We’re asking them to train three days a week and then travel to Sydney every second weekend, and I know some of the Sydney teams whinge about having to travel up to Newcastle once a year but we’ve got to make that trip every fortnight. However, we embrace that and we need to in order to compete at this level. 

“There’s no way I can see us ever getting to four grades and three colts teams, not when there is a Premier grade competition in Newcastle because it would damage that too much, so I don’t know whether we get an allowance or any leeway there. I can certainly see us getting two grade sides, two colts and a ladies team, and maybe in a few years a third grade side. But at the moment that’s a long way off because it would deplete the local competition and that’s not what we want to do, we want to work with them. Once we get our colts kids coming through the grades and this becomes their club, our team is only going to get better. We hope that we can cement our spot in the Shute Shield for the long term but we know that the next three years are going to be tough.”

Rory O’Connor (Warringah captain):

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Rory O’Connor – Photo: Karen Watson

“I felt like we haven’t been playing as a team so far this season, we were playing like fifteen individuals, and that’s why we’ve been losing games. It’s a bit like gardening. You can have this nice big garden but there’s always a weed somewhere, and in order to build a championship side you have to keep weeding and making everything tidy in order to grow a pack mentality. You have to keep playing well and keep your rucks clean and take care of all the little stuff, and that was a big focus for today. We did that much better in the first half and that allowed us to build up that pressure and we succeeded off the back of that.

“We wanted to scrum long to take the energy out of their pack and hit them early at the maul. They’re so big and heavy so we wanted to hit them early and not let them set because if you do that you’re done for. We had options to take the points and I kept asking for the scrum because I wanted to take the energy out of them, and then the backs took advantage. We’ve been one of the most consistent scrums in the comp so we need to use it, and I don’t think we have been as much as we should have before today. We used it today and cleaned up our game generally, now it’s about doing it again and creating consistency.

“We knew at half-time that what we’d done hadn’t been a fluke. It wasn’t a case of us just scoring four tries because they were playing poorly, we’d played better and earned those tries. So, it was just a case of cleaning up a couple of things and also playing to the ref a bit more around the ruck, building defensive pressure and forcing a knock-on. All of the teams in the Shute Shield are solid and you’re not just going to kill them in the first ten minutes after half-time, they’re going to keep coming back and that’s what Hunter did.

“I think we’ve got one of the best set-pieces that we’ve had for a number of years, and that’s crucial. You can get all the way through the comp and still falter in a grand final if your set-piece is not there, and that’s probably what happened to us in 2018 the year after we won. We’ve got that now, so I’m confident that as long as we keep on top of all the little things we can go on and win a comp that is so tough this year. If you’re a betting person you wouldn’t look at the Shute Shield because no-one knows what’s going to happen.

“We went through generational change as a club after 2019 with all the players that retired, and I think we’re still lacking some of that championship experience or top flight experience that those guys brought to the table. I think we have more athleticism than in previous years but we’re having to build that experience back up pretty quickly with a fairly young side, so it’s just a case of making sure they come of age. I’m loving being captain. I spent so long trying to make it in Super Rugby that people may question why I would want to leave it. But they were my golden days and it’s just nice being back at the Rats and playing and enjoying my footy.”


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