From the sheds… Eastwood v Gordon
GORDON 35 (Reece Macdonald, Mahe Vailanu, Alesana Pohla, John Akau’ola-Laula tries; Reece Macdonald 3 cons, 3 pens) defeated EASTWOOD 3 (Zak Hickey 2, Ratu Tuisese tries, Tane Edmed 3 cons, 3 pens) at TG Millner Field – HT 13-10
Gordon grabbed a much-needed win on the road at high-flying Eastwood at the weekend, a late try from replacement John Akau’ola-Laula helping to seal a 35-30 victory that could be the turning point in their season. Sitting third from bottom and with just three wins to their name, the Highlanders were in danger of seeing their title defence from 2020 fizzle out with another loss. But they returned from the bye with a notable increase in work rate, defensive mettle and desire, and they dug in for long enough to frustrate a below-par Woodies side that has now suffered back-to-back defeats.
Leading 13-10 at the break after a tight first half, a try from Waratahs hooker Mahe Vailanu had Gordon ahead after the restart before Eastwood fullback Zak Hickey ran in his second of the match on the hour, and another New South Wales starlet in Tane Edmed, edged the home side in front. Another try apiece left the Woods up 30-25 with eight minutes remaining, but ill discipline afforded the visitor’s the platform to send Akau’ola-Laula over, and a conversion and last minute penalty from flyhalf Reece Macdonald – who finished with a 20pt haul – ensured a vital win for the Highlanders.
Behind the Ruck headed to the sheds for some post-match reaction…
Brian Melrose (Gordon head coach):
“It was really important to put a line in the sand today. Clearly, our previous couple of months have been very difficult. Everyone misses players, that ebbs and flows, but we really struggled to get any sort of consistency of selection and training and that’s been a challenge. We’ve lacked a lot of stability and leadership and we’ve had a lot of newness every week, and along with a lot of other factors that’s made things hard for us. We became professionals at losing by one, two, three or five points and once that happens things like confidence to start to wane. There’s been a little reset in the competition with the bye, and it was a big thing for us today to put down a couple of markers that we set over those couple of weeks. The boys did that in the main today and we were better in a couple of areas that allowed us to do our thing.
“You’d never choose an away game at Millner if you want to redeem yourselves, and they had a few big in’s today. They probably had at least sixty percent possession throughout the game and had massive territory, and that’s still an area of the game we’re still not getting right if we want to be a top team. We were inviting them to their opportunities and when we were getting ours we were tending to still play a bit consciously and a bit nervously, and we dropped a few balls and released any pressure we’d built. No doubt both teams would say that they made errors and gave opportunities to the other, but I thought we fought hard enough and scrapped well enough and played with less fear, which I wanted them to do. They’re clearly a high quality club who have a few more to come in and they’ll be there at the end. Today they probably came up against a team that had a bit more tiger in the tail and were a bit more desperate.
“I thought we moved the ball a bit better today and gave ourselves a chance, and I don’t think there’s such a thing as rugby gods but there was something in me at the end that thought if we get one more shot we’ll beat them. There’s fortune in things that happens in games and it doesn’t matter how long you watch rugby for, some of the contentious stuff that happens you’ll never work out, or how or why one team gets them or doesn’t get them. But if you go for long enough and you fight hard enough and you’re a team that scraps, you’ll find a referee’s arm will occasionally come up on your side. Most times recently we’d probably be bemoaning that it’s gone against us, I guess today we made less mistakes under that pressure and fought that little bit harder to get us that crucial penalty or whatever it was when we needed it. If you tackle harder and run a bit harder and make less mistakes, you give yourselves a shot at winning.
“I suppose you would say in retrospect that the bye came at a good time, but I think it was a couple of the most horrible weeks that I’ve had in my coaching life. I’ve been fortunate that winning has come a little bit more regularly than losing but this last period has been an incredible challenge mentally just trying to get through it. But it’s like anything, when you’re under pressure you see character and what people can do, and I knew I had to change things and put a few things on the line and take some risks. When you do that you either succeed or fail and that’s the pressure of the job I suppose. When you reach that low point you’ve got to look inside yourself, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a player or a coach, ultimately you’ve got to produce or it gets hard.
“I don’t like looking at the ladder too much because it doesn’t reflect a great picture for us, but we know where we are. Philosophically, we’re the last team to win a comp, and while it’s a completely different team you live with that expectation and we’re below where we’d expect to be. We aspire to be in a certain place and maybe, if we had managed things a little differently along the way, we would have won a lot of those games but we didn’t. And with the pressure of the competition, which is probably the closest that we’ve seen, that becomes somewhat of a weight. Ultimately, if we can start to perform a little better each week we might climb a place or two.
“This could be a pivotal win for us but right now it’s only as good as 4.50 this afternoon. It’s a competition where any team has a shot against you and we’d like to think that if we can get a little bit of consistency and confidence in our game, and maybe a few players back on the field, that we’d be some threat to a lot of teams. But at the moment there’s a lot of teams sitting above us and it’ll be some sort of challenge to get where we’d like to get to. Three of our last seven games are away but three of the last four are at home, so we’ve had a bit of a weird draw and it’s possibly not how you’d plan it, but it is what it is. We just have to find a way to manage ourselves game by game, starting against West Harbour next week. We’re a proud club and losing at home hurts a lot, and it’d be nice to sing the song in the Chatswood dressing room.”
Ben Batger (Eastwood head coach):
“Gordon probably deserved the win, I think they out-enthused us and were better at the collisions and at the breakdown. It looked like we were going to get out of jail but it’s one we probably didn’t deserve to win and we didn’t in the end. We talked during the week about the fact that it was a must-win game for them and we’ve just had the bye, so I don’t think you can use energy as an excuse. We were back at home again and we spoke about out-enthusing them but we did the exact opposite and our application wasn’t there. You can cope with losing a game but being out-enthused hurts.
“In that first twenty minutes we got into the A-Zone maybe five or six times and only came away with three points, and that really hurt us because if we’d got a couple of tries early it might have been a totally different ball game. We’re controlling the territory pretty well I reckon, and Tane (Edmed) was really good at that today and Zak (Hickey) with his big left boot. But once we get into the A-Zone we’re not coming away with points often enough. The really good teams do that around seventy percent of the time and we’re down at around thirty percent, so that’s something we’re really going to have to address.
“There’s probably too many guys looking to run and not enough ready to do the hard work, so we’ve got to get that balance right. We’ve had to chop and change in the backline at times but I think every team is going through that, and there are different names on the team sheets of every club every week so we can’t use that as an excuse. We’ve got a top squad of thirty and they all know the systems so it’s not the injuries that make a difference, it’s more that we’re not producing in the moments when we need to.
“I think we were up 30-25 and we had a lineout ten metres out, and if we score there we probably ice the game. But instead we turned it over, gave away two penalties and they scored. The one thing we couldn’t do was give away a penalty when we were defending and we gave away two, and it doesn’t take Einstein to tell you that isn’t going to help you win a football game. So we have to be a lot smarter with and without the ball. Gordon were good, but we shot ourselves in the foot and as a coach that’s very hard to stomach.
“They definitely out-enthused us but whether they’re a better football team I’m not quite sure. We let ourselves down in a number of areas and if I’m not mistaken, all their tries came off first-phase. A starter play, a turnover, a maul and a scrum – there’s their four tries, so they didn’t even have to work hard for their points today, which is really disappointing. That’s been a problem all year and I think we lead the comp in terms of conceding tries in those one to three phases. Once we get over three phases our defence is good but our inability to soak up those first three is a bit of a concern.
“I didn’t say too much in the changing room to the boys, I sort of put it back on them. I talk enough during the week but they’re the ones out on the field and driving the ship nowadays, and I think this has to be more player-driven. They’ve got to get back to setting our standards right and training well and then putting that out on the field. We feel a bit like we’re sitting in second gear and with seven rounds to go we’ve got to start shifting up. Good teams will start hitting third and fourth gear now and then you’re hopefully in fifth by the time you get to finals, so we need to do the same. As a proud club we aim at the start of the year to be in the top two, but top four gives you two bites of the cherry so that’s got to be our first goal. We’ve got a bit of work to do and a tough draw to come in a very even comp. We’ve got the talent, we just need to produce the skill and the application.”
James Lough (Gordon captain):
“It’s been a big build-up after the first half of the season and we needed a lot of mental toughness to come back today. I think the frustrating thing for us has been our internal errors. We’ve been beaten by better teams, there’s no doubt about that, but we’ve really been beating ourselves a majority of the time, and that almost hurts more in a sense. It’s not like we’re losing games on lack of talent. That requires a lot of mental strength to turn it around and we just needed to go back to our simple one percenters. We did that today and it’s a very special win and very much needed for the club. The boys really stepped up and I’m very proud of them.
“The key for us is playing smart footy and having that strong defence, and that’s something we need to strive towards in the back half of the season. Also, getting that forward movement off some of our key runners like big Mahe (Vailanu) or Tommy Horan on the side, and then getting our speed men like Alex Pohla involved. He’s a great player and with front-foot ball and a bit of space he’s dangerous. It’s great having our Super Rugby players back like Mahe, he runs the show and really sets the standard for the rest of us boys to follow him round.
“If you take out the Eastern Suburbs loss, most of our games this year have been in that ball park of three to five points either way. So for us, it was all about our game and our mentality and how we played, because we’ve been there before and we just needed to get on the right side of the scoreboard. It’s been a big learning curve for us but we’ve got a very senior pack in a sense, and those boys really stood up today and calmed everyone down. We knew our processes and what we needed to do, and they kept us focused on doing the next job and taking one small win within the game at a time. Harry Emery at nine was fantastic too. I’ve played a lot of footy against him over the years and he’s made a big difference since he came in. He’s very much a professional in how he operates.
“I’ll have to sit back and see how the ladder looks now but we’ve got seven more rounds and we’ve just got to keep ticking over and doing our job. Unfortunately, it’s been one of those years where we’ve had a constant churn of players and that’s caused a few internal issues in terms of combinations. Now we’re in a good position and will hopefully get a couple of boys back from various places, which will make a difference. There’s no doubt we’ve got a very good rugby team, it’s just about gelling together.
“We needed to put something on the board today, more from an internal point of view amongst the boys because we knew we’d been losing games by the tightest of margins. I think after round eight we still had a positive points differential but we were sitting eighth on the ladder – when does that ever happen? But that just sums up the Shute Shield at the moment, it’s a bloody good comp. We definitely have to believe that we can go back-to-back but we’re very much one week at a time now. If we do find ourselves at Leichhardt Oval at the end of the year we’ll be ready to go.”