Grand Final Key Match-Up – Mahe Vailanu vs Ciaran Loh
Photos: Andrew Quinn & Karen Watson
The first of our key match-ups ahead of tomorrow’s fascinating Shute Shield decider will be fought out up front, as hookers Mahe Vailanu from Gordon and Ciaran Loh from Sydney University battle it out for set-piece dominance. They could also be the difference on the scoreboard given their try-scoring prowess.
Vailanu has been revered for his performances in recent seasons after starting his Shute Shield career at Warringah, before heading to the Highlanders to help them to their famous Premiership victory in 2020. Now a Waratah, the bustling all-action 25-year-old returned from a stint in Major League Rugby to resume his place in the Gordon front row and has been a fulcrum of their run to the final, also adding 12 tries to the team’s cause.
Opposing him is one of the most impressive ‘rookies’ of the season. Having actually debuted in 1st Grade for one game off the bench in 2020, Ciaran Loh has stepped up in style this year, with a series of eye-catching all-round performances and a nose for the try-line putting him on the radar of the next level. Following in the footsteps of several Uni try-machines in the no.2 jersey, the 23-year-old Roseville junior has crossed the chalk 13 times in 2022 himself.
The contest between the two, at set-piece, in the loose and at the back of the maul, could be an intriguing sub-plot to the game’s bigger story. Behind the Ruck caught up with both this week to gauge their views on the upcoming clash.
ON THE SEASON SO FAR AND MAKING THE FINAL:
Mahe Vailanu: “There were some challenges earlier in the season, especially when it came to finding the right combinations between returning players and new players, with all different playing styles. The competition this year has been unpredictable, even leading up to the Qualifying Finals, and I know there was a lot of doubt surrounding Gordon’s season, but that hasn’t affected us. Yes, it has given us a different motivation for the finals, and we hope we can bring it home on Saturday.
“A variety of things have contributed to our turnaround, one of which has been the return of some key Gordon players, especially our 9 and 10 combo who control and lead the team. I wouldn’t really say there’s much difference in the build-up this week compared to 202, it’s just another week of preparation and recovery for the team. There’s definitely an element of pressure leading up to the game, especially with the possibility of making Gordon rugby history. But as a team we just need to focus on playing our game and doing our best to execute the basics. It’s an exciting weekend ahead for the club and its supporters.”
Ciaran Loh: “There really haven’t been any easy games or teams this season, which is great signs for the Shute Shield. The losses we had through the season were all tight and tough games so I think the key for each of them has been to review it, fix the things that went wrong, then move on from it. There’s obviously been a big change in personnel this year across the playing and coaching group too, but that being said there’s a good group of us who came through colts together and ‘Hedge’ (head coach Sean Hedger) has been great for us. He’s got a lot of experience behind him and you can tell by the way he goes about his coaching. He’s a super personable bloke and understood the culture of Uni as soon as he got here, so you could tell he really focused on building on what we had instead of trying to start from scratch.
“I don’t think it’s been a surprise for the club that we’re here again, because I think at Uni the grand final and winning back the Shute Shield has been our goal and mindset since the start of pre-season last October. The boys last year (2021) were on track for a cracker season and looked in good knick halfway through the year, winning nine from nine until the season was cut short with the lockdowns. So I think for the boys this year it almost felt like we owed it to the team from last year to give it a red hot crack, and I know for the boys that stayed around it was unfinished business for them. Whoever pulls the jersey on there’s that expectation that they’ll do their job and everyone trusts that they’ll do that, plus I think that everyone doubting we’d get there gave us that extra bit of motivation.”
ON THEMSELVES, EACH OTHER, THEIR HOOKING ROLES AND THE GUYS WHO COACH THEM:
Ciaran Loh: “I started in colts at Uni out of school in 2018 playing alongside a number of the boys playing this Saturday like Eddie Poolman, Henry Robertson, Charlie Hancock, and even Will Terry on the other side of the fence. I played a few games of 3rd and 4th grade in the last two years, but I’ve had a pretty bad run of injuries so only played seven or eight games from 2019-2021. The step up was a bit of a learning curve at the start of the season, but getting my first full pre-season in since coming to the club put me in a pretty good place I think. The biggest thing I noticed straight away was just the physicality of the game. Everyone hits hard. We’ve got some great leaders in the team on that front like Zac Von Appen and Luke Ratcliff, so training and playing with them has really helped and sort of set the standard I wanted to get to in defence.
“Hooker is definitely one of the positions that I think has changed since I started playing rugby. Looking at the top hookers in world rugby and in Super Rugby, they’ve become more of that blend between the front row and the back row. Set-piece is of course still the first job you’ve got to nail as a hooker, but around the park you’re expected to get through a fair bit of work in defence, and in attack you’re seeing a lot more hookers move out towards the edges with the back rowers. I definitely enjoy the diversity of the role and being in tight where all the action is. Obviously, with the change in maul laws in the last four or five years too, it means we often get to reap the rewards of a good maul. But I think we really owe those tries to the rest of the pack up front putting in all the hard work for us!”
Mahe Vailanu: “Playing in the MLR was a great experience for me, in particular playing against professional players in other competitions. I learnt to be more confident in my own game and back myself. Coming back to Gordon it’s been great to be coached by both Reg De Jager and Michael Spalding at scrum time. They’re both very skilled and experienced in their fields and have brought more physicality to our pack, which we lacked at the start of the season.
“I wouldn’t say a lot of time at training is dedicated solely on perfecting mauls, however when it comes to game time, mauls happen instinctively. I only started playing hooker recently after switching from openside, and it wasn’t really a position I had considered. But once I’d learned the game and my role, I enjoy it very much and hope that young players will grow up wanting to be hookers. I have seen some highlights of Ciaran, he’s a great player and is quick around the field so it’ll definitely be a competition for me. I’m looking forward to playing against him.”
Ciaran Loh: “I know as a club Uni have always prided ourselves on set-piece and work rate as a pack. Bako (Mark Bakewell) and Laurie (Weeks) coach with the same values and they bring that extra bit of detail and knowledge to the pack. For me, they’ve both be unreal in getting me back up to speed and tweaking my technique at set-piece time, which I really needed after a few years without a lot of game time. Bako’s a great bloke and good to train under. He’s super detailed and always gives you as much info as possible for our reviews. On top of that, he’s extremely passionate, and he certainly shows us that when he needs to. Laurie’s the peoples champ, and being able to lean on a bloke with as much professional experience as him around the scrum has been unreal for my development personally, and for the rest of the front row.
“A good chunk of our live set-piece is bouncing between mauls and scrums, and we usually go live set-piece for thiry minutes a session. I think if you just look at the Brumbies you can see how important and effective a good maul can be. It’s just one of those things that, when you get it right, is so hard to stop, so it’s a great weapon for a lot of teams now. I don’t know if there’ll be quite the same attraction to playing hooker as wing. We get to score more now but I don’t know if sticking your head in the middle of a scrum appeals to everyone!
“I’ve seen a bit of Mahe play but don’t know too much about him personally. He’s a good player and has had a good last few years, which has deservedly earned him a few Super caps. He’s a big strong player, a good ball carrier, and from what I’ve seen is hard over the ball. He was a big part of Gordon’s 2020 Premiership so he’s got a bit of experience too. I think we’ll have a good battle this weekend.”
ON THE GAME:
Ciaran Loh: “I’m sure having that group of players from the 2020 campaign will be helpful for Gordon, and they obviously know what it takes to win a Premiership. But I think that one of the best things about our group at Uni this year though is that, although we’ve got a combination of great experience in guys like Rohan O’Regan, Sammy Talakai and Tim Clement, there’s also a group of young blokes that have played a lot of footy together through colts and coming into grade. The likes of myself, Darcy Breen, Charlie Hancock, Eddie Poolman, Henry Robertson, Luke Ratcliff, Tom Lambert and Angus Bell all played colts together. And I think because of that we’re a really tight knit team, which I think will help on the weekend. Rohan and Tim have already won two Shute Shields together and bring a lot of calm to the group, and our skipper Jack McCalman will definitely get the boys up for it.
“Gordon have finished the season really strongly and got those pretty key players back from 2020, so they’ll be tough to beat. We had a really close game with them earlier in the season at Chatswood Oval so we know it’ll be a real battle. With the conditions meant to be pretty average too, I think that’ll just make the game that much more aggressive up front. It’s going to come down to who wins that battle around set-piece and the contact zones, and then whoever can win the field position battle. We’re going to have to be good around those areas and ruthless around the breakdown too in order to win the game.”
Mahe Vailanu: “Having well-rounded leaders like James Lough and Jordan Goddard will be a key factor during crucial moments in the game, and is something that will set the game apart. Also having Harrison Goddard back has been great for the team, especially when it comes to slowing the game down and taking back control as he’s very calm and composed. But personally, I don’t think that this will affect the outcome this weekend. Experience is helpful, but there’s also a lot of emerging new talent from both teams, and this weekend is a great opportunity for these players to showcase that talent.
“When Uni has possession of the ball they can be very unpredictable, Gordon just need to focus on keeping our defence solid, which will be a key and also mastering set-pieces. I wish Sydney University all the best and look forward to this Saturday.”
For a complete set of grand final player profiles from both teams click below: