Grand Final Key Match-Up – James Lough vs Jack McCalman

Photos by Andrew Quinn & AJF Photography

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It’s perhaps fitting that this afternoon’s Shute Shield decider, likely to be an arm wrestle in the wet with no quarter asked or given, will be fought out by two teams led by captains that epitomise the dogged determination and spirit that will be needed to win the day.

On the one side is Gordon’s James Lough, a proud Highlander who did the hard yards when the club was at its lowest ebb just a few short years ago. He went on to experience the sweet taste of victory at the big dance in 2020, and leads his tartan army into battle intent on maintaining their grip on the trophy they coveted for so long. On the other is Sydney University’s Jack McCalman, embarking on his first grand final in top grade, and long touted as a natural heir to the leadership crown worn with such distinction by his successful forebears at Camperdown such as Tim Davidson, possessing the same cool, calm head in times of crisis alongside a burning passion and fearless dedication to the cause.

That they both don the number seven jersey and will spend much of the ensuing 80 minutes or more competing directly against each other in the heat of the battle, adds an even spicier element to their roles as skipper. Neither will take a backwards step, and whoever comes out on top in this particular duel could go a long way to setting the tone for the rest of their team, and with it the destination of the trophy. Let battle commence!

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ON THE SEASON SO FAR AND THE RUN TO THE FINAL:

James Lough: “The start of the season was tough, in the sense that we were playing footy and losing games by a point or two. Sydney Uni we lost by a point, Norths by three points and Warringah by a point here or there, and it was just demoralising because you’re playing decent footy and coming out on the bottom side of the scoreboard. A few key players coming back in and bringing that professionalism with them was important, and we had a great week off during the bye. The boys came back and reset, and guys like Jack McGregor, Mahe Vailanu, Ola Tauelangi, Harrison Goddard, Reece Macdonald and Harry Emery either came in and made a huge difference or helped to drive standards. 

“The win away at Eastwood after the bye week was massive for us. Billy [Melrose] took everything from the first half of the season, and you could tell he worked hard on it because he came back with a whole new look in terms of our program. From how we started our Tuesday sessions to how we did our stats and set all our goals for the week – all of that was thrown out. Billy worked his backside off changing it all and the boys latched onto that, and you can tell by how we’ve gone in the second half of the season.

“With the boys that were there in 2020 it’s definitely been in the back of the mind but then again, we’re two years on and this side is a fresh face. We’re a different team and we play a different style of footy. There’s still a lot of things that Darren Coleman brought in but Billy has put his own spin on it, which you will see in different aspects of our footy. We have to understand that 2020 was absolutely phenomenal but in 2022 we’re a new face and we’ve got a new job to do. It’s fantastic to be back in the grand final. The 2020 grand final was the best week of my life and this week is sizing up to match it.”

James Lough_Warringah v Gordon_2022 QF_AQ

Lough on the charge against Warringah in the Qualifying Final – Photo: Andrew Quinn

Jack McCalman: “As one of the few players that stayed behind from last year it was an expectation and a belief of the playing group that we were still capable of this, so it was no surprise in that respect. But also, we probably would have been forgiven if we didn’t quite get there externally. Internally, as a club, we have a lot of belief in our colts and our lower grade players to come in and do a job when the time arises and that’s what this year’s group has done. That’s big credit to some of the players that stayed behind, and to a new coaching staff that have taken on a new group and really drilled in that expectation and belief that we can still perform at the level of teams gone by.

“There’s going to be plenty of time for reflection on this season as it’s just been so close. For now, I think it’s been about a young group learning that 1st Grade is not just about being a capable footballer and a capable team, it’s about being consistent, and for a young group in particular that is a really tough thing to learn. When we lost some of those games early on like Warringah up at Rat Park, we learned that you can’t give a team like that chances or they’ll take them and the same thing happened against the Two Blues and Hunter. It wasn’t that we took those teams lightly by any means but this year if you had an off-day you lost – full stop, and the lessons we took from that were crucial. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing first placed Manly or last placed Southern Districts, you have to be on your game to win.

“To have guys like Tom English, Sam Talakai and Rohan O’Regan come back in brings experience, and that brings a calming voice. For the younger players that haven’t been there before, and for me to be honest, that’s been an invaluable input from those older heads – if I can call them that! – because there’s no sense of panic in the way we play or communicate. The controlled messaging from those guys has just kept us on track, particularly when we’ve been under the pump in those big games as the season has gone on.”

ON THEIR RESPECTIVE ROLES AS CAPTAINS AND ON-BALLERS:

Jack McCalman: “I’ve captained 2nd Grade to grand final wins in 2017 and ’19 but this is my first Shute Shield grand final. I’ve also played in a 3rd Grade grand final and a 1st Colts grand final and won, so I’ve got a couple of sneaky ones under my belt, but I was actually in the 1st Grade side all year in 2018 and ’19 and with the selections and playing in a competitive position I missed out on the big one. So this is a big moment for me and a very exciting one, and something that I’ve worked very hard towards.

“There have been a couple of times where I’ve wondered if the opportunity would ever come but one thing is for certain at Sydney Uni, if you apply yourself and stick at it, opportunities do present themselves. I think there are a lot of players this week in the same boat who have plied their trade in lower grade and colts and now have the opportunity thanks to some of those guys that headed overseas, to fill their boots and do a job this weekend.  But leadership is definitely not a one-man band in this team, and having guys like Rohan O’Regan, Tim Clements and Ben Hughes, who have all been there before and done it, makes it a little bit easier for me, and for us as a team. It also means people aren’t getting too sick of only hearing my voice!

“I don’t mind a bit of the hype around a grand final, I just try to enjoy it, and we’ve spoken about that as a group. Just enjoy the week and enjoy the fact that we’ve reached a grand final and anything that comes with it. We’ve gone through the finals series just enjoying the fact that we were there, and that as teams drop off each week there’s only two Shute Shield teams left training on a Tuesday and Thursday night – us and Gordon. When Saturday rolls around it’s just about jumping on the field and playing footy, we’ve really tried not to overcomplicate the occasion in that respect.

“When I was younger and out in the country I played a bit at ten because I was the only bloke that could pass and kick! But from the moment I moved schools and started to take my rugby a bit more seriously number seven was my natural position, because it’s very competitive and requires you to be quite aggressive, and chasing and fighting for every inch probably sums up my personality. I love it and I love the responsibility that comes with being a leader, and sometimes I think that it’s easier for a seven to be a good leader because it’s a position where you’re generally in the thick of it most of the time and leading from the front physically.”

Jack McCalman_Sydney Uni v Randwick_2022 QF_AJF

McCalman takes the fight to Randwick in their Qualifying Final – Photo: AJF Photography

James Lough: “I think that having a leadership role comes with a bit more pressure, which I’m enjoying in a sense. It’s just a case of keeping your energy levels down and not overthinking it too much because we’ve still got a job to do. It’s been great to go out and have these responsibilities and opportunities that the Shute Shield have put on – the photo shoot and the interviews and what not. But I’ve had to keep reminding myself that we’ve got a job to do and that I have to knuckle down and hit the ground on Saturday. There’s no excuses, I can’t blame a big week on not performing.

“The openside has a lot of responsibilities and my game style revolves around physicality, slowing down ball, covering defence and support, with the odd ball run in that sense, and a massive responsibility. You’ll probably hear me on the Stan coverage if you’re watching because I don’t shut up, so I do try to drive a bit of that energy in that sense. But from a leadership point of view we’ve also got Jordy Goddard, who is known and respected throughout the comp and is the best captain I’ve had by a country mile. I’m just holding the boots for him for a bit because he decided to hurt his back for the season! But to have him back and the aura he brings is fantastic, so I’ll yap and get the boys going and he’ll have his demeanour and professionalism.

“Jack and myself are probably very similar in a sense and I know he’ll be thinking the same thing, and it depends on who’s going to turn up on the day and who is going to lead. Leadership is a big one for him around the paddock, he’s a great leader and has real presence around the field. He’s fast and nippy and he’s everywhere so you’ve got to stay on top of him, he leads from the front.”

Jack McCalman: “I’ve known Loughie for quite a long time and we’ve actually played a lot of schoolboy footy, both with and against each other, so I’ve got a lot of respect for him. It’s great that he’s done well in his career and that we now get to play against each other in a Shute Shield grand final. We’re two competitive backrowers so there’ll be no love lost on Saturday and we’ll be looking to get one up on each other. It’s nice to be up against someone of his calibre, and it demands that myself and the rest of the team need to stand up against these guys because we know how hard they’re going to fight to win the game.

“He’s got a hard edge, carries hard and gets over the ball, and you can hit him as hard as you want but he’ll get up and go again. He’s not going to throw a miracle flick pass or chip and chase or do anything flashy, but he has a dogged approach to his game and will go as hard as he can and demand that you match him. He’s going to go hard and lead with his heart on his sleeve and so am I, so it’s going to be a pretty tight arm wrestle between the two of us, which is exciting.”

James Lough_Norths v Gordon_2022 PF_AQ

A proud Highlander carries hard against arch-rivals Norths in last week’s Preliminary Final – Photo: Andrew Quinn

ON THE COACHING TICKET:

James Lough: “DC [Darren Coleman] was very much into detail, whereas Billy is a bit more of a ‘step back and we’ll let you play rugby’ approach. He’s a bit more eccentric in the way he thinks about rugby in his mind, which was a big learning curve for us at the start, but then you begin to realise that this bloke really knows what he’s talking about. You just have to get through the message that he’s giving you and when you do, you understand that what he’s saying will work. As the team’s grown, we’ve grown off the back of how Billy works, and you’ve also got Riley Carter and Harry Fehily who sit by Billy well and offer the other side of that coaching spectrum, which is great.”

Jack McCalman: “Rob Taylor did a really good handover to ‘Hedge’ [head coach Sean Hedger], and gave a really clear basis of what the group in 2020 had wanted and had done prior to his arrival. And I think the work from people behind the scenes as well, like Director of Rugby Nick Ryan and Club President Dave Lyons, in helping Hedge and forwards coach Mark Bakewell in particular was important. We’ve also got a guy in Damien Hill who has coached at Uni in the past and won Premierships, so while Hedge and Bako were new, they were well supported. To their credit, they listened, and they’ve been able to strike a balance between their own coaching styles whilst respecting the old Uni way.

“Bako’s been fantastic. He’s got twenty-five years of professional coaching under his belt and likewise Laurie Weeks, who was a Wallaby and played hundreds of Super Rugby games, and I think the detail from those guys is something that I haven’t seen in a forwards coach for a long time. Bako could talk to you for hours about the dark arts of the scrum and lineout respectively. Sydney Uni has always prided itself on a strong pack and a strong set-piece, and both guys have slipped into that mould beautifully whilst adding a lot of detail and a lot of intent that has kept that expectation going of what is required from a Uni pack.”

ON THE GAME:

James Lough: “I was a young pup during those dark days of 2017 and it was all run on heart, and was a case of working as hard as you could for an outcome that you were never going to get. The biggest change of DC coming in and Matty Glascott the President was that we learned how to be professional, and I wish I’d learned it earlier because maybe I could have gone on a bit further. The Gordon club itself and everyone that’s around us that was in those dark days is so proud of the lads that have stuck through it all and kept going, guys like Jack Margin, who was one of those key players in that age group. You can tell by the community around Gordon just how proud they are to see us stepping out of those difficult times and marching forward into a second grand final in a row.

“I definitely hope our relative extra experience helps on the day. The eight players that are there from 2020 are some serious players that are in an age bracket now where it’s time to do some damage. I’ve spoken with these guys and I believe they’re going to stand up and lead from the front. It’s going to have to be physicality and limited errors that are how this game is won. Both teams can defend, both can attack, so it’s going to be who wants it more and who can defend better from set-piece, that’s going to be the game. You also can’t argue with momentum, and it appears that we have a bit of it at the moment. There’s a good feeling amongst the boys and we have the sail up, but now coming up against Sydney University, whether that sail is up or not we’re still in for a heck of a fight.”

Jack McCalman_Sydney Uni v Eastwood_2022 PF_Mums

McCalman is know for his work on the floor, but is a threat with carries as well – Photo: Mum’s Rugby Snaps

Jack McCalman: “I don’t think experience matters too much, but I’m sure Gordon will be feeling very confident having those players from 2020 – Loughie, Mahe and the two Goddards – in the team, that will give their younger lads confidence. However, we also know that the past doesn’t count for too much and that for both teams, those crucial moments in the match are going to be decided by the toss of a coin – it doesn’t matter if you’re Sam Talakai or Charlie Hancock.

“This Gordon side are a massive threat. Yes, they’ve come from seventh on the ladder and had to play an extra game than us but they’re the reigning Premiers, they know how to win tight, tough games of footy and they’ve proven that over the last few weeks. I read Billy and James this week playing it down and claiming they’re the underdogs, yet the Shute Shield is still sitting at Chatswood Oval! We know what a good team and what a proud club they are and how hard we’re going to have to fight to take that off them. Momentum is a big thing in sport and they have it.

“I think discipline will be key, both around penalties and ball retention. Turning the ball over cheaply on Saturday will be very costly, and giving away penalties will be very costly because Reece Macdonald is a very good kicker who can kick goals from anywhere. Harrison Goddard and Jack McGregor are both very good infield kickers and they’ll be wanting to keep us pinned down, so if we give them opportunities to do that in our own half it’s going to make it very hard to win a game of footy.

“So we’re very conscious of their threats as a team, and we know we’re going to have to be pretty well behaved and pretty accurate with the execution of our skills and game play to keep them at bay because they’re dangerous. But on the flip side, I think a strong set-piece and the team that wins the collisions and with that the gain line, is going to be the team that comes pretty close to winning.”

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For a complete set of grand final player profiles from both teams click below:

MEET THE TEAMS: GORDON

MEET THE TEAMS: SYDNEY UNIVERSITY

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