From the outside looking in, taking up the reins at Sydney University after they’ve just missed out on finals football for the first time in 19 years, and given the increased levels of competition to contend with in the 2018 Intrust Super Shute Shield, seemed a daunting proposition. Add in the fact that you are inheriting one of the youngest squad’s going around, and that you will be stepping into the shoes of two departed club legends in Tim Davidson and Tom Carter, and that challenge becomes even more formidable.
Conversely, if you’re a glass half-full kind of person, you could see it as the best possible time to come in and take what was working, and put your own stamp on things. Clearly, incoming head coach Robert Taylor falls very much into the second category. The former Director of Rugby at Auckland University has transitioned seamlessly from his role in charge of colts at Camperdown into his new position, done things his own way, and the results are unquestionable.
Fourteen wins from eighteen games and a whopping 20 bonus points has earned the Students the Minor Premiership, and a home Qualifying Final against Eastern Suburbs this afternoon. And it is the manner in which they have set about their task, a dominant set-piece embellished by a bevy of running threats that has brought an average of just over 38pts per match, that has been the hallmark.
Given the players at his disposal, it is no surprise that Taylor has encouraged them to run free. You only had to watch last season’s Colin Caird Shield grand final to see that the new breed of Uni backs was going to take some stopping if they were given their chance in 1st grade.
That game ended in a 51-14 thrashing of a more than decent Eastwood side, and thrust a host of young talent into the spotlight in the process. I called my post-match review of the game ‘Uni’s next-gen serve ominous notice’, and waxed lyrical about the potential on display, finishing it by saying – ‘Though it may not have been the ultimate prize that Sydney University craved, this 2nd grade title, and the manner in which it was achieved, certainly laid down some marker for the future from those involved. Many of these young names have already taken their bow in the Shute Shield, expect them to take up residency over the next few years.’
That’s not to posit myself as any great rugby sage, anyone could have predicted a bright future for this group based on the evidence of that early afternoon exhibition at North Sydney Oval. But it was a hugely exciting prospect, and to see around half of the starting XV that day go on to become regulars in top grade this season, has been terrific to witness.
Theo Strang, Will McDonnell, Harry Potter, Nick Champion de Crespigny and Chris Talakai have all featured prominently in Uni’s surge to the top of the ladder, while James Kane – who bagged 21pts in the final – has positively blossomed, with 11 tries and 180pts leaving him second on the points-scorers lists for the 2018 regular season.
A cornerstone of their successful transition thus far, alongside others such as Guy Porter, Dan Poletto and Tim Clements, has been the familiarity between coach Taylor and his young charges, borne from their time together in colts. In his two years at the helm he oversaw a sustained period of success, which brought four grand final wins from six appearances across the three grades, and an incredible run of 42 straight victories for 1st colts under his watchful eye.
“Theo Strang was an eligible colt last year but ended up playing a lot of grade,” he explains. “Dan Poletto played 3rd colts in 2016 and 1st colts with me in 2017. Will McDonnell was a graduate out of the colts program in 2016 and played the 2nd grade grand final last year. Guy Porter was a colt last year and played in a grand final. Harry Potter was another eligible colt last year but ended up playing grade. Tim Clements was colts last year, and James Kane was another graduate of the 2016 colts but played 2nd grade last year. At times the average age of the backline has been just over 20, but with Henry Clunies-Ross coming in that makes him the old guy, and he’s still 23!
“That whole continuity of guys coming through has made it a lot easier,” he continues. “And that succession is showing out on the pitch, it’s not clunky. We were pretty keen at the start of the year to pick that young backline, and the message was ‘I’m not going to drop you guys if you have a shocker against Parramatta in round one, I’m going to back you, I’m going to keep selecting you, and you’re going to have to work hard to get out of this team’. I hoped that they would continue to respond to that and keep playing with no fear, and they have.”
Interestingly, while the job at hand this season in restoring the top of the Uni pyramid back into a title-challenging force seemed to be the bigger challenge, Taylor himself reckons that his initial task with the colts set-up at its base when he arrived, came with heavier baggage.
“To be honest, taking over colts in 2016 was more daunting because their record is incredible,” he reasons. “I know that 1st grade, in terms of the level of competition, is a harder comp, but colts had won all three grades the year before I came in, and there was an expectation to keep it going. If Uni had won the Shute Shield last year it would have been another tough gig. But coming in at a lower level for a couple of years and getting used to that expectation makes it easier.
“There wouldn’t be another club in the world with Uni’s record of Premierships in grade and colts. There are such high standards and a record of high success, that it would be a tough club to just drop into as a stranger and try and go for it. Working alongside Tom and Tim, who you can easily say are legends of the Shute Shield and of Australian rugby with their records, was invaluable. They bleed University rugby, so just parking up alongside them for two years and working with them, I was able to see what was successful for them and put my own spin on that.
“I was coaching the equivalent of 1st grade in Auckland rugby, and I’d gone through age grades up to senior and won the Gallaher Shield. I then got the offer to come over here, and while it meant going back to coaching colts again, the difference in the culture of the game in Australia meant it was a good exercise. It was probably a bit more of a challenge when I first arrived, and I needed to take a deep breath every now and then, but the approach is pretty much the same.
“One of the things you pick up is that no matter how old the guys are, whether it’s Paddy Ryan or Dave McDuling, they still want to get better, they still want to learn something, they want to be coached and challenged. The young guys might show that outwardly a bit more, and need to be guided a bit more, but they still want to improve, so I haven’t really changed my approach coming up from colts to grade. People want to get better, they want to have fun, and they want to be their best out there.”
That sense of fun and enjoyment in what they do, radiates throughout this Uni team. When the whistle blows they well and truly flick the switch on to game mode, but watch them in the warm-up, at full-time or around the sheds, and you get the impression that this is a hardworking group that enjoy each other’s company, and would each happily bleed for the other as much as for their combined cause.
“Breeding a culture is very important, especially in a Varsity club, and that’s something that Rob’s been very big on,” confirms points-machine James Kane. “You’ve got blokes anywhere from 17 to 26-years-old, and we’re here ultimately to play the sport that we love. But while we are all here working hard for each other and personally striving for our own goals, and for our team goals of winning Club Championships and Shute Shields, we do want to make sure that we’re having fun because otherwise, what’s the point? If you stop enjoying it after a while, then it’s going to fall apart.
“The thing that comes with being young is that you think you’re 10ft tall and bulletproof, and that gives you that sense of confidence to just go out there and throw the footy around. But it’s great having Rob as our coach because he’s given us the licence to play footy how it should be played, and he loves giving us the ability to be creative on the ball and find space.
“Knowing that your coach is behind you backing every decision you make, allows you to go out there and not really worry too much, and just play footy. It’s good to have the structures and foundations we have in terms of set-piece, but also that creative licence and freedom suits our team well, and is why we are able to play such expansive, fast-paced rugby.”
As Kane alludes to, all of this ‘joie de vivre’ in attack requires a solid backbone, and an ability to fight fire with fire at the all-important tackle contest. And if there were any concerns about the ability of this emerging young side to be able to go to the next level, it was whether they had the muscle, grit and wanton bastardry to roll up their sleeves and do the hard yakka against teams littered with players who have been around the block and back again.
However, watching them in the flesh swat aside a physically renowned Manly outfit on the way to a 45-13 demolition in round six, and then have a highly-regarded Southern Districts scrum on skates at Uni Oval No.2 in round eight when they romped home 40-12, was enough to suggest that you underestimate this side’s desire to go toe-to-toe at your peril.
So while the ‘princesses’ rightly draw the plaudits for their sterling efforts, it’s only fair to highlight the incredible work of the ‘piggies’ in the pack in front of them. Where guys like Matt Sandell and Brad Wilkin have put two years of injury-enforced misery behind them to rediscover their confidence, the promise they always showed, and their love of the game at the same time.
Where Chris Talakai has begun to emerge from the shadow of elder brother and Melbourne Rebel Sam, to be the tighthead fulcrum of a scrum that has earned seven penalty tries already this year.
And where the sight of Rohan O’Regan, Lachie Swinton and Nick Champion de Crespigny, fiery eyed and wading into rucks with blatant disregard for their own bodies, let alone anyone else’s, has been a feature of an edge to Uni’s game that some may have thought might be lacking.
“We’ve got some young guys out there but there are some big bodies and they’re really physical,” affirms captain O’Regan. “Guys like Brad Wilkin haven’t played a lot of rugby for two years so he’s relishing it, and Nick de Crespigny is an athletic bloke who likes to whack people. If you’ve got that sort of aggression in your eight, your backs can play with a bit of freedom.
“We’ve been really hard on ourselves around defence, and that’s something we wanted to punish teams with and score points from that. But our front row have been absolutely unreal. The work they’ve done all year is showing out on the field, and that sets the platform for us, and acts as a bit of a pressure valve if we’re under the pump.”
“Maybe that’s one thing opposition teams might look at against Uni. ‘Let’s get stuck into them because they’re young’,” offers coach Taylor. “But a lot of them have come from winning environments or are used to winning in colts, so their mindset is ‘Why can’t we keep winning?’
“The scrum is certainly a platform, and I think it’s something Sydney Uni has always had traditionally. But even if you look at our 2nd grade scrum, it’s good, and our 3rd grade scrum is good etc, and that’s the work scrum coach Joe Horn-Smith has put in. If they want to do 50 scrums at training, I let them do 50 scrums at training, because as a backs coach, I’m happy to watch 15 minutes of scrums if it’s a good scrum.
“It just highlights the importance of the set-piece in a game of rugby, and you’ve got to work at it. Our guys certainly don’t just turn up and roll that out on a Saturday, they really grafted through the summer and pre-season to get that scrum. We’ve got a very aspirational backline, so they’re enjoying playing off that too. If our scrum was getting hammered and our forwards weren’t fronting up, it’d be hard to try and play the way we want to play, so we’ve just been trying to make the most of that.”
All in all, they’re ticking a lot of boxes then. But the phoney war is now over, and the real competition begins, and as good as they’ve proven to be across the regular season, it will all count for nothing if they can’t make good on the position they’ve put themselves in.
The trump card that most people talk about in regards to reasons why this Uni side can’t go all the way, is their lack of experience. The additions of both Paddy Ryan and Jake Gordon for tomorrow’s clash with Easts ameliorates that to some extent, but along with the Beasties, they will go into the finals series with the least amount of recent exposure to the pressures of knockout footy.
Skipper O’Regan believes the ride they have been on this season just to get there, has provided them with the nous and game smarts they require to get across the line when it truly matters.
“Last year was very disappointing, but in saying that we are a new team this year and haven’t focused on past results. I think from the get-go we have set the expectations high for ourselves and for one another, based on where we wanted to go as a team.
“For us as a club there were no questions about our capabilities throughout the whole year, and what we were planning to achieve. Firstly, it was to secure the Club Championship and gain a result there. Now we are into finals, each team is trying to achieve their own mission. The Minor Premiership was a nice award and reflection of our hard work but the season isn’t finished for us yet.
“I think Uni or any University clubs have always had relatively young teams due to a high turnover rate. We’ve learned a lot throughout this year and the consistently high level that has to be sustained for success. We’ve enjoyed putting in the work during the year and this week’s been no different.”
Should they get past Easts, or indeed, should they suffer a defeat and require a second bite of the cherry to make the semis, they will need to beat two of the four sides they have gone down to this season in order to reclaim the Premiership they last held in 2013. Manly gained revenge for that round six embarrassment with a narrow victory at the Village Green seven weeks later, but they have only played the other sides to have defeated them – Northern Suburbs, Warringah and Eastwood – once.
For Taylor, those defeats may have been exactly the tonic needed for the team to kick-on for the remainder of the season. And he’s under no illusions that they have what it takes to get the job done at the second time of asking. After all, no pain, no gain.
“If you lose by 20 then you walk away saying that you’re not good enough. But we came away from those games knowing we were good enough to win them, and had put ourselves in a position to win them. You just put that down to some hard footy lessons that you’ve gotta learn as a young group.
“A few losses suddenly sharpen your focus on what’s important, and that’s what’s in front of you, but that’s a healthy thing. It puts your feet back on the ground and reinforces the message that every training session counts now, and every extra session and every recovery. We’ve had a dose of hard pain along the way, and we’ve got to keep that in a bottle as a reminder.”
First things first though, and for a team with a fixed mantra of ‘one game at a time’, all eyes are on getting past an Eastern Suburbs side that are more than capable of upsetting the apple cart.
“It will be an exciting battle against Easts,” says O’Regan. “I’m sure Pauli [Taumoepeau] will have some tricks up his sleeve, but they have some threats across the park. They move the ball to space well through Mack Mason, and they have some skilful forwards, so we’ll have to cover the field well. The keys for us are turning up in defence and pressuring them there.
“As a team we’ve learned from those mid-season losses and moved on. Hopefully we can apply those lessons against Easts and move onto the next game against whoever that may be. But we have been purely focused on this weekend.”