2017 Shute Shield Season Preview: Eastwood
After winning back to back premierships in 2014 and 2015, Eastwood began life without club legends Hugh Perrett and Ben Batger with six wins in their opening seven matches last year.
However inconsistency plagued the Woodies through the back end of the 2016 season and losses to Parramatta and West Harbour pushed the reigning premiers down into sixth spot.
Eastwood led Sydney Uni 29-14 at half time of their opening round finals clash, but the Woodies ran out of puff after the break allowing the Students to score four second half tries and end any hope of a third straight premiership.
Stu Woodhouse has retained the majority of his squad for the 2017 season and the coach seems confident that he has all the ingredients needed for another successful year.
Last year: 6th (11 wins, 61pts)
Outs: Sam Needs (Warringah), Cohen Masson (France).
Overview with Stu Woodhouse:
“We knew the loss of our two leaders, Hugh Perrett and Ben Batger would hurt, then without Jared Barry for most of the season, we knew it was going to be difficult because those players left a huge hole to fill,” Woodhouse said.
“People keep telling me it was a disappointing year and obviously we have high standards, but we were only one and a half wins away from being second or first last year. When you look at the ladder, we were essentially less than two wins away from first spot. Our team goal was to get into the semis. Ideally, we would have rather been placed first, second or third but as I said, we were only a win or two away from that.
“A lot of guys got their first taste of first grade last year and we also built a new leadership group and that takes time. We lost a few games that we shouldn’t have last year and I think we lacked some leadership and mental toughness in those games but I think we’re better for that now.
“We’ve worked on our attack quite a bit over summer and we’ll work on our defence over the next month. We’ve also done quite a lot of conditioning as well, we added an extra training night to combat that. In tight games, you need to make good decisions under fatigue and that’s something we struggled with at times last year.
“In terms of recruitment, we’ve plugged a few holes but we’ve mostly been looking to promote players from within the club. From a grade perspective, we had six teams at training on Tuesday night. I always say the toughest job in the club is the fourth grade coach and at the moment, he’s managing three teams and trying to keep everyone happy.
“Like most clubs, we’re probably lacking a few good props and locks. I think the AFL must be snapping up all the tall kids around here, but overall we’re pretty well stocked across the grades.”
Key areas of improvement:
“Our eighty-minute performance needs to improve and to do that we need to be fitter. We’ve also been working hard on our attack. We were the second highest attacking side last year but we’ve changed a few things up.
“Although we’ve lost some talented players, we’ve still got the axis of a good team who have won premierships together – Jai Ayoub, Mike McDougall, Tom Hill and Matty Gonzales – so you’ve got to keep them engaged and enthusiastic and we’ve tweaked our attack to do that.
“From a defensive point of view, we need to be more ruthless so we’re working on creating some new policies around our defence and we’ll be spending some time on that in the coming weeks.”
Player/s to watch:
“Rhys Allen finished off the season really well last year and played with the Rams in the NRC so I’m hoping he’ll continue to progress. I think he’ll go to another to level and really impress this year.
“Our hooker Ed Craig played with the Australian U20s last year and finished the season really strong. He’s potentially going to be playing behind Hugh Roach and Damien Fitzpatrick if they’re available but again, I think he’ll get better with another year under his belt.
“Jed Gillespie, our loosehead prop, he was down with the Rebels in 2015 but he broke his thumb twice last year and missed the majority of the season. I believe he should be playing Super Rugby, so if he can stay injury free and play consistently, he’ll really showcase his talents.”
What are your hopes/expectations for the season?
“I think it’s a bit of a waiting game at the moment. Everyone has recruited well and there are top quality coaching staff all through the teams this year.
“Our first priority is to make the top six, but we want to finish in one of those top three spots so that you potentially get a second chance in the finals. Even when we won in 2014 and 2015, the aim was never to win a premiership, you’ve got to set those small goals first and then go from there.”
Who will your team play in the grand final?
“There could be numerous teams in the grand final, it’s really tough to pick. Norths will be tough, Souths are a great side with a strong forward pack, Warringah are improving and Uni are always tough in all grades.
“Randwick have a lot of good young kids coming through with all their NSW U20s players and Manly will be strong under Billy Melrose.
“Then West Harbour, Parramatta and Penrith are all working hard so it’s going to a really tight competition.
“It’s different to when we had success before. Back then there were a couple of standout teams whereas this year and last year, it seems everyone is so much more competitive.”