2019 Shute Shield Season Preview: Eastwood

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get with Eastwood last year.

Under new coach Ben Batger, the Woodies were woeful at times and near unbeatable at others and eventually fell short against Norths in the opening week of the playoffs.

Despite farewelling club legend Jai Ayoub and (on again off again) coach John Manenti, Eastwood have recruited better than most over the summer and could be a team to watch in 2019.

Overview with Ben Batger:

“Last year was a bit of a mixed bag for us. We probably could have gone deeper into the finals but at the end of the year, you’d probably say fifth was a fair result. I think that was indicative of our year, we were very up and down and when it came to finals football, we couldn’t find our best to match it with the top teams,” Woodies coach Ben Batger said.

“I think our inconsistency was probably a combination of new coaches, new players, new structures and new playmakers with Jai (Ayoub) missing most of the year. All of those things take time to get used to and at times it clicked and we had good victories over Uni and Norths, then at other times it just didn’t happen for us.

“I think we built a good foundation last year so we’re really excited to build on that in 2019. We’ve been pretty active on the recruitment front and we’ve identified a few key areas that we needed to work on, so we’re looking forward to ripping in.

“We’ve worked a lot on our fitness. We found last year we probably weren’t on the pace with the top sides so we had a much bigger focus on our strength and conditioning program.

“We also worked a lot on our structure. Last year we probably needed to think too much during games and that cost us. When your structures are working and everything is running like a smooth machine, everything tends to work a hell of a lot better.

“(Former coach) John (Manenti) is still around every now and again. He’s obviously busy with the Australian Women’s Sevens team but he still pops in from time to time to give me a hand and that has been great. For me personally, I’m able to bounce things off him so it’s great to have him around. We haven’t quite kicked him out of the place just yet.

“The Jarryd Hayne saga was definitely a storm in a tea cup. He came down one night to training because he is mates with one of the boys. He was only at one training session and we haven’t seen him again because obviously there was a fair bit of media attention around it, so we thought it was best that we left that.”

2018: Semi finalists (lost to Northern Suburbs 16-10)

Ins: Taylor Adams (Melbourne Rebels), Enoka Muliufi (West Harbour), Pete Schuster (Aussie 7s/Rugby League), Kitione Ratu (Melbourne Rising), Ikapote Tupai (Melbourne Rising), Matt Gonzales (injury).

Outs: Jai Ayoub (retired), Jared Barry (retired), Tom Murphy (Ireland), Josh Norah (Japan), Liam Windon (Warringah).

Key Areas of Improvement:

“We want to improve out professionalism. Last year we found that our consistency was lacking because we probably weren’t fit enough so our fitness and S&C program has been a big focus.

“We also want to be more professional with our systems and improve our knowledge so that a lot of what we do comes automatically to us.

“I think our defence was also a bit passive last year, so we need to ramp that up as well.”

Player(s) to watch: 

“Michael Icely is a young No.6 in the Hugh Perrett mould. He’s big, strong and fast. He’s probably one of the fittest in the club and I think he’ll push hard for a spot in the backrow. He’s come through our system as well, which is great.

“If he gets going, Enoka Muliufi could be anything. He’s got a lot of competition at inside centre with Blake Sutton, but if he gets his mind right he’s going to be really destructive and I think he could certainly push on to higher honours.”

Hopes and Expectations for the year: 

“We’re aiming for the same thing as every team, we want to win it. With the squad we’ve got on paper, I think anything less that a top four finish would be really disappointing,” Batger said.

“In saying that though, a squad on paper doesn’t get you far, you need to perform week in week out on the field and that’s what we’re striving to do.

“We’ve got a big focus on our colts program this year. We’ve appointed Craig Morrison, the former Easts first grade coach, to run our colts and he’s been fantastic so far. We’ve also added to our depth in grade and I think that will help a lot.”

Who will Eastwood play in the grand final?

“Sydney Uni are still the benchmark. It’s hard to compete with a team that can train five times a week and run close to a professional program in an amateur competition. They’ve got a good coach and a similar squad to last year so they’ll be hard to beat,” Batger said.

“It’s hard to know too much at this point of the year. There are a lot of changes in the coaching ranks as well so we will probably see a side or two move up the ladder, it’s just hard to know which sides it will be.”

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