2019 Shute Shield Season Review: Eastwood

After watching over the shoulder of his former coach John Manenti for a few years, Eastwood legend Ben Batger took the reins at TG Milner in 2019 and inherited arguably one of the competition’s best squads on paper.

The Woodies were big improvers in 2019 and eventually fell one match short of the grand final.

But that’s a long way from good enough, according to Batger, who seems desperate to lead the Woodies back to their winning ways.

Overview with Ben Batger:

“I guess I’m reasonably happy with the year. We improved in terms of the ladder in all areas. At the end of the season, we were second. Post season we were in the mix, we were the second best attacking side and the third best defensive side,” Batger reflected.

“So we advanced in all the key areas but at the same time I think I let the guys down in a few key areas in my first year as coach. There were a few areas that I thought we needed to fix and probably didn’t. Our fitness was a problem and we didn’t rectify that. Then our line out was a weakness and I think both of those things came back to bite us at the back end of the season.

“We certainly grew as a club this year and grew as a team but we still lacked in a few key areas and that probably separated us from the top two teams.

“I didn’t realise how big of an impact that adding guys in key positions would have on the group and how long it would take to come together. I played in Eastwood sides filled with guys that had played with each other forever and this year it probably took us 10 weeks to really hit our straps because of that.

“We came in as a pretty well known side and people were expecting big things, but when you’ve got changes at No.10, 12, 13 and 15 it takes a little bit to click. In saying that, those boys fitted into the group really well and are now a big part of the Eastwood culture.

“If I look at the positives, the way we bounced back against Sydney Uni out in Mudgee was really impressive. We’d been trounced by Norths a week earlier and were missing four or so players but somehow the guys turned it around in a week and were fantastic against Uni. That was pretty indicative of our season, we never lost two games in a row.

“On the flip side, both Warringah games were disappointing. In round one, we were leading in the final minute and couldn’t close out the game, then in the final we had a chance to score and win at the end but couldn’t execute and that cost us our season.

“There’s one thing that we’ll never struggle with at Eastwood and that’s culture. I mentioned the new guys and they really bought in this year but everyone at the club is there for the right reasons and all really enjoy their football, right across the grades.

“We had all four grades in the finals, so the club as a whole is in a really good spot.”

Which of your non contracted players deserves to go on and play higher honours?

“Without a doubt Enoka Muliufi. To me, he’s a player that offers something different to any other player in Australian rugby bar probably Samu Kerevi.

“He’s 116kg of raw power and there’s just not many guys like that going around. Everyone knocks him for his lack of skills and lack of fitness, but he’s never been in a professional environment to fine tune those things.

“Michael Icely is another one, he picked up Rookie of the Year. He’s a hard working player that does a lot of homework and video review. He’s got the professionalism to take it to the next level.

“A smoky as well who deserves a chance is Rob Lagudi. He’s arguably the best prop in the comp but unfortunately he’s got a job where he works 10 hour days so he just doesn’t have the fitness base to go on to the next level. If you get a guy like that in a professional environment, he’s going to thrive.”

What needs to happen at Eastwood between now and round one next year? 

“We’ve got to get fitter. I wanted to improve our professionalism around our S&C this year but it probably didn’t happen so we’ll have a big emphasis on that moving forward.

“If you’re going to match the better sides at the business end of the year when they’ve got a lot of Super Rugby players returning, you’ve got to have a better base to try and match the guys who are spending all day in the gym.”

Bold prediction for 2020:

“Two teams from outside of the top six will play finals next year,” Batger said.

“If I have to name names, I think Randwick’s youth policy will finally pay off and they’ll push through and Gordon will continue to build on last year.

“Then Warringah will drop out after losing Mark Gerrard and the Simon Cron influence at Norths will start to fade.”

“I’ve bagged everyone now, so the pressure’s on.”