Hello from the other side: Souths coach Jai Ayoub prepares for first clash against Eastwood

By Matt Findlay

With a long, storied history at the club the name Jai Ayoub is firmly etched in Eastwood folklore, not least because of the famous drop goal he kicked to seal the side’s 15-14 Shute Shield grand final win over Manly, their second consecutive premiership.

That history will have another chapter added at Forshaw Park on Saturday afternoon, but this time Ayoub will be on the other side of the fence, and in different colours.

Having linked with Southern Districts to assist head coach Don Mackinnon and also mentor the Rebels’ second grade, Colin Caird Shield outfit, Ayoub will come up against his old club for the first time this weekend.

“It’ll be interesting, a little bit strange I guess because I know a lot of the Eastwood guys personally but I’m looking forward to it,” Ayoub said.

The now 32-year-old explained he was initially contacted by Souths’ assistant coach Michael Black, a close personal friend, to see if he’d be interested in returning to the playing field.

“I had zero interest in playing again though,” Ayoub laughed, saying he hadn’t gone actively looking for his first coaching gig either.

“I did say I would be open to coaching if there was a role available, they went back, spoke about it and here we are.

“I live down in Cronulla and have for the last six, seven years so location-wise coaching at Souths made life a little bit easier too, but when I did decide to transition into coaching I had a really good, long chat with [Eastwood coach Ben Batger] about it all.

“Even though I wanted to stay involved at Eastwood we mutually decided it might be better to step away.

“We decided it might be better to draw a line between player and coach considering the relationship I have with a lot of the existing Woodies players.

“Having not played a lot of footy in my last few years due to injury I kind of moved into a little bit of an assistant coaching role while I was at Eastwood, although it wasn’t official because I was still part of the playing group.

“So it’s been quite a natural, easy transition considering the way I’ve spent the last couple of years.”

With Souths adhering to the traditional squad-based mentality with their first and second grade groups Ayoub’s role was primarily shaping the Rebels’ attacking systems in the pre-season.

He went on to explain the club is “eerily similar” to Eastwood, which is actually something he came to learn while still playing at TG Millner and then in the National Rugby Championship anyway..

“Souths has always been a really great club,” Ayoub said.

“Souths and Eastwood built up a real rivalry from that 2014, 2015 era when we played each other a lot through some pretty big games and then the two clubs were paired together with the Rams when the NRC was introduced.

“So we had a lot to do with each other both on and off the field as players, and we were pretty quick to realise the cultures at both clubs are very similar.

“Souths is a home-grown, locally-based club and there’s a lot of juniors that come through … there’s a lot of old boys backing the club through sponsorships and support, the culture is just very, very similar.

“I’ve seen that first hand now, and it’s just awesome.”

Ayoub obviously looks back on his time with Eastwood incredibly fondly, it would be impossible not to after winning multiple premierships.

But he actually said it was neither the 2014 or 2015 premierships, individually, that are the highlight of his time with the Woodies, nor the fact it was the first time the club had gone back-to-back in more than a decade.

“Obviously that was just awesome,” Ayoub said of those triumphs.

“But it’s funny because I think (the highlight) is more in the way it all happened.

“I played a lot of second grade for a few years and there was a really young group that had come up through colts about the same time I’d moved there, they really cared and were great clubmen.

“Those (Shute Shield) premierships came with a good transition of those players and of course the older heads, but it was probably the time of my rugby life playing in that second grade side.

“We went through a season undefeated and even though we lost the grand final to Uni, in 2013 I think that was, we just had so much fun playing footy together.

“We knew we were talented and we weren’t afraid of losing, so we just played footy.

“It’s not surprising to see it kind of end up being that group that’s taken over the succession at Eastwood in a way, and they’re enjoying a dominant position now.”

Ayoub said he actually feels somewhat of a sense of deja vu at the Rebels now, likening that period with Eastwood to Souths’ position in 2019.

“We’ve had probably 30-odd colts players graduate to grade this year,” he explained.

“Eastwood had enough depth in that period that those colts didn’t have to play first grade straight up but we’ve had to blood a few early, but that’ll hold us in good stead for the next few years if we can keep them around and … building to something.”

Of course, no Jay Ayoub interview is truly complete until he’s recounted that kick from 2015, which broke the Marlins’ hearts and probably saved Batger quite a bit of grief.

With Manly leading 14-12 Batger had sensationally just missed a go-ahead penalty goal from straight in front but much to his delight Ayoub stepped up, coolly slotting the 40-metre attempt.

Manly’s Sam Lane had a chance to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat, but crushingly missed a drop goal attempt of his own in injury time, Eastwood securing a famous, one-point win as a result.

“We knew the position we were in, but we had the ball back and maintained a lot of possession,” Ayoub recounted, as he’s done so many times before.

“The Manly side were pretty relentless in D and they weren’t giving us much so with the field position we were in we were really just trying to drag down the clock, build the phases and win a penalty.

“We got an advantage and it was instinct form there, I knew I had nothing to lose because there was no fear knowing we had an advantage and would get the penalty if I missed.

“It was good to watch it go over though.”

Souths take on an Eastwood side that in Ayoub’s words are “impressive from one to 15” this weekend at Forshaw Park from 3pm. 

The Woodies will be trying to maintain their status as competition-leading top dogs while the Rebels are desperate to snap a five-game losing streak, the most recent being last week’s 35-28 defeat to second-placed Norths.

Ayoub’s Colin Caird Shield side sit eighth, and are also looking to bounce back from a loss to the Shoremen, they kick-off at 1.25pm.