Manly v Warringah: ‘Turtle’ reflects on the defection that forced him out of his shell

By Matt Findlay 

Damien Cummins readily admits he was “pretty bloody pissed off” after being dumped as Manly coach following the 2016 season but reflecting on the club’s decision now, several years on, he says it was a blessing in disguise.

He is still somewhat disappointed he was never afforded the chance to rectify his mistakes of 2016 but even so, considering the success he’s had since he found it had to describe the forced change as anything but good.

In a well-publicised move Cummins made a shock defection to bitter rivals Warringah for the 2017 season and promptly won a premiership as Darren Coleman’s assistant, an emotional win for the club after the death of Lachlan Ward earlier that year.

Cummins stayed on the year after to help with Warringah’s scrum as the Rats once again earned a grand final berth, and has since moved on to the coaching role he’s in now at Scots College.

“I was pretty bloody pissed off at the time, definitely,” Cummins said in the lead-up to this weekend’s Battle of the Beaches at Manly Oval.

“It was a great year in 2015 and I made a few wrong decisions in 2016, but I knew how to fix them and I think that was the disappointing thing for me, that I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so.

“I’d probably got a bit stuck in my ways and become a bit too comfortable (at Manly) though. I was there for 26, 27 years. Obviously Manly has a lot of history with Rats and I did as a player and coach too, but it actually felt quite easy to go there.

“They were all so welcoming too. I became part of the family, I think I fit in really well and obviously some great things came from it, so it was good to get that change, looking back.”

Cummins went on to explain that 2017 season – in which Warringah pulled off a miracle, 30-25 win over defending champions Norths in the decider – ranks among his top three club rugby highlights too.

“We won the third grade grand final that year too and with Lachie Ward passing away there was a lot happening, but it is right up there in terms of highlights, top three for sure,” he said.

“When I took Manly to the 2015 grand final and got beaten by Eastwood, that’s another one, and then 1997 as well when we beat Eastwood in that grand final, that’s the other.”

The fact the man affectionately known as ‘Turtle’ is completely on the outside now, with no role at either club, begs the obvious question – where does his loyalty lie?

“If you’d asked me a few years ago obviously it would’ve been geared entirely to the Marlins, but I’ve seen both sides now and it was a great experience to be able to do that,” he said.

“But I had a fair stint at Manly and one full season at Warringah so I think my blood is probably still more red and blue than green and white, but I obviously have a massive connection with the Rats now too after the year we had in 2017, and 2018.”

He said his two former clubs will both be wanting to “rip in, bash each other and get bragging rights” as usual at Manly Oval on Saturday, although Cummins won’t actually be there to watch on.

He’ll be hoping his Scots boys take down Joey’s. While he’s now coaching Scots he did some mentoring at Joey’s last year and he’s an old boy of the latter school too.

As such, Saturday shapes as a “double local derby” of sorts.

“It’ll be an interesting day,” Cummins said.

“It doesn’t feel weird coaching against Joey’s, although last year was pretty much the first time I’d been back since finishing there in 1990 and it did feel a bit like going home.

“So I’ll be at our game against Joey’s, but I’ll be watching (the Battle of the Beaches) very keenly wherever I can see the game too, it’s a pretty tough one to pick though.”

Rats sit fourth and Manly seventh but there’s only one win between the two sides and Cummins said there’s little doubt the Marlins have an advantage being at home.

“They do have that advantage with the local crowd down at Manly Oval and we always say it doesn’t matter where you sit on the table when a derby rolls around, so I think it’ll be really close,” he said.

“It does seem like there is more local guys at the Rats than the Marlins though and that can play a big part, because I think it means a bit more to them, knowing that rivalry a bit better.”

Manly host Warringah in Saturday’s Battle of the Beaches, from 3pm.