NRC Team Previews: Introducing…the SYDNEY STARS
A joint venture between Sydney University and Balmain, the Stars combine arguably the leading club side in Australian rugby over the last decade with one of the leading lights of Sydney’s suburban rugby competition. They will play home games out of the iconic Leichhardt Oval in the city’s Inner West.
WALLABIES: Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Will Skelton
SUPER RUGBY REPRESENTATIVES: Peter Betham, Michael Hodge, Pat McCutcheon, Paddy Ryan, Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse (all NSW WARATAHS), Laurie Weeks (REBELS)
FORWARDS: Jordan Chapman, Tom Coolican, Hugo Dessens, Folau Fainga’a, David Hickey, Byron Hodge, Tipiloma Kaveinga, Alasdair King, Andrew Leota, Benn Melrose, Mathew Philip, Samuel Quinn, Tomas Robertson, Matthew Sandell, Michael Tyler, James Willan, Ryan Wilson, Mitchell Whiteley
BACKS: Henry Clunies-Ross, James Dargaville, Stuart Dunbar, Johnathan Fakai, Jake Gordon, Daniel Kelly, Matthew Kenny, Jonny Loseli, Finau Makamaka, James McMahon, Jock Merriman, Angus Pulver, Jim Stewart, Angus Roberts
Chris Malone steps up to the Stars head coaching role from his existing position in charge of Sydney University. A former flyhalf for the Students, Malone enjoyed a successful professional playing career overseas, spending ten seasons in the English Premiership with Exeter Chiefs, Bath, Bristol, Harlequins and London Irish. Returning to Sydney in 2011, he led Uni’s 2nd Grade side to a Premiership before backing that up with a 1st Grade Premiership in 2013. This year has seen the blooding of a plethora of young talent that ultimately fell one game short of another Shute Shield Grand Final. You can bet Malone is looking to kick-start the Stars’ place in Australian rugby history with an inaugural title.
RUGBY NEWS: How excited are you about the potential of this competition Chris?
“I’m really excited as it’s a genuine stepping stone and pathway to Super Rugby. For our players to have to have that opportunity with the Stars is a great thing.”
As well as the players, it also offers a great opportunity for you to continue learning your craft and test yourself as a coach at the next level?
“The big thing for coaches and players alike is that there’s very few jobs at that next level in Australia. This gives a lot of guys an opportunity to play and coach at that next level in terms of different stepping stones to careers – for players and for coaching staff. It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
Why does Australian rugby need the NRC?
“The reason we need it is to help to prepare more players to be ready to play at the next level. There’s a big gap between the top players in the Super Rugby squads and the rest of the guys. I think with this competition we are allowing the guys that miss out on playing Super Rugby but are within those squads, you are allowing them to get some meaningful game time. So, whereas in the past they would have only had a few club games for their whole season, now they actually get meaningful games of footy and get to test themselves against blokes in similar positions, including Wallabies, on a weekly basis at the back end of the season.”
You’ve brought an attacking, expansive mindset to Sydney Uni over the last couple of years, is that a style you want to bring to the Stars and do you feel the pressure to entertain?
“I think the whole idea of the competition is to be as good at rugby as we can be. I think there’s an opportunity for people to try and continue to garner support for the game. I am an advocate of playing a brand of footy which is going to make people want to watch games of rugby so we’re definitely going to go into the competition with the right intent.”
You will likely have the most players from one club, Sydney Uni, in your squad than any other side. Given your role as head coach there and your knowledge of the players, do you have a unique advantage in terms of familiarity and the implementation of systems etc?
“Well, it does and it doesn’t. Whilst we have a unique opportunity and a deliberately unique opportunity to see pathways for our players, there’s also disadvantages in that you’re limiting the pool that you’re picking from as well. I would be looking at those Super Rugby teams – Melbourne, Perth and Canberra – those are the guys that have been together the most and trained professionally together all year.”
How hard has it been trying to marry your coaching role with Uni and your coaching role with the Stars?
“Nigh on impossible. The reality is, we’ve concentrated on our club to this point and now that’s finished we concentrate on the Stars. That could manifest itself as being frustrating if we allow it to be but that was the nature of the competition going into it and we always knew it was going to be like that. That’s how it is and we’ve just got to crack on with it.”
What’s the key ingredient to getting a buy-in from supporters for the Stars? Style, success, interaction with your public?
“I think this competition is about grabbing people that may not necessarily have already been to rugby as well as getting people that want to come and support based on the clubs that are in there. I genuinely think you’ve got to try do things a little bit differently because you want to try and get people through the gate. We want to attract the City of Sydney and the people of the Inner West and that whole Balmain peninsula. There’s a lot of young professional families there and we think there’s a big target audience to be had and we’ve got to market the games and try to get people along to Leichhardt to watch us. Playing a good brand of footy can only help that you would hope.”
How has the integration with Balmain been?
“It’s been good. Warren Livingstone, their President, has been fantastic from day one. Our strategic intent for this competition with the two clubs involved makes sense geographically. There’s a great audience there, there’s a lot of good schools in the area and we think there’s a great opportunity to really attract a lot of those people to rugby, there’s so many good things about the partnership.
“We’ve had a number of guys from Balmain training with us so we want to try and feed as many opportunities for those guys as well as ours. I’m impressed with them all as people so far but I haven’t had a lot of interaction with them in terms of footy but we’ll soon get a good idea as to who’s got what. The problem is you’re limited as to how many you can pick in a squad from anywhere. It is easier to select people that you know but there’s a good mix of Balmain boys and I think a lot of guys will have a great opportunity to stand out and impress. The reality of the situation is that we have that many injuries that basically anyone who is fit in our squad will get a game this week.“
You’ve awarded Pat McCutcheon the captaincy, he seems to be a perfect fit?
“Absolutely and we want to have the opportunity to help make him a better player. In ten weeks time we want everyone in our squad to be better players and ‘Cutc’h is a perfect example of that. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s so enthusiastic about the make-up of this team, what it means and how we build it to make it last. He’s a perfect choice as a captain and he’ll lead from the front because he does. The boys all love him and we can’t wait for him to lead us out against Brisbane City.”
You’ve blooded a lot of promising young talent at Uni this year, are you excited to see how they handle the next level?
“Absolutely. We’ve got a team full of youth and it’s a great challenge for us to be able to harness them and take them to the next level. A lot of them are going to turn around and show us just how good they can be and how good they are potentially.”
James Dargaville, Henry Clunies-Ross and Jim Stewart have already been earmarked for bigger things but who else should we be keeping an eye on from the Stars?
“I like the look of a young bloke called Sam Quinn. I think we’ve got a couple of halfbacks in Jock Merriman and Jake Gordon who are way off reaching their potential but they’ve got a lot of it. Stu Dunbar, he impressed when he came into the semi-final against Southern District a couple of weeks ago and it’s going to be an interesting ride to see how he goes at the next level. We’ve got a couple of great front rowers in Tommy Robertson and Matt Sandell who are only kids and we’ve got a second rower, a young bloke by the name of Matt Phillip who’s been part of the Australian under 20s this year.”
Still only 27-years-old, Pat McCutcheon appears to have been on the Australian rugby scene for a lot longer. His wealth of playing experience has taken him from 1st Grade Premierships with his beloved Sydney Uni onto 31 games for the NSW Waratahs from loose forward and a Silver Medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games with the Aussie Sevens side. A natural leader, the former Uni and Waratahs club captain is at the helm of an exciting batch of greenhorns, all eager to show their wares at the next level. Given the frustrating lack of game time for his state this season, ‘Cutch’ is champing at the bit for some week-to-week football.
How exciting is it to be a part of a new competition and a founder member and captain of a new team?
“The idea and the concept of the new competition is fantastic. It obviously gives young players an opportunity to present themselves and I think it’s also a great opportunity for fans to get out there so they can watch rugby 24/7 throughout the year. I’m really excited to be a part of the inaugural Stars and to be a captain is obviously a huge honour. Because you’re setting the standards, setting the goals and creating the team songs, you’re making the traditions for the future so there’s a little bit more riding on it but it’s something I really looking forward to. Working with guys like Chris Malone and Pete Playford to develop it has been quite a fun process.”
What does the NRC offer Pat McCutcheon?
“This year with the Tahs I spent a lot of time on the bench, I didn’t play a lot of 80 minute games so I’m still stinging to play some footy. That’s the only way you can prove yourself so personally, I want to go out there and play week-in, week-out footy and showcase the skills that I’ve trained since October last year. You can only do so much training before you have to play and I’m frothing at the mouth to have an opportunity to do so.”
There have been some concerns over player burn-out with the addition of a new competition but for you, it’s a chance to get some footy in the legs?
“Exactly. You’re stuck in no-man’s land a bit, you’re not playing club football and you’re not playing for the Tahs, you’re sitting on the bench and filling a role. I can see the flip side of it, blokes that have been playing club football for 20-odd weeks straight and now they have a four or five day turnaround before they play in what is essentially a tougher competition but for myself, I just need to play.”
Thursday night matches, Sunday afternoon matches, state/interstate derbies every week, a whole host of new venues and some different laws to play under. It’s going to be a bit out of the box isn’t it?
“Definitely, it’s an exciting period in Australian rugby. Travelling is one of the greatest parts of our game, both nationally and internationally and this is ticking one of those boxes where we can go out and showcase our skills in other states. I look at some of the places we’ll be playing, we get to play at Leichhardt Oval, which is absolutely amazing, the Rays are playing at Brookvale, the Rams at Parramatta Stadium, some of the facilities are amazing. It’s a fantastic opportunity for rugby and for the players.”
Which of the law tweaks were you happiest to see adopted?
“I’m all about making sense so the lineout throw, if it’s not straight but not contested then play on, to me, that makes sense. I’d love to see that rule adopted in Super Rugby and go all the way to the IRB internationally.”
You’re still only 27-years-old but with the youthful nature of this Stars squad, you’re one of the older heads. Are you looking forward to taking up a leadership role with these young blokes and watching them grow into the next level of footy?
“Definitely. There’s a few guys that I’ve been fortunate enough to do a bit with at the Students this year – James Dargaville and Henry Clunies-Ross for example – I look at those two guys and they’ve burst onto the 1st grade scene this year and had a massive impact on the competition and finished as two of the leading try-scorers. They’re so young but at the same time, you don’t want to shield or shelter them, you’ve got to let them go a bit and hopefully give them good principles and a good work ethic to build from.”
A lot of people will be saying that the Stars are ‘just Sydney Uni’, under a different guise how do you create a point of difference to separate the two?
“We’re trying to make the Stars a different identity. It’s a mixture of professional players and semi-professional players who play in club land as well as guys from subbies rugby through Balmain. There’s some good quality product in there and we want to create a culture and an atmosphere that is enjoyable and I think Chris Malone and Peter Playford have had a massive emphasis on that. We’re not Balmain and we’re not Sydney Uni, we’re fostering our own culture as a new club and a new team – the Stars.”
How competitive do you think the Stars can be?
“It’s still early days and we don’t know what to expect but I suppose that has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that we have a good core group that have been playing together for 12 months, the disadvantage is we’ve got the least amount of contracted players of all the NRC squads. That’s not to say that the younger guys can’t step up to that mark but it’s just that experience that you can’t train.”
If you don’t win the comp, what do you want to be able to look back and say in 11 weeks time?
“That I enjoyed myself. That we created a team from scratch that went out there and was competitive and worked hard for one another. You build mateships with a whole bunch of guys that 12 weeks ago you wouldn’t know from a bar of soap, so to walk away and say ‘I’ve got 35 new best mates’ is something that’s really important to me. If we can enjoy each other’s company we’ll do well out on the paddock.”
Check out www.sydneystarsrugby.com.au/ for more info…