Undermanned Emus Back To Square One
by Paul Cook –
Teki Tuipulotu knew he was taking on a difficult challenge when he walked back through the gates at Nepean Rugby Park two and a half years ago to take charge at Penrith.
The Tongan World Cup star was returning to his former side to give something back to a club and a community that is very close to his heart. He didn’t just want to return the Emus to a viable position of sustainability, he had longer term visions of taking them back towards the finals football they so nearly achieved under Scott Johnson back in 1999.
A predictably tough first year at the helm saw zero wins but plenty of ticker, but an influx of talented ‘leaguies’ in the 2014 pre-season paid dividends as Penrith went on to play some of the best footy seen at the foot of the mountains in many a year. They averaged 26pts a game to earn two precious wins that could/should have been six or seven but still left a solid platform from which to build on this season.
However, attracting a group of talented young footy players to a struggling team is one thing, keeping them there, particularly after a few of them truly shone and put themselves in the shop window, was another. In a scenario that has a different angle depending on which party you talk to, those players have moved on, five of them to a Shute Shield rival, leaving Teki and the Emus stretching their limited talent pool far too thinly across all four grades.
The effect has been palpable. Heading into round five this weekend, Penrith sit bottom of the ladder with 0pts from zero wins and with zero bonus points. Their for and against tallies make for difficult reading – three tries and a total of 17pts at the right end, the concession of 272pts at the other.
“We’re stuck in a rut at the moment but until I find a quick fix, we’ve just got to keep on plodding away,” Teki told Rugby News when we caught up with him earlier this week. “We lost a lot of players in the off-season, 1st Grade at the moment has only three players who have come up from 2nd Grade and the rest are new blokes, rugby players we picked up from the country, Newcastle and from other clubs. I’ve got a few guys that haven’t played for a couple of seasons but were 1st Graders before but generally, we’re just missing that experience and know-how.
“The big problem at the moment is our set-piece and our basics. If we can’t do the basics, we can’t compete and a lot of that comes down to the accountability of the players. They’ve got to realise that this is Shute Shield, there’s no Subbies, we’re not playing in the backyard,” he continues. “This is 1st Grade Shute Shield rugby and it’s a good brand of rugby. Unfortunately, the players are not grasping what it is all about just yet.”
The million dollar question of course is, how on earth does he change it? It’s no secret that Penrith are not exactly rolling around in gold tinted hay right now, and if financial incentives aren’t on the agenda, simply winning the hearts and minds of prospective – and talented – players is made even harder by their current situation. Who wants to join a team that is shipping 68pts a game?
“How do I attract players? It’s a very good question and one I’m still trying to answer myself,” Teki concedes. “I’m looking at probably another six or seven guys because at the moment I’ve got a young, inexperienced team. I don’t have a few older heads to lead the boys around.
“If we can get good quality in from somewhere, it shows on the field and it filters down to the rest of the team. Actions speak louder than words, guys look at that, see the scoreboard change and then you can attract more players but at the moment, it’s hard to attract anyone. The simple answer is ‘Money talks, bushie walks’ to be honest but that’s something I need to discuss with the board.”
Travelling down that path again however, does bring with it an element of risk. Is he not wary of a repeat of this year’s mass exodus?
“I’m always wary of that and that’s why, when you do look at bringing quality players in, we’ve got to tie them down for two years, not just one,” he explains. “If you can sustain their input and that improvement for 24 months instead of 12, then you can build some consistency. Last year, I did attract mercenaries who only used the club for one year. I can’t afford for that to happen again, we’ve got to look at a 24 month plan.”
There is perhaps some light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of their lower grades and colts who, while not exactly blazing a trial in their relative competitions, are still proving to be far more competitive than their peers further up the food chain. Second, third and fourth grade can boast only two bonus point losses between them but the points differentials are incrementally more positive than the top side – 2nds (41-346), 3rds (45-248) and 4ths (37-159).
It’s not that long ago that colts could only field one side so simply fielding two a week is a fantastic boost. It was a full complement but while 1’s did start the season, they have been forced to call it a day after one too many lop-sided scorelines. However, 2’s and 3’s have mustered a draw (against Manly) and five points from their combined eight games – all against sides with traditionally stronger powerbases.
Looking from the outside then, it appears that the base of Penrith’s pyramid is showing small signs of growth while the apex – 1st and 2nd grade – are still struggling. With a burgeoning program run by Colts Director of Rugby, John Lomax, the club appear to be on the right track in terms of attracting young local talent and providing a potential pathway. The key now is to keep them at the club for the next three or four years so that grade can benefit in the long run.
“It’s about putting the right people in the right places,” Teki observes. “We do have the right people in grade, it’s just that grade is a different kettle of fish to colts. You’ve got guys coming straight out of school and John [Lomax], has a good brand so the juniors coming through to colts now, it’s not too bad. You’ve got to put them in an academy program or give them some kind of incentive, whether that’s a scholarship or something through UWS, to keep these guys here for the next three or four years.
“It is a long term process but at the same time, we’ve got to look at the short term as well. The progression is there at the base but at the end of the day, the pinnacle of it all is 1st Grade, everyone knows that. If we can get that right then it will flow down and that’s how you build culture.”
While results thus far paint a pretty dark picture, an unfavourable draw certainly hasn’t helped. Given their resources and playing roster, they were always likely to face an uphill task, but kicking off the season against three of the current top four (Manly, Souths and Norths) plus perennial heavyweights Sydney Uni, hasn’t given the new bloods any time to settle or build any confidence.
Getting spanked by 60pts every week is no fun and it would have been interesting to see how our conversation would have panned out had Penrith faced the four teams immediately above them as the table stands – Parramatta, West Harbour, Gordon and Warringah instead. There is every chance that they would still be winless but racking up a few more points and the feeling of being in a contest, would have been a great boost to a struggling young side. Teki agrees but remains pragmatic.
“The mind is a funny thing. If the guys had played the bottom half of the table in the first few rounds, it would have made a hell of a difference,” he says. “I’m not going to say we would have won them but I’d like to think we’d have been a whole lot closer and if you’re losing 30-20 and you’re in the game, it’s a lot better than 66-5. Guys get confidence off that.
“Unfortunately, we got paired with the top teams and when the boys look up, and they’re being smashed by 60-70pts, it doesn’t help but as I said, we can only deal with what we’ve been presented with. I’m not one to shirk away from responsibility or the way it happens, if you want to compete at Shute Shield level, we’ve just got to compete with what we’ve got.”
It doesn’t get any easier as the Emus host an improving Randwick tomorrow and reigning Premiers Eastwood next weekend. Without a sudden injection of players from somewhere, you do fear for their chances for the rest of the season. But while the current state of affairs must be chewing the head coach up on the inside and make him wonder if its all worth it, the fierce competitor in him won’t allow it to show too much on the surface. He’s not going anywhere.
“I didn’t say I was going to be here for the short term, I’m here for the long run and I’m going to make sure that when I do leave, the place will be in better shape,” Teki concludes. “As a coach, I’ve got to keep positive, I’ve got to plod away and hopefully, there is a breakthrough somewhere. I’ve got to find a way to get these players back on track.”
For the sake of Teki, his players, rugby out West and the credibility of the competition, Rugby News hopes he gets the chance to one day make good on his mission statement.