The Wash-Up: Rd 14 – Sydney University v West Harbour
by Paul Cook – (click here for highlights)
Last weekend’s 44-0 demolition of Eastern Suburbs was a much needed shot in the arm for the Students as they looked to reignite their run to the finals having lost four of their previous six matches. Still missing Tom Carter, Liam Winton and Henry Clunies-Ross, they have been boosted by the return of Jim Stewart from injury while Tom Kingston prepared for only his second outing for Uni since the 2013 Grand Final.
West Harbour came into this clash off the back of a terrific win over Randwick that re-established their credentials as a finals contender. With Joe Barakat having established a solid foundation of work in a short period of time before heading off to join Ulster, the coaching baton has passed to Mark Gudmonson to steer this side into a top six finish, where performances have already shown they can be a match for anyone.
An exciting end-to-end first half saw the visitors strike the first blow through a Cohen Masson try before a double from no.8 Mitchell Whiteley gave the Students the lead. An intercept from Joel Brooks followed by a conversion and then a penalty from Dave Harvey brought scores level in the shadows of half-time but another five pointer from Greg Jeloudev edged Uni in front, 24-17, at the break.
A quickfire double for the home side upon resumption looked to have broken the Pirates’ resistance, Jeloudev in for a second and Jake Wainwright helping establish a 34-17 advantage. And when Wests’ replacement Jack Corry saw red for a lifting tackle in the 53rd minute, all hope of a fightback seemed lost. But this is a bloody minded Pirates outfit that refused to lay down and accept the inevitable, Masson bagging his second and Harvey doing what he does better than most to keep Uni in their sights at 34-24.
The last 10 minutes saw only 27 players on the pitch with Angus Roberts for Uni and Michael Ala’alatoa for Wests both sent to the bin and unsurprisingly, more tries followed. On a day where doubles seemed to be in vogue, Wainwright went over for his brace for the hosts, only for Brooks to match his effort with his second of the match to leave a healthy 41-31 final scoreline.
The conclusion was that while Uni’s forwards set a good platform and their attack was irresistible at times, they are still prone to errors which are keeping their opponents interested. Their inability to rack up a couple more tries and put Wests away with a man advantage in the closing quarter, lent a frustrating edge to what was still a six try bonus point win.
The defensive efforts of West Harbour cannot be discounted as a mitigating factor in that profligacy, particularly when facing the extra man. Having beaten Uni five weeks ago, they can still take plenty of encouragement in defeat after another performance that reflects their significant improvement in 2015.
That loss to West Harbour in round nine came off the back of arguably the Students finest effort of the season, a loss to Eastwood that had coach Chris Malone believing his side weren’t all that far off the reigning Premiers. Five weeks and three losses later, he was simply happy to come through this one unscathed.
“Considering we lost to them a few weeks ago it was nice to win,” he told Rugby News at the final whistle. “They’ve (Wests) vastly improved. They’ve got a lot more steel in them, they’ve got some quality footballers and they’ve done a good job out there. They’re capable of beating any other team on their day, so I walk away happy that we got the five points.”
While he saw plenty of positives from his young side, he was still frustrated by their ability to shoot themselves in the foot, a season long bugbear.
“If we’d controlled some possession we’d have probably won by a lot more but again we showed when we get it right we’ve got good stuff in us, we’ve just got to try and eliminate the bad stuff,” he said. “Before today, we were second on the defence ladder for the season behind Manly so, our defence isn’t a huge issue, our error rate is more of a concern because we’re just gifting teams field position. We’re just transferring pressure and our understanding of how to control that pressure and take your medicine, tuck it under your arm and start again, that’s the great frontier for us.
“We know that our best is good enough but it takes resilience, every action has got to be positive and that was the problem today, we had some great passages of play and some ordinary ones and we just kept them in the game. The nature of our close losses this year is that they’ve all come off the back of what we do to ourselves rather than to the opposition. We’ve got to overcome that and we’ve got four weeks to work on it.”
The view from the opposition sheds was one of disappointment in the result but understandable pride and positivity in the manner of performance.
“I was just saying to the boys in the changing room to make sure that they don’t walk out of the sheds with their heads down because defensive wise, to go down to 14 men with 30 to go and 13 men with 10 to go and to only lose by 10pts and to be honest, create opportunities to be in the game at the end, is a massive effort and something we’ve got to build on,” enthused Mark Gudmonson.
“This pitch isn’t the best and our legs were cooked so to keep getting up off the ground and making those efforts is what we’ve been building on this whole year. We had our opportunities to get back in that game and didn’t take them so full credit to Uni, they played well but I would imagine that their coach wouldn’t be too happy with their performance, particularly to not put us away when we were reduced to 13 men.”
“The boys dug deep out there and were good enough to get a bonus point, unfortunately, we couldn’t quite get another one,” observed Wests fullback Dave Harvey. “We were a bit disappointed with our first half, we probably could have stood up a little bit stronger in one-on-one tackles and there were a few easy misses in midfield, but the boys dug deep when we went down to 14 men and we actually put some points on them and it’s credit to the ticker that we showed and the fact that we stood up and fought it out when we could have folded. It shows that the club is moving forward in the right direction.”
Having missed the first 12 rounds of the season as he completed his comeback from a serious ankle injury, Harvey has had a ringside seat to the progress made by the Pirates under Joe Barakat, and now the continuation of that work under Gudmonson. He sees a bright future at Concord Oval if they can sustain their upward curve.
“I’ve watched as many games as I could get to and I ran the water for a couple and watched from the grandstand when I couldn’t run and the boys have looked good,” he said. “They’re well structured, Joe instilled a bit of competitiveness and game sense in them and ‘Guddo’ has just sort of picked up and carried on from what Joe did while trying to put his own little touches but not drastically change anything, which is working out pretty well.
“There’s so much potential here. The boys hit really hard and we’ve still got a lot of the attack that West Harbour has always had but we tend to be losing close games or games that we potentially should be winning. Of the six games that they’d lost before today they felt they could have won five of them. They were well beaten by Souths but in all the others they were in the game with 10-15 minutes to go and it’s just fine little tweaks that are needed to turn those losses into wins.”
Chris Malone still has high hopes for his young charges in what will now be his final season at the Varsity before he takes up the assistant coaching role at NSW Waratahs. He knows they have the talent, it’s a question of whether they can bring that talent to the table for 80 minutes, for the next seven weeks.
“The hard part for this team when we’ve got a bunch of young guys is just to believe in your game and believe in what you’re doing,” said Malone. “But as soon as you have a loss, people start to question what they’re doing and they want to look for answers, where the actual answer is usually just on the inside and if you put your own backyard in order, you’ll be alright.
“Bringing someone like Tom Kingston back in, who understands how the game works, makes a big difference and the boys get a lot of belief out of having him out there. Trying to find that balance between playing the footy that we’re capable of playing but also having that game management, that’s what we’ve got to work towards. There’s four games to go, we’re just trying to continue to build. If we can get good results in the next four weeks and sneak into the finals, we’ll see what happens.”
With the defeat leaving them nine points out of the finals spots with a month of the regular season remaining, Wests have plenty of work to do if they entertain a tilt at the big boys at the pointy end of the year. But right now, they’re not afraid of anyone.
“We’ve got Eastwood next week and that will be a challenge,” said Gudmonson. “Last time we played them it was one try all at TG Millner and it was only our penalties that gave them the opportunity to get to 20-7. The win over Uni a few weeks back just made us believers in our own philosophies and structures that we’ve been playing. The West Harbour of old has always been an also-ran and this group of guys actually believes that they should be in the finals so the next few weeks will tell whether we are or not.”
SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 41 (Mitchell Whiteley 2, Greg Jeloudev 2, Jake Wainwright 2 tries; Angus Roberts 3 cons, pen, Byron Hodge con) defeated WEST HARBOUR 31 (Cohen Masson 2, Joel Brooks 2 tries; Dave Harvey 4 cons, pen)