This Saturday sees the return of New South Wales’ premier club rugby competition with the Shute Shield kicking off at various venues in and around Sydney. With the delayed 2020 season culminating with the Grand Final on the 31st of October, the off-season has been a short one. There have been a number of playing and coaching changes but readers should expect a competition that is tighter than ever.
The biggest change since last season is the new broadcast deal with Stan which, in a massive boost for club rugby, will see all six games streamed live through Stan Sport each Saturday. A number of matches will also be shown live on free-to-air television although the exact details are yet to be confimed.
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Manly v Gordon at Manly Oval
Manly was probably never going to seriously challenge for the 2020 premiership. A horrific run of injuries in the opening rounds led to the mid-season acquisition of flyhalf Harley Attwater from local rivals Warringah, and the blooding of a number of young players. Coach Matt McGoldrick drew on homegrown talent with 11 of Manly’s starting 15 either local juniors or products of the Marlins’ Colts system. The highlight of the season was undoubtedly the 20-point demolition of Warringah in the Battle of the Beaches in round 8. Manly has managed to recruit former Western Force backrower Tevin Ferris and ex-West Harbour Club Captain and scrumhalf Dion Spice whilst retaining experienced players such as hooker James Hilterbrand and centre Denis Pili-Gaitau.
Gordon capped off a memorable 2020 season by breaking their 22-year premiership drought with a convincing win over Eastwood in last October’s grand final at Leichardt Oval. The Highlanders were the form team during the shortened season, losing only 1 game. The premiership win was the culmination of a remarkable turnaround for Gordon, who only 2 seasons prior, finished at the bottom of the table and suffered the indignity of losing 97-14 against their local rivals, Northern Suburbs. The 2021 Highlanders will be a different outfit to their 2020 counterparts, with key players Rodney Iona, Harrison Goddard, Mahe Vailanu, Charlie Abel and Jack Dempsey, as well as coach Darren Coleman, all moving on. Last year’s assistant coach (and an experienced head coach in his own right) Brian “Billy” Melrose”. Last year’s fullback Reece MacDonald will start at flyhalf while the Western Force’s Jacob Abel will wear the number 9 jersey.
Gordon showed enough class in their 1 point extra time loss to Easts (Brisbane) in the Australian Club Championship a fortnight ago to demonstrate that they will again be a serious premiership contender in 2021 and should be too strong for an improving Manly.
Prediction: Gordon by 10
Sydney University v Hunter Wildfires at Sydney University Football Ground
20 years ago the world watched in horror at the terrorist attacks on September 11, Australia celebrated 100 years since Federation, Prime Minister John Howard won a third term after the Liberal-National Coalition defeated the Kim Beazley led Labor Party, Alan “Alfie” Langer’s inspiring comeback helped Queensland to a 2-1 State of Origin series win, the Newcastle Knights defeated Parramatta in the NRL grand final while the Brisbane Lions won the first of 3 consecutive flags in the AFL. Meanwhile, in the Shute Shield, Sydney University broke a 29-year premiership drought when they overcame Eastwood 27-20 in the Shute Shield grand final, ushering in what has been a golden era for the Students. A further 10 premierships followed the 2001 triumph, including 6 in a row between 2005 and 2010. Dual premiership winning coach Rob Taylor has returned from the UK and will be assisted by Phil Blake, himself a former head coach at Manly as well as a defence/skills coach at the Wallabies and a rugby league star for numerous NRL clubs. The Students will be looking to improve on what was a disappointing end to their 2020 season when they were knocked out in the first week of the finals after losing to Northern Suburbs.
2020 was the Wildfires’ first season back in Shute Shield after a 20-year absence. Although the Wildfires managed only 2 wins and a draw, their physical and combative style of play meant that they were a handful for even the top teams, albeit for only 60 minutes rather than the full 80. Coach Scott “Bubba” Coleman is returning as coach and has recruited a number of players who are sure to make the mark at this level, including Western Force backrower Henry Stowers, Auckland scrumhalf and Tongan international Leon Fukofuka, Manuwatu number 8 Kirk Tufuga and former Fiji 7s star and Souths/GPS (Brisbane) winger Abele Atunaisa. If the Wildfires can combine plenty of home wins with the occasional upset on the road, then there’s a good chance that they will contest this year’s finals.
I expect the Wildfires to improve on last year’s performance but I can’t see them toppling the Students at Sydney Uni.
Prediction: Sydney University by 12
Eastern Suburbs v Southern Districts at Woollahra Oval
Eastern Suburbs looked set to qualify for their first grand final in 13 years and potentially break their 41-year premiership drought before back to back losses to Gordon and then Eastwood saw them bundled out of the finals in week 2. The Beasties have had an air of expectation around them for the past few years as the Woollahra faithful speculate as to whether or not this year will finally be “their year”. Coach Pauli Taumoepeau will be pleased with the addition of classy flyhalf Rohan Saifoloi from Brothers (Brisbane). Prior to his 2 seasons in Brisbane, Saifoloi led Southern Districts to 8 consecutive finals appearances. Saifoloi and Waratah Jack Grant will form what is likely to be one of the outstanding halves combinations in the competition. Another new recruit, former Western Force and ACT Brumbies flyhalf Nick Jooste, looks likely to start at 12 for the Beasties.
The young Southern Districts side would have qualified for the finals series last year had they not had a try disallowed in their final game against Warringah which would have given them a bonus point and seen them sneak into sixth spot ahead of Randwick. Wins against Eastwood and Sydney University proved that the Rebels had plenty of potential but injury and inconsistency were ongoing issues. There has been little player movement both in and out of Forshaw, with incoming Kiwi backrower Josh Bosker a notable exception. Finals will be on the radar but there will be plenty of teams battling it out for fifth and sixth spot, with the Rebels likely to be one of them.
Combinations might be an issue for the Beasties in the early rounds but they should have enough talent to put the Rebels away at home.
Prediction: Eastern Suburbs by 14
Penrith v Northern Suburbs at Nepean Rugby Park
Penrith’s first season back in the Shute Shield after dramatically removed from the competition mid-way through 2018 was another testing one. Penrith continue to face additional challenges that seem to be unique to those clubs based in western Sydney and the Emus in particular. Player recruitment and retention are ongoing issues that don’t look like disappearing anytime soon. Coach John Muggleton, in his second season in charge of the Emus, brings a wealth of experience and is desperate to see a large percentage of Penrith’s outstanding juniors progress to the grade ranks rather than being lured to other clubs or to rugby league. Junior Wallaby Emmanuel Maliko has joined the Emus from the Two Blues and is sure to make an impact. Former Wests Tiger Andy Fiagatusa will skipper the Emus.
Northern Suburbs had a disappointing end to their 2020 season, despite finishing the regular season in third place and then scoring a surprise win over Sydney University in week 1 of the finals. The Shoremen handed eventual premiers Gordon their only defeat of the season in their round 10 clash and a grand final replay against their local rivals looked imminent until their overtime loss to Eastwood in atrocious conditions in their semi-final. Last year’s assistant coach Zak Beer becomes the Shoremen’s third head coach in as many years. He inherits a side with a host of returning players from last season. Former West Harbour flyer and last year’s Shute Shield top try scorer James Turner will be a welcome addition on the wing.
Norths will again be one of the teams to watch and they should beat Penrith comfortably.
Prediction: Northern Suburbs by 40
West Harbour v Randwick at Drummoyne Oval
The Pirates return to picturesque Drummoyne Oval in 2021 as their spiritual home at Concord Oval undergoes continuing redevelopment. Last year, a horror draw saw the Pirates languishing near the bottom of the table early in the season but 3 wins and a draw from their last 4 games, as well as a strong performance against Gordon in round 7, proved that the Pirates were a team that deserved plenty of respect. Head coach Mark Gudmunson is returning for his second year in charge and will be supported by former Fijian international Campese Ma’afu and 10 test Wallaby flyhalf Stephen James. The Pirates have lost a number of key players from their backline but the forward pack has remained largely intact. The return of Carlo Tizzano from the Waratahs will be keenly anticipated.
2020 was Randwick’s best season in a number of years, going within a whisker of progressing to the semi-finals before losing to Gordon in the dying minutes of their week 1 finals clash. Last year’s team was bolstered by the return to club rugby of a number of Australian 7s representatives who will, unfortunately for the Galloping Greens, be unavailable this year. With a number of players also securing professional contracts with MLR and Super Rugby franchises, the Wicks will lean heavily on players such as Mitch Short and Ben Donaldson.
West Harbour will be a stern test for Randwick early in the season but if Randwick is to realise their ambition of again playing finals football, then this game is a must win.
Prediction: Randwick by 9
Eastwood v Western Sydney Two Blues at TG Milner Field
Last year’s runners-up Eastwood have been perennial finalists in the professional era and this season is likely to be no different. The Woodies have lost a number of last year’s star performers to Super Rugby, including Tane Edmed, Ed Craig, Tim Anstee and Mark Nawanqanitwaswe. Young Kiwi prop Lewis Ponini has been recruited from Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup and is one to watch. With this season potentially Eastwood’s last at TG Milner before the move to the Hills District, the Woodies and their supporters will be keen to make sure it’s a memorable one.
The Western Sydney Two Blues are keen to improve on their 2020 season where they managed only 1 win and finished above only the winless Penrith Emus. Player recruitment and fitness have been key areas of focus by returning head coach Joel Rivers. New faces include the Kiwi trio of scrumhalf Sam Babb, lock John Akau’ola Laula and backrower George Prain. A highlight for the Two Blues this year will undoubtedly be the much-anticipated return to Granville and the renamed Eric Tweedale Oval which is due to occur against Randwick in June.
Eastwood traditionally start the season slightly off the pace and build towards the finals but I still expect them to be too strong for the Two Blues.
Prediction: Eastwood by 28
2020 was a disappointing season by Warringah’s lofty standards, with the Rats missing the finals after being beaten grand finalists in 2018 and 2019. There is a generational change occurring at Rat Park with Josh Holmes, Sam Ward and Dave Feltscheer all hanging up the boots at the end of last season. Crowd favourite Mungo Mason also departed, joining a host of Shute Shield players in MLR. The Rats have recruited a number of players, including John Tuivati and Dean Bloare from Penrith. Former Manly-Warringah NRL player and coach Geoff Toovey is another new face at Narrabeen, joining the Rats as a skills coach.