Old rivals join forces to survive - and thrive - in WA Premier Grade

· WA Premier
by Stu Walmsley

Regional rugby clubs are all too familiar with losing their best players to the big smoke, but an unlikely alliance south of Perth has created a rare case of reverse talent migration.

Mandurah Pirates and Rockingham have been staunch rivals for decades, but have pooled their senior playing resources in an effort to staunch the flow of junior talent from WA’s southern corridor to the bigger and better-resourced Perth clubs.

The merged entity, Coastal Cavaliers, begin their second Premier Grade campaign against University of WA at Perth’s McGillivray Oval today and expectation is for a vastly improved showing on a 2018 season where they only recorded two wins.

Veteran Western Force prop and Rockingham junior Kieran Longbottom presented first grade with their jerseys in a packed clubhouse after training on Thursday night, a far cry from this time last year when the club were scrambling to find the players to field three grades.

“We came for a meeting in December (2017) and didn’t have one person’s name on a piece of paper, so we had three months to put together a team to play in a prem competition, with three grades,” says Peter Halalilo, joint head coach in 2018 and an assistant this season. 

In the wake of the Western Force’s axing from Super Rugby in August 2017, Rugby WA announced in October that any club which could field three senior grades had the opportunity to enter Premier Rugby.

Both plying their trade in the second-tier championship competition at the time, Rockingham and Mandurah started an off-season recruitment drive in an effort to make the jump alone but, by the end of January, it became apparent neither club would quite have the numbers.

First-year presidents Ken Darvell (Rockingham) and Bevan Williams (Mandurah) began talks in February, prompted by Rugby WA CEO Bob Hunter, and both sides quickly saw the sense in a joint venture.

“Each club formed a sub committee and Rugby WA have been facilitating the meetings, but we’ve kept it three from each club so we’re not getting 100 different opinions, Williams says, “I have to say everything has been very amicable and the way both clubs have dealt with it - there’a been a really mature approach.”

With only seven weeks between the decision to merge and the start of the season, both committees faced a race against time to workshop hasty resolutions on a playing strip, splitting home games and subsequent loss of revenue.

“Initially we were of the opinion that we should run out in our home club jersey and, when we’re in Rocky, run out in their jersey, and when we’re away, we alternate,” Williams says. “But the logistics of that obviously weren’t great and, if we wanted the players to buy in, then you needed to be as one every week.”

“The players need to forge their own identity.”

“Junior players are also staying registered to their clubs,” Darvell adds. “We have a whole lot of juniors who will filter through to Cavaliers but, at the same time, we need to make sure that those players stay loyal to their club.

“A lot of the players from Rocky and Mandurah are quite attached to their clubs; to ask a player to come across is a big thing.”

Fast forward 12 months and the Cavaliers identity is building nicely. The players who hung tough through last year have been joined by an influx of fresh and returning talent, and there’s a feeling of genuine optimism about how the club is tracking on and off the field in 2019.

“I do think that a lot of players last year actually pulled back and didn’t come and play because the expectation was that it was going to fail,” says joint head coach Willie Van Dyk, who has coached at Rockingham and at nearby Kolbe Catholic College since 1998.

“But, it survived, and this is why we’ve got good numbers this year, because they saw it survived and there’s potential, it’s not going to change, and we can become a really strong club.”

When he debuted against the Chiefs in 2008, Longbottom (33) became the first born-and-raised West Australian to make the journey through the WA club system to Super Rugby.

Current Force teammate Tevin Ferris, who came off the bench in the club’s Showcase Spectacular fixture against the South China Tigers on Friday, was a Mandurah junior before picked up by Perth club Nedlands and a prime example of the type of player Cavaliers are hoping will now stay local.

“Those are the boys, 28, 29 and 30-year-olds, that should be running around now in first grade,” says Van Dyk, pointing to the 2007 under 16s premiership flag on the clubhouse wall, a team he also coached.

“Only two of them are still playing rugby, the rest we’ve all lost, and that was due to there not being prems.”

The area south of Perth is experiencing rapid growth, but population does not automatically mean players and the new housing developments and shiny shopping malls also mask some serious socio-economic problems. 

There are worryingly high rates of domestic violence and other crime and 2016 census data shows unemployment in Mandurah is twice the WA average.

Only around 10 per cent of adults in the region hold a tertiary degree, less than half the rate nationally, and around 20 per cent of those who are employed are technicians or trade workers, more than twice the WA average.

While that final statistic might not sound all bad, most are fly in, fly out (FIFO) workers elsewhere in the state, so aren’t actually employed in the area.

“It’s massive, we’ve probably lost 20 players to FIFO in the last month, some quality players have left us just at this stage,” says joint head coach Geoff McClelland.

“It’s because of the economic downturn around here - there’s not a lot of jobs around for the boys. They all want to stay, but they’ve all got families to support, so they have to fly.

“We’ll get them every second or third week for a weekend, but they won’t be able to train, so they won’t know the systems or the patterns.

“Obviously in the prems, we can’t have them in there, it doesn’t matter how good they are they’re going to have to play second grade.

“Hopefully they might back up for us (in premier grade), but we can’t have a situation where young guys are here training all the time, and another guy just flies in and takes his spot.”

The club also subsidises fees for FIFO players, due to their sporadic presence, but the continuity and cohesiveness gained through two positive pre-season trials has McClelland excited about the year ahead.

“There’s a great vibe in this group, and they’re becoming quite tight,” he says.

“If we can maintain that and probably add a little more experience around the edges, we just need a couple of key players, and we’ll be right up there.

“Hopefully the future’s bright for here because the outer suburbs is where all the growth is, and where all the junior strength is in rugby, not in the centre of Perth.

“All they do (the inner-city clubs) is pinch all the kids as they come up.”

McClelland, who started his coaching career with the Mandurah under 9s more than a decade ago, isn’t kidding when he talks of junior strength.

Rockingham won Rugby WA’s Club Championship Shield in 2018 and numbers are also strong at the Pirates but, in an area where many families are living on or below the poverty line, other football codes are encroaching on those hard-won gains.

“Rugby league has come in to Mandurah, and they subsidised their fees,” McClelland says. “They pay $130 and they get socks, shorts and a training jumper. We’re having to charge our kids $250, and you don’t get anything.

“On top of the insurance and everything else, it’s just too much for us, we need some assistance.

“Rugby Australia have to start putting more money back into the community rugby.”

The lack of a fat chequebook at Cavs mean they have no choice but to rely on local talent, but the whole coaching group also understands the crucial social benefit of maintaining a community focus.

“Willie, Peter and myself have been in that under 16s to colts area for a long time, and you couldn’t count on your hands how many kids that we’ve probably kept out of gaol and out of trouble,” McClelland says.

“I know it’s probably not politically correct (to say) these days, but young men have got testosterone flowing through their bodies, and some kids are just naturally aggressive.

“We try to put it out there (on the field), and then you don’t do it in the other areas. Hopefully that teaches a lesson to the player for when he’s out on the street.”

Rugby WA will review the entry criteria for Premier Rugby after the 2020 season, and both Rockingham, who haven’t played in the top flight since 2014, and Mandurah, who have never been out of the championship, aren’t ruling out going it alone in the future.

“Potentially if Rocky or Mandurah has an influx of players next year they could pull away and say; ‘thanks very much for your help last year, but this year we’ll do it on our own’,” says Williams.

“If we relax now and think; ‘now we have Coastal Cavaliers, that’s our job done’, we won’t be doing either club a service. We have to push ahead and keep recruiting, if not for the good of our clubs, for the good of the Coastal Cavaliers because we don’t just want to survive, we want to become competitive as well.

“But what we’ve done now is entirely for the good of the game, neither club is making any money out of it or securing their own future; it’s about securing the future of rugby in our region.”

Rockingham veteran Robert Watson, a 31-year-old operator at Alcoa Pinjarra Alumina Refinery, started at in the club’s under 8s and believes there’s also benefits in the joint venture for the thirsty thirds.

“We had to have so many teams (in the past), there were so many games, you were continually backing up,” says the 31-year-old. 

“Last time in prem grade I remember playing four games, not four full games, but backing up for all four.”

“I’m looking forward to only playing one game on Saturdays this year, and watching the rest from the stands.”