6 years ago


11 February 2018 Sunday, 11 February 2018 22:21

The ground is surrounded by apartments, flats, structures of all types, vintages and standards. It is congested, a bit of a hodgepodge, with everything seemingly on top of each other.

The main grandstand is inhabited by the visitors, as the view of the ground is well short of perfect. You're on a strange angle to the ground. The locals know better, either standing on the concrete terraces or braving haemorrhoids by sitting all day on the hard, metal sideline benches.

Here settle some of the most caustic rugby supporters in the world, who take delight in demeaning opponents, keeping referees in check, and even turn on their own players if they don't perform up to the required standard.

One of the ground's most noticeable symbols is actually outside the field, across the street. On the top of one tenement block behind the southern goalposts, a balcony has been proclaimed the Mark Ella Stand. It has been like that for more than 30 years. It was even repainted a few years ago.

Picturesque? There's better, there's worse, even if the ground has ocean views heading out towards New Zealand.

In spite of the comforting sea breeze, you never really feel completely relaxed at Coogee Oval, the home of the Randwick Galloping Greens, Australian rugby's most serious nursery and sticklers for everything that is good about running rugby.

The club's inhabitants are a bit like the surrounds. Pretty ruddy. Pretty weather beaten. Pretty straight up and down. They say what they think. Salty dog characters.

Unlike some other Sydney clubs, there's no airs and graces down here. This is not the landed gentry section of the Eastern Suburbs -- hardly Rose Bay or Vaucluse, more where the workers and grifters assemble along the congested coastline, amid the fast food outlets and pubs.

Coogee Oval, in particular its dressing rooms, has for years been fairly rudimentary. But it works. It's like their long-time training facilities up the coast towards La Perouse at Latham Park. Again no majestic scene. Just basic training grounds. The required facilities to drop your bag in, and get prepared for a few hour's brutality. This is a place for work, not lairising around. As is Coogee.

And for many decades, some pretty handy workers have emerged from these low-key surrounds -- including more than a hundred Wallabies representatives and numerous Australian Test captains, including Cyril Towers, Col Windon, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, Ken Catchpole, Peter Johnson, Mark Ella, Simon Poidevin and Phil Kearns.

It has also produced its fair share of reputable coaches, including the two currently stirring each other up over the Cook Cup -- Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and his England counterpart, Eddie Jones.

For both, Randwick was their finishing school where they were drilled in the philosophy of expressive ball-in-hand football at a venue described by another member of Galloping Green royalty -- Bob Dwyer -- as the "most sacred setting in club rugby".

Randwick locals know the grandstand is not the best place from which to watch the action at Coogee Oval. Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Countless visiting teams describe Coogee in far more derogatory terms, as it can be a mean, nasty arena, especially when Randwick are in one of those horribly selfish moods -- which is often. The visitors have to run through the Randwick masses to get onto the field from the grandstand, and that can be a rough trip, especially if the Wicks sledgers are in full cry. It is often gutter stuff.

Also the hospitality can be in short supply. Randwick are renowned for being miserable losers, and only just acceptable winners. For a long time, they had a terrible reputation for not attending after-match functions at other clubs, usually heading straight home not long after the final whistle, victory or no victory.

For decades, they were regarded as one of the most frugal of clubs. Even when other teams like Warringah began paying first-grade players, Randwick stood firm by their amateur roots -- their many stars overwhelmed if they received anything more than a club beach towel at the end of a premiership-winning season. Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen.

Jones and Cheika grew up in that tight environment, learned from it, relished it, and even now, due to that intense Randwick experience, never take anything for granted.

Randwick will have it no other way, as this no-frills approach has worked for decades.

The club's aim has always been to destabilise the opponents, which has been so effective in them winning countless Sydney club championships and 28 first-grade premierships, including six in a row between 1987 and 1992 and five between 1978 and 1982.

While Randwick has long been regarded as the most important club in Australian rugby, it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that it established its proper identity.

The club's origins were low-key, playing originally on a small oval overlooking Randwick racecourse with a dingy weatherboard shed as its changing room. If they wanted to practise at night, they had to rely on the lights of nearby shops to see anything. Their myrtle green colours came from the destination boards on the trams which used to pass on their way to and from the city and Coogee. In the 1920s, enticed by better facilities, they followed the tram and made their new home near the beach at Coogee Oval.

A crucial point in the club's development came when one of their players -- Wally Meagher -- was selected to tour New Zealand with New South Wales in 1923. He was intrigued by the numerous New Zealand teams who opted against standing deep in attack, but instead formed themselves in a straight line across the field. The Kiwi sides' preference was to run straight, directly at their opponents, rather than drifting across field.

Meagher, who had also been convinced at Waverley College under Arthur Hennessey of the benefits of a run-don't-kick style of play, was soon preaching that attacking philosophy at Randwick. He had an invaluable ally in Cyril Towers, who with Meagher knew at international level -- especially through their experience with the 1927-28 Waratahs on their tour of Britain, France and North America -- how crucial it was to believe in attacking from any spot on the field, and that everyone had to be supremely fit to take best advantage of that belief. Players also had to constantly back each other up, believing in their own attacking skills.

Pushing this doctrine was one of Australian sport's most intriguing characters, Harald Baker, who coached Randwick for numerous years, encouraging Meagher and co to stretch the attacking boundaries, and with it win their first Shute Shield title in 1930.

The brother of Australia's most versatile sportsman -- Snowy Baker -- Harald was an Australian boxing, wrestling and swimming champion, an Australian water polo champion, and a renowned surfer. He also refereed some of the most notorious boxing fights at the Sydney Stadium. His rugby expertise came from representing both NSW and Australia just before the World War I.

During that time, Randwick were known as 'the Flying Greens', with the tag reverting to 'the Galloping Greens' some decades later.

The club's intense commitment to winning games via running the ball may have also had something to do with the Coogee beach culture. Numerous Randwick players hailed from the local surf club, and a number were reputable beach sprinters who discovered that kicking a football was a waste of time on the sand. It went nowhere. Just leave the ball in your hands, and see what you can do by pumping those legs.

Randwick also did not believe in inhibitions, and they were forever adventurous. That included the belief in pushing a youngster -- no matter what age -- into the big time if they were ready. Shehadie made his first-grade debut when just 15.

Professor Max Howell, a member of the 1947-48 Wallabies, tellingly explained how the Randwick standards were drummed into each new player -- no matter how young or old.

In his autobiography, "Laughing My Way To Oblivion", Howell explained how as a teenager he played in a trial match for Randwick and at training a few days later was waiting to hear what grade he would play in for the opening round.

Meagher, who coached Randwick for several decades, was about to announce the teams, when he said: "There was one player last Saturday who did everything to the contrary to the philosophy of this rugby club and that player is in front of me now -- Howell!!!

"You Howell had a 'go' on your own every time you got the ball. The purpose of a centre at the Randwick club, contrary to what you obviously believe, is to make openings and move the ball. You are judged as being successful not if you score, but if the winger does. That is the Randwick way, son, and you'd better soon learn it."

From then on, Howell was "a complete advocate of the Randwick philosophy of moving the ball about and selfless distribution". And whenever Meagher had the chance, he would tell his players and newspaper reporters that Randwick players were drilled to "handle and do not kick ... unless it is the fullback in his own 25."

This belief was central for decades, but gradually by the late 1960s Randwick had drifted away from that philosophy to play a more conservative brand where the backs stood deeper.

It took Bob Dwyer, with the prompting of Towers, to bring Randwick back to their attacking roots in the 1970s and 80s. It also needed the Ella brothers -- Mark, Glen and Gary -- to turn it into a magical and highly successful brand.

It still took some convincing by Towers before Dwyer saw the light. As Dwyer wrote in 'The Winning Way', Tower's stern argument over how Randwick should change its way sounded like "the ramblings of an old footballer, and as captain of the reserve-grade side I sometimes had quite heated arguments with him about it when he was assigned to coach us".

"On one occasion, Cyril stormed off saying that for as long as he lived he would never again coach a team in which Bob Dwyer was a player."

Dwyer kept querying Towers about his theories, and in 1975 realised "his concept of backline play was right".

"As soon as I accepted that fact it opened up a different world of analysis for me. At once there was a new scope for moving and manipulating opposition defences.

"[Towers] had supreme faith in a backline policy that, rather than lining deep to make room, required our backs to play close to the opposing defence -- the famous flat-line attack.

"Lining up flatter means the backs have less distance to cover to get in front of the advantage line. It also means that they put the defence under pressure, because the defenders do not have time to draw a bead on them."

By playing close to the opposition you commit their defenders, and can manipulate them "as if they were puppets on a string".

At the same time, the Ella brothers at Matraville High School had as their rugby coach Geoff Mould, another to be tutored by Towers. Matraville and the Ellas became renowned in Sydney schoolboy circles for playing the most extravagant brand of football, which revolved around a flat attack and an enthusiasm to pursue tries even when they were on their own line. The Ellas encouraged all those around them to run, run, run, and constantly back each other up.

It all came together when Dwyer lured the Ellas to Coogee after they had been involved in the ground-breaking 1977-78 Australian Schoolboys tour of Great Britain.

Dwyer and Randwick Wallabies representative Gary Pearse headed to the Ella household in La Perouse, discovering on their front verandah ten pairs of football boots.

The pair discussed with Mark and Gary whether they would play grade or colts at Randwick. When one of the brothers said he "couldn't give a damn whether I played colts or grade", their mother exclaimed: "Don't you dare use that language in this home, thank you."

Dwyer said it would be wiser if they went straight into grade.

The two brothers agreed, calling out to the third brother, who was reading a book in his bedroom: "Hey, Glen. We're playing grade." Glen replied: "Okay."

The Ellas quickly fine-tuned the Randwick style. They brought variation. It was more attuned to all-out attack, and not endless passing of the ball from one sideline to the another until the defence gave out. The trio made certain they dominated possession, with so many others playing off them. With it came success after success, and some of the most extraordinary football ever seen in the Sydney club scene.

And through this long Randwick domination, they drove numerous opposing coaches to the nuthouse -- in particular the late, great Dave Brockhoff when he was in charge of Sydney University. Brockhoff would go a different colour when confronting the Galloping Greens, and try every motivational trick to try to beat them in their own domain.

The best occurred on Anzac Day, several decades ago. Unbeknown to his players, Brock had arranged for their dressing room door at Coogee to be loosened on its hinges. Brock was in a lather.

"This is Anzac Day, men, we are playing Randwick, the outright enemies. This is Turkey for us. If it was good enough for the boys at Gallipoli, it's good enough for us, and today, fellows... WE DO BATTLE."

Then Brock strode towards the door, ripped it off the hinges and slammed it onto the concrete floor. He then screamed: "Follow me out; over the top," leading the players out onto the field. Uni won 18-17.

Another time, Brockhoff climbed into one of the trees at Sydney University Oval and madly shook it in the hope of distracting the Randwick goal kicker. He didn't. The kicker was more surprised by a tall figure crashing out of the tree after his shot went through the sticks. Randwick does that to people.

While the flash of the Randwick backs, which has also boasted the likes of Russell Fairfax and David Campese, has over the decades generated the headlines, the club knew that as crucial to their plan was to have a formidable pack to give them enough possession to be attacking masterminds.

They kept producing hard-nose forwards and special characters, such as Jeff Sayle.

Sayle, a 1967 Wallabies player, has basically devoted his life to Randwick. He has filled nearly every position at the club, played in virtually every grade, and then was secretary-manager of the licensed club for an eternity.

His motivational approach was unusual. When Fairfax joined Randwick in 1970 with an illustrious Australian Schoolboys career behind him, Sayle wanted to make sure his teenage teammate was in the right frame of mind for the finals series. He asked Fairfax to come around to his place before they headed off to the game.

"When I arrived at the door, all I could hear was marching music blaring inside," Fairfax says. "I bashed on the door for around 10 minutes, but there was no answer because of all the racket.

"I was about to leave, when the door suddenly opened and there was the magnificent sight of Sayley standing there just in his underpants, holding a middy glass full of port.

"For the next hour and a half we marched around and around his living room, prancing to the Welsh marching music while loading ourselves up on port. It worked. Sayley played a blinder, and I went okay."

The fortified wine recommendation, according to Sayle, came from Wally Meagher, who told him a great way to help increase his saliva was to gargle a mouthful of sherry before every game. Ever the attentive student, Sayle followed Meagher's advice, advancing the theory to a middy of sherry before each game, with port and muscat alternatives.

In tribute to Sayle's legendary drinking bouts, in recent years Randwick have been offering at their home games a special new brew -- the Sayle Ale.

Sayle was there in his customary position behind the goal sticks for one of the club's most special days -- when Randwick took on the All Blacks at Coogee Oval in 1988. A recognition for Randwick's high standing in the international rugby arena, as the All Blacks are not renowned for playing against suburban club sides, this match was a wild, whirlwind affair.

The media bench was right on the sideline, and came close to being toppled several times when Buck Shelford and Simon Poidevin were just metres away involved in a long running battle.

That day Cheika played No 8 for the Wicks. The Randwick hooker was Jones. Both were after enormous scalps. They just missed out, but the urge remains.

Thus no surprises considering their deep links with the Galloping Greens that Jones and Cheika are so street-wise. Randwick Rugby demands that. It has never been a haven for softies or the naive.

As the pair well know, if you want to survive around Coogee you need a tough hide, a tongue to match and a rigid belief that success your way is the only way. It is also no frailty to be arrogant.

Jones and Cheika have all that in abundance. Randwick taught them well.

21 Jun, 2016
Greg Growden
ESPN Rugby