Shute Shield ready for lift-off as clubs circle for Suaalii’s services

Sydney Rugby Union hosted its Shute Shield launch this week at NSW Rugby headquarters before Saturday’s opening round.

While most of the talk revolved around a fascinating season, there was one other topic on a number of people’s minds.

While it’s highly unlikely Suaalii will play club rugby, as is the way in the modern game, officials are fascinated to see where he ends up, given his Penrith roots and connection to western Sydney.

When Israel Folau came to rugby in 2013, his official club was Sydney University. The Waratahs and Wallabies fullback never played a game for the Students.

Suaalii’s manager, Isaac Moses, did respond to the Herald’s enquiry on a choice of club team, but there is plenty of chat about whether the Roosters star will pick a club out west or one closer to the coast.

Joseph Suaalii will switch from the NRL to Australian rugby.Credit:Getty Images

“I have a view [but] I don’t have control,” Waratahs coach Darren Coleman said. “He is a drawcard and he’s a western Sydney boy. Rugby needs promotion and help in western Sydney. It makes sense he goes to a western Sydney club.”

The Two Blues would have Suaalii in a heartbeat, but Eastwood will be tussling for the youngster’s services given he once played state champs for the Woodies.

“He went to the King’s School, so that is technically our catchment,” Eastwood coach and former Waratah Ben Batger said. “We would love to get him at the club. I don’t know how much he would play for us. We certainly wouldn’t say no.”

Could Sydney University come knocking? Their skipper Jack McCalman, who coached Suaalii at school, joked they might indeed.

“If he’s wanting a cheeky master’s degree for his post-rugby career, Sydney Uni is the club for him,” McCalman said. “I’m a King’s boy myself, so I’m happy to see him come back to rugby.

Shute Shield captains at this week’s season launch at NSW Rugby headquarters.Credit:Karen Watson

“Every Waratahs outside back is at Randwick, so I’m sure he could pick someone other than Randwick.”

How about it, Randwick?

“Jack has a point,” Randwick general manager Mark Harrison said. “We certainly develop backs pretty well at Coogee. The reality is that the elite professional players rarely play for their Shute Shield clubs these days, but we would be happy to have Joseph in myrtle green.

“However, it’s more likely RA would steer him out west for development purposes. Then again, he might go to Beasts [Eastern Suburbs] with all the other top tax-bracket folks [laughs].”

Ultimately, that’s a topic for another day, as 12 hungry teams battle it out for Shute Shield supremacy in what is tipped to be another incredibly tight season.

Sydney University have bragging rights after their 26-19 victory over Gordon in last year’s final.

Northern Suburbs are out for revenge though, after finishing the season as minor premiers.

The Herald spoke to representatives from all 12 clubs about their chances, players to watch and which teams will be there at the business end of the year when the grand final takes place on August 26 at Leichhardt Oval.

Round one Shute Shield matches (Saturday April 1)

  • Eastern Suburbs vs Eastwood at Woollahra Oval
  • Southern Districts vs Gordon at Forshaw Rugby Park
  • West Harbour vs Western Sydney Two Blues at Concord Oval
  • Hunter Wildfires vs Manly at Newcastle 
  • Sydney University vs Northern Suburbs at Sydney Uni
  • Warringah vs Randwick at Pittwater Rugby Park

Eastern Suburbs (7th last season)

Head coach Simon Kneebone: “As a whole club we had a successful year last season and as a coach I have a responsibility to drive the young blokes through the club and into first grade, so that’s something we are working really hard on. We need a team that can compete on the pitch physically.”

Goals for the year: “We are very focused on making the finals and it has been a while between drinks for us as far as a grand final.”

Players to watch: “Jack Bowen is an outstanding player and Teddy Wilson is coming back.”

Rivals to watch: “Anyone who turns up, based on last year. I am hearing good things about Randwick and Sydney Uni are a contender, as usual.”

Eastwood (5th last season)

Head coach Ben Batger: “In the off-season we wanted to get our set-piece strong, especially around the maul. Our defence as well. That’s what wins premierships.”

Goals for the year: “We’re aiming for a grand final. Once we get there it’s anyone’s game. We haven’t won one in a while.”

Players to watch: “We’ve got two big second-rowers. A young kid called Aidan King who is 22 from the Central Coast and Fritz Jahnke-Tavana, he’s in the NSW system and he’s come to us this year. He’s only 19 years old, so colts eligible, but he’s going to make his first-grade debut.”

Rivals to watch: “I think there is a bit of a buzz around Easts and Norths.”

Gordon hooker Mahe Vailanu trucking the ball up in a qualifying final win over Norths in 2022.Credit:Karen Watson

Gordon (Runners-up last season)

Captain James Lough: “There’s been a big focus on executing and getting our shape ready to go. We’ve got a good mix of older heads and young boys.”

Goals: “We’ve got a clear statement that we’ve set … we’re here to stay. We’re not here to muck around. We don’t want to be up and down.”

Players to watch: “I think our fullback Benny Pollack. I think he’s going to have an absolute blinder of a year. He’s really stood up and matured this year.”

Rivals to watch: “Parramatta seems to be coming through and making a lot of noise, which will be very interesting. They’ve won a few sevens tournaments. Uni is always going to be good and Northern Suburbs is always a big one on the calendar.”

Hunter Wildfires (9th last season)

Captain Rob Puliuvea: “Pre-season has been lot better than last year. We want consistency in effort and execution and just building on our culture.”

Goals: “We have great expectations to be there at the pointy end. We think we have the cattle to do it. We’re not just going out to compete.”

Players to watch: “Tom Watson is one of our centres who can play wing. He’s flown under the radar. He’s a strike weapon out the back. [No.10] Connor Winchester is also in for a big year.”

Rivals to watch: “I’d put the house on us to be close. I’d like to see us play Two Blues or West Harbour [all things going well].”

Manly (3rd last season)

Captain Hunter Ward: “Pre-season has definitely been about getting a lot more powerful and getting some speed on the ball. We’re a young pack and a new team and probably a younger club.”

Yool Yool is back in action for Manly. Credit:Janie Barrett

Goals: “There hasn’t been too many benchmarks, it’s about improving where we went wrong last year. We went 10 straight wins and then eight losses. It’s still in the back of our minds to really improve on where we went wrong.”

Players to watch: “Yool Yool is coming back. He didn’t play too much first-grade footy for us last year because he’s in and out of the Aussie sevens but he’s back with the Marlins. He’s been back in the gym and training hard.”

Rivals to watch: “You just never know. It was such a mix of scores through the year. We’ve got to aim to be in the top four. You need that second shot up your sleeve.”

Northern Suburbs (1st last year, missed grand final)

Head coach Zak Beer: “We’ve been focusing on building depth and adding layers to the way we play both sides of the ball. It’s getting breadth in our leadership, too. It’s been a solid summer.”

Goals: “Last year we were disappointed with the way the season finished. The consistency of the year was pleasing. We don’t carry any of that momentum into this year.”

Rivals to watch: “Sydney Uni find a way to produce first-graders within their system. I think they’ll be one to watch.”

Players to watch: “Boston Kerapa, our blindside flanker, is 21 and from up the coast but is six-foot-six and 110kg. He was shortlisted for the rookie of the year last season. He’s gone to another level. Jude Gibbs at No.10 from Sydney Uni. His maturity … will hopefully showcase his skills this year.”

Randwick (4th last year)

Randwick player Ben Houston: “Randwick also has this mentality of attacking rugby, and last year we definitely showed that, but we can’t score 40 points and leak 30. A big focus has been on defence. We want to keep that attacking flair too.”

Goals: “We are coming into this season definitely thinking we’re going to win it. We’re going to drive all that we can to definitely win it and finally get a premiership for the first time since 2004. We’re all guns blazing until we get there.”

Players to watch: “Jayden Blake. He’s a colts boy coming through. He had a pre-season here at the Tahs, so he’s put in a bit of size. Gage Phillips. He’s a little fella but has a go.”

Rivals to watch: “Norths look pretty strong. They always compete well. They’ve got a good system going on down there. They always finish top three.”

Southern Districts (Last place in 2022)

Head coach Jayson Brewer: “Our main focus is getting more connected as a playing group. We’ve had different system changes on and off the field in how we want to play the game. We drew a line in the sand from last year.”

Goals: “We’ve set some internal goals.”

Players to watch: “Jackson Ropata. He’s come from our colts and is training for the Waratahs as well. He’s in the Junior Wallabies. He’s an exciting outside-centre and outside back.”

Rivals to watch: “Norths and Sydney Uni, as usual. Randwick look good too.”

Sydney University (champions last season)

Captain Jack McCalman: “Cohesion has been a big one [in the off-season]. It’s about trying to get time in the saddle.”

Goals: “I wouldn’t say it’s about saying we have to finish first or have to make the top six. It’s more around our behaviours and characters and wanting to build a team that is wanting to build really hard during the week. Results come off the back of it. Our goal, written on the wall, is to win the Shute Shield and the Club Championships. That’s a given.”

2022 Shute Shield premiers Sydney University.Credit:Karen Watson

Players to watch: “Tas Smith, Max von Appen, Ed Scragg. They’re guys who have been around the traps in colts who are now getting an opportunity to play first grade.”

Rivals to watch: “I think Norths and Manly will really have a bee in their bonnet. Manly had such a strong year and fell away. Norths were minor premiers but I like Randwick. I feel like there’s an Eddie Jones flavour, back as the Wallabies coach, Steve Hoiles back from the Giltinis. When they get the Tahs guys back, they’ll be very strong.”

Warringah (6th place last season)

Captain Charlie McKill: “We’ve taken [pre-season] back to our roots … where the Rats come from to where we’re made up of.”

Goals: “Every team wants to win the Shute Shield – and that’s our goal – but we want to be consistent performers each week. It’s making our home ground a real fortress.”

Players to watch: “Witika Rees-Hatu at No.10. He’s an impressive young player who has come through our colts system. Dean Blore has also really impressed. He came out of the Penrith Panthers system. He’s hitting his strides now.”

Rivals to watch: “I think Norths are consistent performers and they know what it takes. I think one of the Western Sydney teams will be in the mix.”

West Harbour (11th last season)

Coach Cameron Treloar: “The vibe of the club is really good. We’re back into home base at Concord.”

Goals: “We’re just aiming for consistency. The team on their day can beat anyone.”

Players to watch out for: “[Halfback] Prez Tafuga. He’s in for a big year and very sharp. Taine Rush too, who has just graduated from colts, he’s our No.13.”

Rivals to watch: “I think Easts and Norths are going to be very tough.”

Western Sydney Two Blues (10th last season)

Captain Jaycob Matiu: “We’ve got the right stuff. We’ve had a good pre-season and we’re close. We want to make our home ground [Eric Tweedale Stadium] a fortress.”

Goals: “We can only control what we can control. We’re looking to get better.”

Players to watch: “Wiseguy Faiane… he’s done well in the trials and pre-season.”

Rivals to watch: “Gordon and Uni will be tough.”

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