Tuesday, March 20
A morning departure from St Edmund’s and the trek back north towards Sydney, but with a two-day stop in Wollongong. Depending on to whom you speak, “the Gong” is taken from an Aborigine word meaning “sound of the sea waves.”
Certainly the sea waves can be heard just outside the beautiful Novotel Hotel, with the surf crashing on to the sandy beaches just across the road.
Unfortunately, for the first time all tour, rain is in the forecast, and indeed, during a team walk along the waterfront, the heavens open and soak everything in sight.
Late afternoon is spent on a recovery session in the hotel pool, with a number of players feeling the effects of two tough games in a three-day period. Nonetheless, spirits are high, with everyone looking forward to a surfing session the following day.
Wednesday, March 21
Alas, hopes for a clear day come to naught, with a grey, wet and windy morning on offer. Normally, such conditions would mean closing the local surf beach, but the authorities and the surf company make an exception in our case.
Though conditions are less than ideal, the players participate with great enthusiasm, mixing in time on the boards with impromptu touch rugby games on the beach. Finn Goodyear and Robson Scott display fine form, while Mohammed Al Abdul Salam shows that, while surfing may not be the national sport of Oman, application and a good attitude can take you a long way! Finally, Max Nishima and Matthew Gordon win the plaudits of the surf instructors when they manage to pair up on the same board and (standing together) complete a ride all the way in to the beach. Easier said than done!
Free time in the afternoon sees a lot of the tour party making use of the free shuttle bus service, which runs all day on a coast loop into and from the downtown core.
Then, after a short, sharp training session at the local park, comes more hydrotherapy prior to dinner. Mike Danskin extends the session to include various additional water-based events.
Thursday, March 22
Morning departure from the Novotel, but not before Josh Mao, Samson Yan and Tristan Kuhn combine on the lobby grand piano with an impromptu concert – much to the delight of the other hotel patrons.
The weather has turned back for the better, with the tour party energized for a big final performance in Sydney versus Saint Ignatius’ College.
Saint Ignatius’ is one of the premier rugby schools in Australia, playing its matches in the prestigious Sydney GPS competition. The big games can attract as many as 5,000 spectators on a Saturday afternoon. Every so often, the last game of the year will feature two unbeaten sides, as was the case in 1996 when Saint Ignatius hosted St. Joseph’s (Joey’s) in the decider. That afternoon, a paltry 17,000 were on hand to watch a game of high school rugby!
Saint Ignatius is a large school, with some 1,500 students (boys only) from Grades 5-12. They field 40 rugby teams, 10 at the senior level, and between four and six at each of U16, U15, U14, U13, U12 and U11! And of course, this does not even take into account the 20 soccer teams they field in the same sporting season. Add in cricket, rowing, swimming, basketball, AFL and it is all happening.
Whenever class was not in session, the fields and courts were absolutely packed with students playing impromptu games. It was just beautiful to watch.
Friday, March 23
Morning pickup from school and then a bus trip into the city to the Sydney Cricket Stadium, also the home of the AFL Sydney Swans. The Swans, of course, were the home team of 2001 SMUS grad Mike Pyke, who, after a professional rugby union career in Europe and multiple appearances for Canada, moved to Sydney to attempt a cross code switch to “footie.” He managed this and more, becoming a valued ruckman for many seasons and part of the Swans’ Grand final victory in Melbourne in 2012. Mike and his wife Florencia (also a SMUS grad) and their two young children are now firmly established in Sydney, with Mike in the banking business.
The tour of the Swans facility showcases the enormous length to which professional teams go to gain the winning edge. The players see state-of-the-art facilities such as high-altitude bike chambers. These chambers are also used by various elite Sydney teams from other codes, such as the NSW Waratahs and NRL franchises.
The only disappointment is that the originally scheduled Swans training session had been postponed until the afternoon, although there is some consolation in getting to watch the Australian Womens and Mens 7s teams train across the road. Both are preparing for the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
After lunch in town, the squad returns to Saint Ignatius for afternoon matches. Everyone is keen that the last match brings the best performance on tour.
Unfortunately, sport is not an exact science, and, for whatever reason, neither the Juniors or Seniors produced the desired consistency or concentration levels. This does not take anything away from two well-drilled host teams, who, in typical Aussie fashion, were skilled, aggressive and abrasive.
Saint Ignatius XV 43 SMUS 0
In a foreshadowing of the Senior contest to follow, the SMUS attack was too lateral, making ball carriers easy prey for the defence. While Andres Vega Perez managed a few sorties, he was otherwise well-marked, as were Max Nishima and Josh Mao.
The seven home tries came at steady intervals, with the last of the first half taking the score to 19-0. James Scott and Matthew Gordon tackled bravely after the break, and one kick and chase counterattack almost saw Will Kinahan grab a late consolation marker. But it was not to be. The players were disappointed, all feeling they could have played much better.
Saint Ignatius XV 36 SMUS 10
This squad was comprised of players 45-70 in the host’s depth chart, which, given the excellent quality of many of them, just underlined the tremendous talent pool at Ignatius’ disposal.
Still, in what promised to be a well-balanced match, SMUS bombed a glorious chance to open the scoring in the first two minutes, losing the ball just meters from the line.
This seemed to set a tone for the game, with the tide slowly turning as the hosts controlled possession and won the contact points to register two scores and lead 12-0. A further tally then added to the margin, before Adam Gheis gave SMUS a lifeline of sorts with some neat footwork en route to a try in the left corner.
A strong SMUS start to the second half could then have made things quite interesting, but instead a miscued kickoff and then some loose tackling immediately gifted Saint Ignatius the critical first points. The game stayed at 24-5 for the next 20 minutes, though with SMUS on the back foot and struggling to generate any go-forward possession. However, on one foray into the opposition 22, a break by Ephraim Hsu allowed Simon Gilmour to free Bolu Ososami, who crashed over.
Yet, another SMUS restart error allowed Saint Ignatius to score again within 30 seconds, and they added another touchdown for good measure right on the full time hooter to confirm a deserved victory.
For SMUS, Gilmour enjoyed his best match on tour, while Owen Weismiller, Ranon Ng, Hsu, Luke Rainier-Pope and Matt Hagkull worked hard. Nick Papaloukas’ excellent lineout throwing guaranteed some first phase possession, even if it was not used to best effect.
One highlight was the appearance at the game of the aforementioned Mike Pyke. Resplendent in his blue blazer and 1st XV SMUS rugby tie, he spoke to some of the Junior players before heading off to his son’s 5th birthday party.