Less than a year after their devastating Grand Final loss in 2015, the Townsville & Districts Mendi Blackhawks are again in the race to the finals. Although, this year is different; they know how it feels to fall at the final hurdle and they’re determined not to let that happen again.
In 2015, after many years in the making, the Rugby League community of Townsville was finally gifted their very own Intrust Super Cup team: the Townsville & Districts Mendi Blackhawks. They signed big names like seasoned NRL players Neville Costigan and Glenn Hall who flourished alongside young North Queensland Cowboys players like Anthony Mitchell and Kyle Feldt. Led by their mighty Head Coach Kristian Woolf and the experienced Adrian ‘Happy’ Thomson, and with a meteoric rise to the top of the ladder, the Blackhawks seemed to breeze through their debut season.That was until the fairytale was cut short in a dramatic loss to the Ipswich Jets in the Grand Final. The perfect finish they’d imagined just wasn’t meant to be.
The Blackhawks started 2016 stronger than ever. Determined to put their Grand Final loss behind them, they rebuilt, restructured and moved forward. But their second year in the competition has been a rough one. Plagued by injuries that saw their captain, Dan Beasley, injured before the season even started, a depleted player roster meant that hookers were playing on the wing and, in some games, they even had their strength and conditioning coach playing in the forwards. Things haven’t been easy.
But as is the Blackhawks’ spirit, the tough and tumultuous times have made them stronger than ever. And as they begin their race into the 2016 finals, one thing is for certain; they’re more determined than ever to finish on top this time.
Courtney: You came into the Intrust Super Cup competition in 2015 with a bang. What do you attribute your success to?
Kristian: I think the main thing we wanted to do first up was get the right people in, in terms of staff and players. That’s the most important thing in terms of how you build a club. And I think we got that pretty right from the very start. The other thing we wanted to do was build a culture that was going to be a part of the Blackhawks going forward. One that’s based on how hard you work, the habits you build and how hard you want to compete every week. That’s what we set out to establish and that’s what I believe we did very well. And that’s certainly flowed on to this year as well.
Courtney: You’re currently sitting at third on the ladder with only one round game to go. That means the minor premiership is out of contention. Last year you were minor premiers – does that change your plan moving into the finals?
Kristian: No, it doesn’t change anything. It’s been a very different year to last year. We’ve had a lot more injury disruption, a lot of changes through different things. Last year we had a fairly easy year in that sense, we had no major injuries and we were able to put a very similar side on the paddock every week. This year we’ve struggled to put the same side on the paddock two weeks in a row, I don’t think we have done that at all actually. But I think that’s actually helped us build a resilience and toughness about the group. And because we’ve actually had to do it in a tougher fashion I think that’s going to hold us really well going into the finals because you know you’re going to come across some tough games. It’s set a bit of a benchmark of what our club’s about. It doesn’t change how we approach things, when you get into the finals it’s a whole different ball game. We’re expecting to do really well in the finals, we’re confident that we will. But I think we go into it better prepared because we’ve actually had to do it tougher this year.
Courtney: Kristian, you were the Head Coach of the Cowboys NYC team for three years before heading south to work with the Brisbane Broncos. You took the Blackhawks to a Grand Final in your first year as a coach in the Intrust Super Cup. As a coach, what sort of pressure do you have on you to get the boys there again?
Kristian: I think the pressure is internal. We put those high expectations on ourselves as a team and a playing group. We wanted to work harder than any other team and put those high expectations on ourselves in regards to how we train, how we prepare and how we play week in, week out. So it’s an internal pressure and we certainly have carried that expectation within ourselves to go just as far this year and hopefully one step further again.
Happy: We also get great support from our board. They obviously want our Club to be successful on and off the field. Woolfie and his staff have done a great job of setting those high standards and then impressing that importance on our players. Our goal is to be THE benchmark club in the competition.
Courtney: Happy, you’ve had over 30 years working in Rugby League and have won numerous premierships with various teams. This is your second year at the Blackhawks, how does this club differ from all the others you’ve been a part of?
Happy: First and foremost, last year was the inaugural year so we started fresh. For both of us, that was the attraction we got from the club, to set those high standards and Woolfie has done a great job of doing that. We’ve started something good and hopefully that goes on for years and years. And our players and staff have bought into that as well. As I said, it’s run from above us as well. Being a new club you’re setting standards that you hope you can sustain for many years to come. It’s a combined effort; it’s not just the players running out on the field every week, it’s everyone.
Courtney: The 2015 Grand Final saw you beaten by the Ipswich Jets 32–20. This season you’ve debuted a new halves combination and some great off-season recruits. Many people tip you to go all the way again. What does that feel like?
Kristian: I think we play differently to how we played this time last year. And that obviously has to do with different players on the field and different halves in particular. I think the big difference this year is we’re probably a little bit better prepared for some real tough periods as the boys come through to the finals. We’ve had to grind out a lot more games, we’ve had to learn how to win games by two points and four points, which we’ve certainly had to do in the last few weeks. That’s probably not something we had to do last year, we tended to win quite comfortably a lot of the time. I think that hurt us a little bit when we did get put under some real pressure in the grand final. And unfortunately that was probably one of our worst games in the whole year. Why? I can’t put my finger on that either, but sometimes those things happen. We’re just a bit better prepared this year, the fact that we have had to do it a bit tougher. You also learn from those experiences and, while we’ve changed personnel, we still have a lot of guys in key positions that did play in that grand final. So they’re all going to be a bit better prepared mentally for what’s coming up too.
Happy: Plus the fact is, if we stay in third spot, we’re on knockouts for the whole final series. That leads to being a bit more on the ball for every single game and as Woolfie said, we’ve been resilient over the whole season so we’re probably quite prepared for that knockout level.
Courtney: You’ve got a lot of players in the team who’ve had successful careers in the NRL. What sort of experience and leadership qualities do they bring to the table for you?
Happy: We’ve got a good group of guys who have played at NRL level, some more than others. The leadership group underneath Woolfie has been exceptional, especially this year with the injuries that we’ve had. The key personnel that have been in our leadership group have really had to stand up and lead well. And again, it stands us in good stead because the younger guys who have come through and have been in our system last year and the start of this year, they know our expectations and they’ve all lived up to our expectations. So we’re going forward with a pretty tough outfit.
Courtney: Rugby League is a tough game at the best of times and most of your players also work full-time and have families. How do you keep team morale high and ensure the boys are always performing at their best?
Kristian: Yeah look, it’s a real balancing act at this level. I like to think we’ve got it pretty right this year. Happy mentioned the leadership group before and I think that’s something that they really take control of. The experienced guys, the ones who do have the NRL experience like Glenn Hall, Anthony Mitchell and guys like Dan Beasley even though he hasn’t played much this year, those sorts of guys bring professionalism, the good attitude and the happiness to be there. They bring that to training every day and that certainly rubs off on the rest of the players. Having a group of blokes who are all on the same page and all wanting the same thing is important too. We’ve got a good group of guys in that sense.
Courtney: Next year you’re losing some star players – fullback Jahrome Hughes and centre Mosese Pangai are going to NRL teams down south. Do you have some serious recruiting to do in the off-season?
Happy: Yeah, like most clubs we’re right in the thick of it at the moment. You’ve got to be in order to be competitive.
Kristian: First thing is retention.
Happy: Yeah, our major thing is retaining the guys who have been successful with us and done well with us. And then you have to fill the gaps with guys who we think are going to come and do a job for us. We’re right amongst that at the moment and we’ve still got a few guys we need to talk to from our existing squad. But we’re on track and we’ll be even more competitive again next season.
Courtney: Anthony and Rhyse, you were both a part of that devastating 2015 grand final loss. Ant, as the captain what’s your leadership style and how will you guide the boys into the finals?
Anthony: I suppose I approach things a little bit more personally as opposed to it just being solely footy related. I like to get to know my team off the field as much as I know them on the field. That way I can earn their trust as a leader. But being more football related, I’ll just be trying to set an example at training, turning up early, getting everything done and showing a keen attitude leading into the finals. And just trying to put together everything we possibly can so we can hopefully go one step further this year.