Focus keeping Spirit alive

by Brett McKay

It’s impossible to comprehend.

While some NRC teams are looking to salvage their seasons or cement a 2017 finals spot, over in Perth, the remaining few weeks of the competition will literally mark the end of an era.

Of course, the Western Force decision back in August meant this day was always coming.

The NRC was always going to something of a last hurrah for those involved in the Perth Spirit, though the team will continue to exist in 2018, with the RugbyWA emptying with each week of the competition.

Now in a battle to even make the semi-finals,  they’ll have to try and qualify for the final four with a huge chunk of their squad on the other side of the country, having accepted the invitation to play for Alan Jones’ Barbarians side.

A loss to NSW Country means Saturday's game against the Sydney Rays at McGillivray Oval is must-win, but there will be a whole new level of emotion attached to the game.

It will quite likely be the last time this group plays in front of their passionate and faithful supporters, something Spirit coach Kevin Foote is rapidly coming to grips with.

"I'm emotional and I think everyone’s emotional," he said.

“Some players are moving on, like Onehunga Havili for example, he's going to join Tonga from next week, and he hasn’t got a contract so that's his last game. Pek Cowan and all these guys, it's been an amazing generation coming through but now that's it.

“It is emotional. You've got to keep the emotions in check somehow, but it's just it's the most real situation I've ever been in.

“You can try and say it and do it, but you just look at someone's face and you realise how much they're hurting.

“But at the same time though, this rugby's been awesome for us. The fact that we've got an opportunity to play and travel and be together is good, rather than just sit around and wait.

"So, you know, we will look to come out and represent the Western Australian fans because they are awesome and McGillivray, we really love playing there so we'll definitely try and make a good account of ourselves.”

The Spirit are looking to make it two-from-two. Photo: WalmsleySpirit skipper Michael Ruru mentioned the 'distraction of rugby' back before the first round, and ex-Western Force and NSW Country outside back Alex Newsome admitted the same thing only a few weeks ago.

It turns out it’s exactly the same for the coaches.

"You know you sort of just surround yourself with the rugby,” Foote said.

“I just try and dive into it as much as possible. You spend a lot of time with the players and the coaches. But having said all that, you know, the real truth of it is that you just can't get away from it.

“It's just been this whole year, we just haven't been able to get away from it because some guys read social media for example, or they read the newspaper, and the rumours start to fly all around the place. And I don't want to make it worse than it is, I'm just saying from a distraction point of view, it’s very, very difficult.

“But what we have done we've decided to play some really attractive rugby. We’re number one in the comp for offloads and defenders beaten. Our whole attack, we just sort of gave them free licence to really go and express themselves.”

The approach worked well in the opening month, Foote said, and he felt that as the players were really enjoying the rugby, the distraction went away. But as soon as a couple of losses mounted, everything returned – with interest.

“You just feel the emotions, it explodes and comes crashing down on these guys,” he said.

These last two games now carry more importance, but they can't allow it to become a stressful build-up, Foote said, not with everything else coming to a very real conclusion.

“What we did is this week I just called the guys in, and I actually said to them ‘You lead the sessions; we are 100 percent here for you as coaches, but you tell us what you want to do and how you feel you're going to beat Rays and we will support you’.

"So now we've sort of given them almost free rein to say this is how we're going to run. Their whole concentration is on rugby again.

“They actually put the sessions together. On Monday, we met as leaders and they told me what we were going to do. And that's not disrespecting Rays by any means; the whole thing is the more we share the responsibility, I find that everyone is more focused.”

That, though, doesn't account for what will happen in two, three, or four weeks' time when the Spirit's NRC season comes to an end.

“Well I think what's going to happen is a lot of the squad are going to have their break, and the professional players who will be moving on will move on, and the club guys I think they're just looking for a break anyway,” Foote said.

Pek Cowan has re-signed until the end of 2018. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley“If we’re not successful in these next games, we'll be away anyway for the last two. So, it'll be a good time just to get together and have a few drinks and just socialise together. And then, to be honest, I think that some guys will be looking to be with their families and make the next step.”

“It's a depressing place to be around at the moment; the building’s empty. There's no one you can talk to anymore, there's no banter. The things we love about rugby are just not there at the moment.”

Foote’s own situation involves nutting out the final details to join Dave Wessels at the Melbourne Rebels, continuing their partnership of more than a decade.

His family is rapt to be staying in Australia, even if it means moving to the other side of the country. A stint in the proposed Indo-Pacific Rugby Championship could eventuate, and if it did, the lure of returning to the west will be strong.

“Before all of this went down, I sort of got a heads up that if I don't want to go anywhere else, there might be a chance for me in the new comp. But it’s just gone very cold at the moment,” Foote said.

“I think they're just focussing on the players, which is probably a good thing, the guys who don’t have contracts. But definitely, if something came back, we love Perth. We love Western Australia. It's all we really know anyway. It's just been really good, so if I got the opportunity to go back there, I’d definitely look at it, yeah.”

The job still at hand revolves around two must-win games now, complicated by the Barbarians situation. Foote is remarkably upbeat about it all, however, so the rationale behind it all is best left to him.

“What an honour it is to play for the ‘Baabaas’. And they've been quite vocal about getting a sort of Force team out there, but there's the Tuesday game as well (against the Classic Wallabies), so we've actually got 13 players out (for the final round game against Queensland Country),” he explains.

“They've asked those players to fly out on Sunday. So, we'll play Saturday, then they’ve got to fly Sunday to Lismore, play Tuesday, and then half of those guys are getting released back to us. But then the other guys are staying on for the Wallabies match.

“Pek Cowan, Anaru Rangi, Matt Philip, Isi Naisarani, Ben McCalman, Michael Ruru, Chance Peni… that's seven pretty senior guys, and on top of that Tetera Faulkner, Billy Meakes, Curtis Rona, they're all going to be with the Wallabies.”

Foote’s solution has been to reward players from the Perth Premier Grade competition – “I have sort of been getting the ‘clubbies’ all fired up”, he said – even knowing that a lot of those wouldn’t have played rugby in two and half months in some cases.

“I had these guys, and bless them, they’ve honestly come out every Tuesday and Thursday night and never got picked,” he laughed.

“But I kept saying to them, this tournament moves and shakes as we go, and I was hoping that they’d all get this opportunity and looks like they will. 

Foote also laughed at the idea of him making up the numbers at training next week – “I’ve told (Shaun) Berney to bring his boots, definitely” – but remains philosophical about the obvious disruption to preparations.

“We knew that, it's exciting, and like I said, the distraction of playing rugby is probably number one for me at the moment. Just getting these guys out there and enjoying each other’s company for a few more weeks,” he says.

“Queensland Country have been really good this year. They're going to lose maybe two or three players to the Barbarians game as well, so who knows.

“We just get out there and start playing footy, score some tries early, and you know what the NRC is like, anything happens.

“So, I'm just going to stay confident, make sure the guys know that I'm 100% believing we can still keep going, and then just rip in.”

The Perth Spirit take on the Sydney Rays at McGillivray Oval on Saturday at 2pm local, 5pm AEDT, streamed live on