Why the Shute Shield is the grand old man of Australian rugby Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content

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By Morgan Turinui

This Saturday marks the return of the premier club rugby competition in Australia, the Shute Shield.

The Sydney and Hunter-based, 13-team competition – and its lower Grade and Colts versions – are an incongruous, anachronistic, unwieldy, unequal, brilliantly, beautiful thing.

Gordon players with the Shute Shield after their 28-8 victory over Eastwood in 2020.

Gordon players with the Shute Shield after their 28-8 victory over Eastwood in 2020.Credit:Karen Watson

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

The reason it does is both complicated and simple. It is tribalism at its most basic form. The competition has never required more professionalism to win it, and probably never required more volunteers to run it.

Each club is a part and a representation of its community. And yet each club is now required to be a high performance environment, as well as a socially focused community club.

Mark Ella proudly displays the Shute Shield at the end of the grand final in 1984.

Mark Ella proudly displays the Shute Shield at the end of the grand final in 1984.Credit:Fairfax Media

Top-end players are recruited and yes, often remunerated. But most players pay their subs and turn up Tuesday and Thursday nights for the joy of belting their neighbouring clubs each Saturday.

The attraction of young talent straight out of school has become an arms race. And those top-end recruits and those upstart Colts, plus a healthy smattering of local juniors (for most clubs), mature-age stalwarts, country lads, and an eclectic group of supposed All Black triallists, South African schoolboy heroes, English kicking experts, smiling Pacific Islanders and wave-upon-wave of transient Irishmen, all come together to form these rugby clubs.

These clubs become family for many, sometimes for a year and sometimes for a lifetime.

Parallel to this is an often ferocious pursuit of success and … “the chase”.

The modern Shute Shield has been described as almost an under-25s competition.

Adam Freier playing for Randwick against Easts in 2019, aged 38.

Adam Freier playing for Randwick against Easts in 2019, aged 38.Credit:Stuart Walmsley

In Sydney, more than perhaps anywhere, it is a huge commitment to spend two and three nights a week, plus Saturdays, chasing a Gilbert around the suburban ovals of Sydney. Particularly when you creep past 30.

The special ones do. An Adam Freier, Tatafu Polota Nau or a Josh Holmes do it for years, returning after they’d spent time near the top of the mountain in professional footy.

Manly’s James Hilterbrand keeps on performing year in, year out. Randwick’s Pat Hodgetts has played in every team and many of the positions at the club. He’ll play his 200th game in the first few rounds.

But there is always “the chase”. It was previously the chase for a Waratahs and then a Wallabies jersey. Then it became a chase for a spot in a Super Rugby squad.

Manly in action against Warringah in last year’s Shute Shield in 2019.

Manly in action against Warringah in last year’s Shute Shield in 2019. Credit:Karen Watson

It is now a chase for a contract of myriad shapes and forms. Super Rugby, English Premiership, French Top 14 or Pro D2, Japanese Leagues and even the US’s Major League Rugby now. The chase is now to be a pro. It is a destination. And like it or not Shute Shield is the best avenue for it in Australia.

Just under 40 per cent of Australia’s Super Rugby players come from NSW, almost exclusively via Shute Shield. Not to mention all those players supplied to overseas competitions.

Through all this are the stories and intrigue that add all the colour to Sydney club rugby.

There are the true local derbies in Manly vs Warringah and Randwick vs Easts.

Andrew Fiagatusa of Penrith and Riley Jacobson of Two Blues pose during the 2021 Shute Shield launch.

Andrew Fiagatusa of Penrith and Riley Jacobson of Two Blues pose during the 2021 Shute Shield launch.Credit:Getty

There are teams all love to hate. For many years it was Randwick, now it’s Sydney University. We have new kids on the block (again) from the Hunter, and the push for the West to be won.

The Jack Scott Cup is the awesome evolution of our women’s teams, who have become just another team at the club and play a magnificent brand of rugby.

And we have players like Andrew Fiagatusa, who came across from league last year post-COVID lockdown to get a game with the Penrith Emus. He loved it so much he’s stayed on this year and he is Penrith’s captain in 2021.

This Saturday, the Shute Shield, the grand old man of Australian Rugby takes another step inexorably into the future.

But this year, for the first time, all the games will be broadcast live on Stan. Every moment of every game, every derby, every player’s “chase” and every story will be commentated on, filmed from multiple angles and available for you to cheer and boo, compliment the refs, recount past glories and identify stars of the future.

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