With six Grand Final wins from six attempts, there’s no denying 2020 was an incredible year for the entire Easts Rugby Club.
Capped off by an Australian Club Championship victory over Gordon last month, a winning culture has been firmly established at Tigerland, but with success comes the weight of expectation and a huge target on the Tigers’ back this season.
A number of Grand Final stars have moved on over the off-season, with the experienced trio of Ben Mowen, Aidan Toua and Michael Gunn all hanging up the boots, while Alec Evans medallist Rhys van Nek has taken up a Super Ruby opportunity with the Rebels.
Toua’s absence means playmakers Jack Frampton, Eli Pilz and Dylan Taikato-Simpson will need to step up, with Tom Milosevic to fill Mowen’s boots as both captain and number-eight.
The Tigers again loom as one of the teams to beat in 2021, with head coach Moses Rauluni back on deck as the side aim to become the first team since Canberra in 2003 to win back-to-back Hospital Cups.
Six premiership wins across the grades was a monumental achievement for Tigers, and they’ll take those lessons and memories into this year’s campaign.
“2020 was a great year for the club, it wasn’t just First Grade it was the whole club,” Rauluni said.
“Every team in a Grand Final won and that continued into this year with our win over Gordon. It was a great way to cap off to the season and we put that to bed and it’s a time for new memories.
“The year before in 2019, we had a bit of a makeshift team due to injuries and UQ taught us a lesson and showed us what finals intensity is about. I said to the guys at the start of 2020 that we never wanted to experience that feeling again, Uni lifted and taught us a lesson and our players took a lot of learnings from the game.
“Especially last year with COVID to come back from that it showed out mental toughness and we have to try and improve that this year.”
Rauluni is well aware of his side’s need to go to a new level this season and is putting the triumphs of last year firmly in the rear-view mirror.
“It’s a new year, a lot of new forwards with key guys who have retired and Rhys Jacks back to league, we’ve lost senior voices and others in the team will need to step up, light and match the intensity we had last year,” the head coach said.
“We’ve had a good preseason so far, a two round season will be tougher than last year.”
SJ Tamala – University of Queensland
Ben Grant – Western Force
Andy Owens – previously Sunnybank / study
Api Naiyabo – Norths
Tyrell Naleper – Southern Districts (Shute Shield)
Jack Hardy – injury
Ben Mowen – retirement
Michael Gunn – Sabatical
Aidan Toua – Retirement
Phoenix Hunt - Brothers
Rhys Jacks – Ipswich Jets
PLAYER TO WATCH – ZAC CROTHERS
With van Nek taking up a contract with the Rebels and Richie Asiata earning his own deal with the Queensland Reds, young hooker Zac Crothers will start for the Tigers.
Easts gained ascendancy at set-piece time last year, using their dominant pack to lay the platform for their backline and seize momentum, meaning Crothers and fellow front rowers SJ Tamala and George Francis will play a huge role this season.
“Zac had a really good pre-season and has had a head knock but will back next week,” Rauluni said.
“Alex Smit has been great coming into the backrow and Shane Kennedy will be one to watch with his exposure and experience from Sevens.”
OPPOSITION PLAYER TO WATCH – TAUTALATASI TASI (BOND)
Bond University new recruit Tautalatasi Tasi will add starch and spark to the Bullsharks’ midfield, and has caught Rauluni’s eye as the season approaches.
“Great recruit for Bond, was close to coming to Easts before he went down to NSW,” Rauluni said.
“He’s a great player, physical and great skill – he is one to watch.”
Rauluni also tips strong campaign for UQ fullback Mac Grealy, former Tiger Phoenix Hunt and GPS’ Teti Tela.
“Grealy, is a standout player and Pheonix Hunt when he plays for Brothers. Teti Tela will be strong coming back from injury and looking to get a gig in Fiji before next World Cup.”