There are many players that have had me out of my seat with excitement watching rugby over the years. But in recent times, few have been as irresistible when they’re on the top of their game as Jake Gordon.
The Sydney University, NSW Country Eagles and Waratahs halfback is a blur of zest and zeal on the front-foot, constantly probing and causing major headaches for opposition defences with his speed of both mind and body. His razor-sharp identification of space around the ruck, allayed to lightning fast-twitch muscle fibres that spark his searing pace and electric feet into action, have been a joy to watch since he first broke onto the Australian rugby scene in a big way back in 2016.
That season he fired Sydney Uni to the Shute Shield grand final with 15 tries and a string of impressive performances, before taking it up another notch in the NRC and bagging another nine meat pies for the Eagles as they too reached the title decider. He was named as the competition’s Player’s Player at the RUPA awards for good measure.
I first sat down for a chat with him during that blistering NRC period, off the back of a hat-trick against Perth Spirit at Concord Oval that had many calling for him to be fast-tracked into the Wallabies squad for the Spring Tour later that year. He didn’t get the nod that time round but he’d clearly made an impression, and after biding his time behind Nick Phipps and Matt Lucas at the Waratahs, he finally got his Super Rugby chance against the Lions in Johannesburg in March of last year.
Since then he has proudly donned the NSW jersey a further 28 times, for a total of 16 starts and 13 runs off the bench as he and Phipps battled for the starting spot. Another 11 tries in that time, added to an enhanced pass and improved kicking game, has seen him register on the national radar with several call-ups to the Wallaby squad, but he is yet to pull on the green and gold.
Having kicked-on again after the Waratahs’ run to the semi-finals this year with a starring role for his beloved Students as Uni claimed their first Premiership in five years, the now 25-year-old has been shining again for his adopted NSW Country side in the opening rounds of the current NRC.
His form culminated in another hat-trick in the 33-19 derby win over the Sydney Rays last week, and a seat on the Wallabies plane to South Africa ahead of tests against the Springboks and then Argentina. So what better time to catch-up and reflect on those last two years, and to look ahead to the possibilities of a test debut, an exciting 2019 Super Rugby campaign with the Tahs, and the Holy Grail of the Rugby World Cup in Japan at the end of it?
Behind the Ruck managed to grab him for an in-depth chat before he boarded…
So Jake, a lot has happened since we last had a proper catch-up, but you have gone on to cement a regular spot in the Waratahs matchday squad, and you’re now on the fringes of national selection. How have the last two years played out for you in general terms?
“I’ve really enjoyed the last two years overall. Obviously, 2017 for the Waratahs as a team was disappointing but I personally really enjoyed it. It was my first year of playing Super Rugby and results aside, I enjoyed my time travelling around and getting a feel for a professional program, and testing myself week-in, week-out against world class players.
“This year I looked to improve my game, and at the start of the season I felt really comfortable and thought I was playing some good rugby. I was a little frustrated by the selection rotation, and I’m sure Nick [Phipps] was as well, but we’ve got a really good, strong group at the Waratahs. We all really enjoyed our time together and I think that was reflected on the field, and it was obviously disappointing to fall short in the semi-final. But overall, I’ve enjoyed a lot of parts across both years and it’s been really good.”
You were in and around the Waratahs squad through 2015 and 2016 but didn’t get to make your Super Rugby debut until Round 2 of 2017 against the Lions. It’s a while ago now but what are your memories of that game?
“I started the trial against the Highlanders, which was the last hit-out before Super Rugby, and I don’t know whether it was unlucky or not but I didn’t get picked for the first round. Then Nick hurt his ankle over in Johannesburg and I got the call to fly over on the Friday morning Australia time. I landed about 10pm Friday night South African time, so it was a really short turnaround and I didn’t have much time to think – which was probably a good thing!
“I went to Ellis Park about two hours before kick-off and it’s a wonderful stadium. They played the 1995 Rugby World Cup final there and there’s a lot of history surrounding the place, and I was lucky enough to get 25 minutes off the bench. We were down by a few points and I had a try disallowed, but it was a very good experience and I got to go up against Springbok halfback Faf de Klerk. To make my debut with my housemate Maclean Jones, who was also debuting, is a very fond memory.”
As frustrating as it must have been to sit behind two fine scrummies in Nick Phipps and Matty Lucas for so long waiting for an opportunity, it must have been a great environment for a young no.9 to hone their craft in?
“I guess in the first year I was a bit immature and just happy to be in a professional environment. They’re obviously two quality halfbacks, so learning off them was good for me and I was enjoying it at that time. The following year when I didn’t get picked for round one, that was probably the first time I was really frustrated at not getting a go because I thought I’d done enough to deserve a chance and it didn’t come.”
You’ve now got 29 Super Rugby caps under your belt, but a number of those have been off the bench. As you mentioned earlier, Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson implemented a rotation policy for the scrumhalves in the last couple of seasons that I think can be pretty frustrating for supporters, let alone the players involved. How have you handled it?
“It’s obviously frustrating, but Daryl is always doing it for a good reason. Nick and I are both very competitive – I don’t think you’ll find anyone as competitive as him – and he pushes me at every training session. I guess that’s a positive, but I was frustrated at points this year because I felt I’d played some good rugby and had earned that starting spot.
“At the same time, after that rotation finished Nick was playing some really good rugby, so I also understood it. He played really well, so that eased the frustration a little bit, and made me hungry to work on my game and get better. It might be hard for Nick and myself at the time, but I know Daryl has got the team’s best intentions at heart.”
You were a promising but raw young talent two years ago, and now you’ve had two seasons in the professional arena to test yourself. Are you pretty happy with what you’ve put out on the park, and what have been the major work-on’s in that time in trying to take that raw talent to the next level?
“To a certain extent I have been happy, but at the same time I’m a little bit disappointed because I know I can offer so much more that I haven’t been able to reach yet. In terms of work-ons, I don’t think I’m ever going to be as fit as Nick, but I’ve really had to work on my conditioning and skills under fatigue. So after training I’ll do some more conditioning and work on my passing and kicking, because playing under fatigue is a lot different to feeling fresh, and you still have to feel comfortable in those moments.
“I don’t think my pass in 2016 was probably up to the standard that it is now and that’s been an area of focus. And while I’ve always enjoyed kicking, it’s been a bigger part of my game this year, and I think I’ve been able to show Daryl and the New South Wales coaches that it’s now a good strength of mine.”
Let’s talk about the Waratahs a bit more. As you rightly said, 2017 was a year to forget, but this season was much improved with a run to the semi-finals. What do you think the key differences were in making that level of progress?
“I definitely felt that the group was a lot tighter this year. You could look across the room or at training any time and see Israel Folau talking to Lachie Swinton, or Sekope Kepu chatting to Harry Johnson-Holmes, or Bernard Foley with Alex Newsome. Throughout the whole group there were some really tight bonds, and I don’t think we quite had that before this year, or I hadn’t experienced it as much as this year.
“Another thing was the coaching group – Daryl, Cronny [Simon Cron] and Chris Malone – who all complemented each other really well. Cronny was really good with the forwards and is clearly a very dominant figure there. He wants and expects the best from every single forward in that pack. Chris Malone has some really good ideas around rugby and our attacking moves, and how we put them in place against certain teams every week. And Daryl was overseeing it all and is also a really good attacking coach, so they really worked well together.
“They set us little goals and benchmarks to hit in each game, and there was real clarity in our game plan, which also really helped.”
As good as the Tahs unquestionably were at times during the season, and I think they are certainly heading in the right direction, I never quite got the feeling they had what it took to actually go on and win the whole thing this year. Is that a fair appraisal or am I being too harsh?
“There were definitely some points throughout the year – like when we were up 29-nil against the Crusaders over in Christchurch – that if we could have played like that more consistently, teams would have struggled to match us. But we had trouble finding that 80 minute performance.
“Obviously, there was the game against the Highlanders in the first week of the finals when we were roughly 19pts down with 20 to go. To win that game I think proved to ourselves and the New South Wales public that we’re a team on the rise, and that we’re there to compete in every sort of match, no matter what the score is.
“A week later in South Africa in the semi-final, we were 14-nil up against the Lions and put ourselves in a position to win that game as well. So we definitely have a lot to work on, but I think at times this year we’ve shown that we are a force to be reckoned with, and things are looking good for next season.”
Hear, hear. There’s also a new coach coming on board in the shape of former Waratahs legend Chris Whitaker – who just happens to have been a halfback. You must be looking forward to soaking up all his experiences as one of Australia’s finest no.9’s?
“I watched a bit of Chris when I was younger, and he was someone who enjoyed running the ball and was quite creative around the ruck. So I’ve already been doing a bit of work with him recently on how to manipulate defence around that 1, 2 and 3 channel. He was obviously very good at that so I’m going to pick his brain about it, and I’m excited to be working with him. It’ll be good to see what comes from it.”
Once the Super Rugby season finished, you played a pivotal role in helping Sydney University to their first Shute Shield title in five years, with two tries in a tight Qualifying Final against Easts, and another double in what ended up as a one-sided grand final against Warringah. It clearly means a lot to you to pull on that Students jersey when you get the chance?
“I’ve played at Sydney Uni since I was 17, playing my first game with them when I was still in Year 12, and they obviously gave me the pathway to come through the ranks and play professional rugby. Coming through that system and learning from guys like Tommy Carter, Garrick Cowley and Peter Playford played a huge part in getting me to where I am now. They put a lot of time into me, so every time I get to go back and pull on that jersey and return the favour, I’m really glad to do so.
“With guys like Tim Davidson and Tom Carter leaving, I don’t think the rest of the comp really thought Uni had much of a chance this year at the start of the season. But Rob Taylor is a really classy coach and they have some really good upcoming players. They also work so hard over there, so to see them get the reward is pleasing.”
There were more than a few disgruntled voices to be heard when the names of Gordon, Latu, Phipps and Ryan etc appeared on the Uni team sheet. Do you entertain those criticisms at all?
“Well, Tolu and I played together for Canterbury Juniors, which is a feeder club into Sydney Uni, and Fanga [Phipps] was there when he left school, so we’ve now played there for eight years, and Nick for about 10, all coming through colts. Tolu actually played around eight games during the season for Uni this year, and Nick, Paddy and myself have all come back and represented when we could, so I don’t think you can really argue the point of us coming back for a few games.”
Since the GF you’ve been going around again with the NSW Country Eagles – representing your country roots in Newtown! But that seems to be another club and environment that you just relish being a part of?
“Darren Coleman gave me an opportunity to start with the Eagles back in 2016, and it was a really enjoyable experience. I was enjoying my football and how he was directing the team, and it’s a really fond memory for me, that season. We had some really good times on the field, and Darren was good at getting the group together off the field, whether that be a feed after training, a few beers after a game, or someone getting up and speaking about their life and how they fell in love with rugby. We had a real connection.
“I owe a lot to that team and to Darren, so every time I get a chance – even though I’m not a country boy! – I like to go back and try to put my best foot forward.”
There’s a nice symmetry to this conversation, because when I did the first feature piece with you in 2016 you’d just scored a hat-trick for the Eagles against the Vikings at Concord Oval, and here we are off the back of another hat-trick for them against the Rays. You clearly like the NRC, and it seems to like you?
“The NRC as a competition gave me that chance to play Super Rugby. It’s a good stepping stone between Shute Shield and Super Rugby as a marker, and I think it has proven to be that for a lot of players. I’ve done it, Reece Hodge did it, Samu Kerevi did it, Ned Hanigan and Tom Robertson have done it, and there’s plenty more. It cops a lot of flak as a competition, but there are just a few examples of players who have exceeded in it and gone on to bigger things.
“Ever since that first year where they tweaked some of the rules because they wanted to make it a fast, free-flowing competition, I’ve loved it, because I love running football and you see some unreal tries being scored. DC [Coleman] also loves attacking and he gave me pretty much free reign, so if I see an opportunity I take it with both hands and I enjoy that. If a coach says to me ‘This is up to you, if you see an opportunity, take it’, I’m all for it.”
Congratulations on your call-up to the Wallabies squad for the next two tests in South Africa and Argentina. You were originally called up in June last year, and again earlier this year for the Ireland series, but are yet to pull on the famous green and gold. How driven are you to finally get a chance to do so?
“I guess when I got called up last year it was a similar feeling to 2016 at the Waratahs, I was just happy to be there. I don’t think I was truly competitive at training or was really putting my hand up at the time, I was just content. But now, after two years of Super Rugby and getting that belief that I am good enough to make that level, I’m very hungry to pull on that jersey. I think I’ve shown to some people that I can step up to that level, now it’s up to me to actually get out on that paddock and prove it. Talk is cheap.”
You join a squad that has been through a testing time of late and could really do with a couple of ticks in the win column over the next fortnight. The Springboks and Pumas will be tough challenges, especially away from home, but do you think this side has it within them to go out and prove a few doubters wrong?
“I definitely think so. I obviously haven’t been involved too much with them over the last couple of months but there’s quality players throughout that 1-23. If you look at the South Africa game up in Brisbane, they played some really good footy at times, and some not-so-good at different points, but they still came away with the win. If they can play 80 minutes of good footy instead of 40, there’s no reason why they can’t match it with anyone in the world.
“Even in that Argentina game, they looked electric in that first 10 minutes and were really dangerous. But then there were periods when they weren’t, and they only just lost, and they still had an opportunity to win it in the 80th minute. It might look like we’re a long way off but I don’t think we are, and if we finish that last-minute play against Argentina we’d now be talking about two victories in a row. There are a few things to work on, but I’m sure we can get the wins.”
They are both countries you’ve travelled to before with the Waratahs, and by all accounts, both very different experiences. You must be looking forward to visiting them both again as part of the national set-up?
“I’ve been to South Africa before but I’ve never been to Port Elizabeth, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve heard there’s some pretty good surfing spots there but quite a lot of sharks too, and I’m not that good at surfing so I’m not sure if I’m ready to risk that!
“It’s quite cool in Argentina. You walk around the towns and all these kids are running around like crazy playing street soccer, and it’s a very rich environment experience-wise. It feels like another planet at times. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a professional rugby player, and if you’d told me that I was going to be playing in Argentina or South Africa I’d have told you you were dreaming!”
It must be by equal measures odd, intriguing and refreshing to travel around and play footy in countries where the sport of rugby is far more embedded into the national culture and identity than it is here in Australia?
“Yeah, you look at New Zealand where it is the national sport, at South Africa in summer or winter, their sport is rugby, and at Argentina, where they have plenty of competition from soccer but still love their rugby. But they’re not as dispersed as we are. The thing about Australia is that we love our sport here and rugby has so much competition with AFL, soccer, NRL, cricket, hockey, basketball, swimming, athletics and so on. We have to distribute so many good athletes across so many different sports and it can be hard at times.”
“Hopefully I can get on the field at some point but if I don’t, I think it will be interesting to see what test rugby is like over there. I’ve watched a few test matches over here in Australia, but it’s obviously completely different over there. Even for Super Rugby games there’s just a different feel around the place, so to get to watch a test match with maybe another 20,000 people in the stadium would be a great experience. It’s something that I can use if I’m ever in that situation playing-wise in the future. I’ll know what to expect.”
Ok, final question. You’ve made great strides in the last two years, but I’ve got a feeling that your story has many chapters yet to be written. Where do you want to be and what do you want to have achieved if we have this conversation again in 2020?
“First off, I’d like to be the starting halfback for the New South Wales Waratahs, that’s one goal. The other would be to have played for the Wallabies at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. So if we have that chat in 2020 and I’m starting for both, I’ll be a very, very happy man!”
Watch this space…