Finals Time: Lower Grades...The Engine Room of Tigerland
Search the rugby dictionary for the term “club stalwart” and you find names like Easts’ fifth grade halfback Mitch Gunning. No prime-time 3pm kick-offs for him. He hasn’t played a match in that slot since school days at Villanova College in 2009.
On Sunday morning, he’ll be just as sharp for a breakfast kick-off at 9am for the Easts-Wests minor semi-final in fifths at Ashgrove.
Gunning, 30, has almost been a Tiger from the cradle. Give or take, he’s in his 23rd season since first running around randomly in Under-7s.
He was certainly down at the club before then because father Paul Gunning was a regular lower grade centre in the 1980s.
What keeps him turning up to Bottomley Park for pre-season every year is the same pull that many lower graders feel.
“You enjoy a win and celebrate it. If you lose, you get over it quickly. There’s a really good culture at the club compared to, say, 10 years ago when you might have had only six or seven players for a team run,” Gunning said.
“The club is flourishing now. You stick around to support the rest of the teams that turn out.
“It’s also my only structured fitness.
“I’ve always been a Tiger…and always will be.”
Gunning has been a fixture in the lower grades from reserve grade to fifths for more than a decade. He loves the fun like the night one player turned up on team photo night with a ball-and-chain around his ankle.
“’Kiwi Geoff’ was worse for wear on his buck’s night. He had a soccer ball filled with concrete as a ball-and-chain but he still turned up for the photo,” Gunning recalled with a laugh.
Like any player of this period, involvement in the epic “6-from-6″ premiership high of 2020 is impossible to top.
“Awesome. To win a grand final at last was indescribable,” he said of the come-from-behind 28-15 win over Brothers.
“I played a grand final in Colts 2 (2010) in my first year out of school. I had to hang around another 10 years to get back there.”
It’s players like Gunning, a carpenter, and regular third grade hooker Reynor Guildford, who help give the club its substance.
There wouldn’t have been a “6-from-6″ chorus at all in 2020 if the mighty thirds hadn’t pulled off a late 30-27 grand final success over Brothers.
“It was a real close one. We were down to 13 men at one stage and had to hold our own with six men in a few scrums,” Guildford said.
“Stoked to win it. It’s always good to be in finals.”
Guildford savoured that premiership and is ready to challenge again, starting with Saturday’s noon major semi-final in thirds against Brothers at Ashgrove.
Guildford, 32, had no knowledge of Easts when he left the Sunshine Coast for a sea change and bowled up at the club in 2017.
“The community and club culture…I love it and it gets better and better,” he said.
“Look, I’m a social rugby player. I’m not that fit. I play to earn my beers.
“The lower grades is where the culture and competition for positions comes from in a club. You have guys on the way up wanting to compete for first grade spots and veterans like Greg Riley back down the grades who teach the young blokes.”
Packing down in the same third grade pack is Thayne Soloai. It’s a family affair with wife Isah one of the most influential front-rowers in the women’s team.
It’s the same in fourth grade. Back Sam Kirk is the brother of Lachlan and Will playing in the higher grades.
In fourths, the Tigers face University of Queensland in the major semi-final at Ashgrove from 10.30am on Saturday.
Coach John Sullivan feels teamwork is clicking at the right time under No.8 and captain Pat Williams.
“The lower grades are the engine room of any club and we have some of the characters that contribute to that, guys like (prop) Ben Lacey,” Sullivan said.
Colts 1 coach Tyrell Barker is sizing up a noon minor semi-final against Wests at Sylvan Road on Sunday.
“We had to beat Bond University last weekend to get into the semis, and we did, so the confidence and cohesion is coming together at the right time,” Barker said.
“We have had to build that with a mix of more experienced players and new guys straight out of different schools. It’s good to see a talented group playing for each other.”
Taj Annan has been a standout at inside centre. Lock Taine Riori, with a taste of Premier Rugby behind him, hooker Max Craig, backrower George Stoddart, backrower Joe Liddy and powerful winger Jarrod Homan are also Reds Academy prospects.
Women’s coach Gary Wilson knows the minor premiership counts for nothing with an intense major semi-final in store against close rivals GPS at 5pm at the rival club’s home ground on Saturday.
The return of Felicity Powdrell from concussion last weekend in the 14-5 win over Bond University was a positive while Ashley Elekana is back on the wing.
“The teams are 1-1 in matches this season so this is a game to really look forward to,” Wilson said.
TIGERS IN THE FINALS
4TH GRADE: Easts v University of Qld, 10:30am @ GPS Rugby Club
3RD GRADE: Easts v Brothers, Noon @ GPS Rugby Club
WOMEN: Easts v GPS, 5pm @ GPS Rugby Club
5TH GRADE: Easts v Wests, 9am @ GPS Rugby Club
COLTS 2: Easts v Souths, 10:30am @ Wests Rugby Club
COLTS 1: Easts v Wests, Noon @ Wests Rugby Club