Success is one thing. Maintaining is another.
It’s a formula every sporting organisation across the globe strives to achieve, and it’s one that Sydney University Football Club (SUFC) is fortunate enough to have unlocked.
In 2019, the revered rugby club secured its 16th consecutive Club Championship as they were the only club to have qualified all seven of their men’s teams into the semi-finals.
16 years on the throne. Not even the All Blacks have been able to dominate for a period that long.
The envy of the competition for the past decade-and-a-half, SUFC are to club rugby what Melbourne Storm are to the National Rugby League.
You must tread carefully when comparing different codes, but there are glaring similarities between the two organisations that can’t be disputed.
A month ago, Storm General Manager of Football Frank Ponissi addressed SUSF staff in a seminar when Melbourne landed in Sydney for an away game against Manly.
When asked to pinpoint why Melbourne, who haven’t missed a finals series since Craig Bellamy took over in 2003 bar their salary cap-plagued year in 2010, have been able to stay at the top for so long, Ponissi circled one word – culture.
It’s the same driving factor behind every SUFC achievement over the years, from premierships to Club Championships and everything in between, culture is at the core. SUFC female club captain Emily Chancellor couldn’t agree more.
‘’Culture is critical to success,’’ Chancellor said. ‘’If you can have a team or a club where everyone is working towards the same goal, with a similar attitude to success and respect for each other, you will be successful.
‘’We (the women’s team) have so easily blended into the club as we already work within a winning culture, hold each other accountable and expect we all train and behave in a certain way.’’
Ponissi also identified the three pillars behind Melbourne’s cultural focus: Understanding of expectations, accountability and consistency. Without having knowledge of the Storm boss’ comments, Chancellor singled out very similar values when asked to describe SUFC’s culture.
’’If as a club you know what is right and wrong, have standards of behaviour and everyone buys into it, culture grows stronger,’’ she said.
‘’If you fall out of line or do something stupid, your teammates will call you out on it. That’s pretty powerful to be told by someone you respect as an equal to pull your head in if you are drifting away from the culture that exists at SUFC.”
You bear the fruits of strong culture through positive results, and that’s exactly how it played out for SUFC on grand final day. Nerves were running wild and a buzz of excitement was in the air at the state-of-the-art Bankwest Stadium as all four men’s grade teams were gunning for premiership glory.
On a day where anything can go wrong, the script for the most part favoured Sydney Uni with three teams lifting the trophy, while first colts joined the winner’s circle a day later, and the women’s team claimed back-to-back Jack Scott Cups the following week.
And what would a grand final be without a fairytale story.
Trailing 16-0 with 15 minutes left on the clock, Sydney University flicked the switch to score three tries in the space of 10 minutes to secure back-to-back titles, inspired by a 30-minute cameo from half-back Nick Phipps off the bench.
You can call it a lucky day, but 16 years of success cannot fall under the umbrella of good fortune.
It’s pride in the jumper. It’s a system that produces and develops elite athletes. It’s the staff behind the scenes working tirelessly. It’s a winning culture that starts from the top and is bought into by everyone down to the last man.
The Shute Shield triumph was the club’s 11th premiership since 2001, while the women’s side have established themselves as a dominant force with four premierships in the past five years.
On their road to glory, Sydney University also swept up a list of perpetual trophies including the Colin Caird Shield, Henderson Cup, W McMahon Memorial Shield, Jack Scott Cup, John Thornett Trophy, White Ribbon Cup, David Brockhoff Trophy and the Poidevin Farr-Jones Trophy.
Rewards followed on the international scene, with prop Harry- Johnson Holmes making his Wallabies debut in July, while Grace Hamilton was anointed Wallaroos captain and played alongside Emily Chancellor and Iliseva Batibasaga in separate two-Test series against Japan and New Zealand.
The downside, and upside at the same time, to this success is that it grabs attention and players get noticed. The club’s 2019 Best and Fairest recipient Harry Potter has inked a one- year deal with the Melbourne Rebels and will be joined by back-rower Josh Kemeny, while first grade captain Guy Porter is bound for the same journey with the Brumbies, along with young gun Tom Horton who has signed with the Waratahs.
The retention and recruitment of players poses possibly the largest hurdle in maintaining success and it’s one SUFC will need to leap over next season following the loss of some key personnel.
But like the Melbourne Storm, they have mastered one key element that helps combat the loss of star power – player development.
It’s what makes playing for the club such an attraction, which is a significant bonus to the recruitment and retention process, with quality lining up outside the door to represent the blue and gold jumper.
Every season will present new challenges, but the goal always remains the same – winning. And we all know where that starts from.