In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent changes to the usually strong Canberra Cup competition has helped Tumut’s premiership chances this season, with the return of forwards Jed Pearce and Jacob McGrath and the new arrivals of Tolo Aroha-Tuinauvai and Connor Massen.
The Canberra quartet have played important roles throughout the shortened Group 9 competition, with Pearce his usual force up front, while McGrath has played in a variety of positions in the middle and on the edge.
Aroha-Tuinauvai has been damaging at centre, setting up sets of six with his strong runs and quick play the balls, while Massen has been safe as a house on the edge and proved to be a real X-factor in attack.
Blues co-captain/coach Lachlan Bristow said that having the Canberra players has really boosted the club’s chances of going back-to-back.
“It would have been tough without them,” Bristow said. “They have all come in and filled a spot and not just filled it, but have been exceptional.”
Bristow said the Canberra players’ influence off the paddock has been just as important, with all four of them buying in to the Tumut Blues culture.
“A winning culture is defined off the field and they buy into that and I am absolutely stoked we got them over here this year,” Bristow said.
The four travelling Blues have developed a strong connection both on and off the field too, with weekly trips to training and games made easier as a group.
The hard-working forward was named a Group 9 front rower of the year in 2019 after leading the Blues to a premiership, and kicked off with that same form this year, working in tandem with Zac Masters in giving Tumut the best start possible to each game.
Still, Pearce only ended up back in Tumut due to the Canberra Cup competition changing tack at the last minute due to Covid-19, and the Group 9 competition picking up more Saturday games, with the bookend citing long trips home and Sunday games as the biggest challenge in 2019.
“It was tough at times last year, it was a bit lonesome driving home on a Sunday after a game last season,” Pearce said.
“It’s been a lot better this year, spending that extra night in Tumut, having a laugh and a joke and talking about the game; it’s been a lot more pleasurable.”
Pearce, who came up through the Tumut Minor League system, was proud of his Canberra teammates, who he said have bought into what it means to be a Blue.
“The best thing about Tumut footy is that it is bred into the boys that you don’t want to let your mates down, and I think these Canberra boys have picked up on that mentality and they know to do whatever it takes,” Pearce said.
“It’s been a very positive and uplifting team; everyone has their role and they all do that well and the Canberra boys are a big part of that.”
It was Pearce’s friendship with Aroha-Tuinauvai, that led the wrecking ball here to Tumut too.
“I have known Tolo since 2013 and we have been very good mates for seven years and we will continue to be best mates for years to come,” Pearce said.
“Really, anyone I play with becomes a good friend and it’s really like that with us boys travelling across.”
Aroha-Tuinauvai, who is spending his first year playing for Tumut, was excited to be preparing for a grand final and couldn’t believe how much it meant to Tumut.
“It’s unreal and amazing to see how much footy means to Tumut,” Aroha-Tuinauvai said. “It’s a great feeling and to do it with the bunch of blokes we have.”
The talented centre brings with him some grand final experience too, even getting the upper hand over Pearce way back in 2016.
“I’ve played in two (grand finals) in the Canberra competition, one in 2016 for the West Belconnen Warriors and the other in 2017 for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos,” Aroha-Tuinauvai said.
“I actually played against Jed Pearce in the 2016 final and beat him, which I’m always happy to bring up in front of him,” Aroha-Tuinauvai laughed.
Aroha-Tuinauvai said that travelling had been tough at times, but thanked Bryan and Libby Black for their help during the season.
“Travelling to Tumut hasn’t been too bad. Libby and Blacky have been looking after us really well, but the drive home has been pretty tough, especially with the Sunday games and work the next day,” Aroha-Tuinauvai said.
In-car antics, highlighted by Jed Pearce’s singing, look to make the trips easier according to Aroha-Tuinauvai.
“We all jump in my car and travel together. Between Jed’s singing and Connor’s dance moves, it makes the trip filled with laughs,” Aroha-Tuinauvai laughed.
“It’s made us closer and helped us on the field.”
Pearce did interrupt his teammate to remind him that he was often the first passenger asking to be dropped off when they arrived back in Canberra, with Aroha-Tuinauvai supposedly a good dancer himself.
“Every time driving home, Tolo asks if he can be dropped off at Civic, so he can get out on the dance floor, he loves it,” Pearce laughed.
Young finisher Connor Massen was certainly enjoying the season and the long trips with his mates, suggesting he was having his best time ever with a club.
“I’m not going to lie, this season has probably been the most fun I’ve ever had playing footy,” Massen said.
“Everyone at the club has been so welcoming and so loving. The squad is probably the best group of blokes I’ll meet and play for.”
Massen said travelling did come with its challenges but admitted weekly fun-filled trips made things a lot easier.
“It’s been fairly tiring with work, gym and stuff but it’s been worth it. It’s been great to get closer with the boys from Canberra as well,” Massen said.
“I can’t comment on the dancing, but Jed would just put on olden’ day singalongs and just sing to them. His favourite is Bohemian Rhapsody,” Massen laughed.
On a more serious note, the 2019 Canberra Cup winger of the year was looking forward to his first senior grand final, in what is only his second season of top-grade country rugby league.
“It’s only my second year of first grade and I’m in one of the biggest games I’ll ever be in my whole career, so I’m not going to lie, I’m a nervous wreck at the moment but I have faith that we can go back to back,” Massen said.
“I just need to do my job and a lot more, so get in there and help the forwards out by doing tough carries, be safe with the ball and defend well.”
Versatile forward Jacob McGrath is the final member of the travelling quartet, and he agreed that trips to training and games were made better by good friendships.
“It’s a long drive but it’s not so bad doing it with the boys, always some rare chat or bad singing to pass the time,” McGrath laughed.
McGrath commented that Pearce was definitely the larrikin of the car, giving young Massen a tough time or belting out some tunes.
McGrath, who played for Tumut in 2017, is another member of the squad playing in his first decider.
“I’m absolutely stoked. I have never been in a first grade grand final, and to do it with the group that we have will be special,” McGrath said. “Lots of people go through their careers without even being in a grade grand final.
“To take the cake would be awesome! I love the club and they have been great to us, so I would love to bring it home for them again.”