In a bygone era, our wonderful code of rugby league was littered with clubmen. For the uninitiated, these were players who, regardless of what grade they were selected in, became club stalwarts giving their all for the team.
Many were one club players, though it wasn’t a defining characteristic. More importantly, they played the game because they loved it, and they prided themselves on being reliable performers who would be ready for a first grade call up, whenever it came. In short, they gave invaluable service to their club.
There were those who had enjoyed a period in the spotlight during their career, but continued on. There were also those who spent the majority of their playing days in the lower grades.
For the Eels, Phil Mann and John Kolc were a couple of tremendous clubmen. Both had careers that peaked with grand final appearances in 1977, and in Kolc’s case an Aussie jersey in that year. Both continued to play into the early 80s with only the occasional first grade appearance. Over on the northern beaches, Sea Eagles and Kangaroos legend Max Krilich played in over 100 reserve grade games during the1970s, stuck behind Fred Jones, before establishing himself as the first choice rake. Not too many future internationals would remain with a club across five years of reserve grade.
Of course, the filthy lucre was a relatively minor consideration in those days.
Today, in the cut throat world of professional football, NRL clubs can no longer “afford” such men. With only 30 places available on the full-time roster, you’ll be unlikely to find footy veterans, or even players in their mid 20s, running around with the same club year after year without the guarantee of first grade football. It’s more likely that places 22 to 30 are taken by very young players on the rise or by “depth” players on short term contracts.
Yet, at the Eels, David Gower is our club man of the modern era. A clubman who “demands” first grade selection.
His journey should be an inspiration to those who have a passion for making a career in rugby league.
After playing junior football for the Balmain Tigers, and reserve grade for the Magpies, Gower sought an opportunity in the English Super League at a relatively young age. Across the 2006 and 2007 seasons he played 18 games for Salford before their demotion from the ESL saw him return to Australia.
Combining work as an electrician with his footy, Gower would have to wait nearly two years before he made his first grade debut for the Wests Tigers in the final round of the 2009 season. He would not play NRL again until he shifted to St George Illawarra on a second tier contract in 2011. Even then, he could only tally seven appearances across two seasons.
At 27 years of age, Gower had a grand total of 8 NRL games on his resume. How many players would continue to pursue a career in the code at that age?
A shift to the Manly Sea Eagles in 2013 would prove to be pivotal.
Twelve NRL appearances, including a game off the bench in the 2013 decider provided vindication for his perseverance. That season also saw Gower link up with Brad Arthur, who was then working as Geoff Toovey’s assistant coach.
At the age of 28, Gower would be one of Brad Arthur’s first signings as an NRL head coach, and from 2014, Parramatta became Gowie’s true home.
In the seasons since moving out to PARRAdise, the veteran prop has gone on to achieve the 100 game milestone (currently 111 – including 91 for the Eels). He’s also achieved a City Origin call up.
It hasn’t been an easy road to such numbers for Gower. However, a work ethic and self-belief that’s usually the hallmark of the game’s elite have seen him become the “go to” man every year, though few pundits (or even the coaching staff) included him in the top 17 when each season kicked off.
His mantra is simple and he lives by it.
“Hard work beats talent, when talent refuses to work hard.”
Whenever he’s found himself pulling on the Wenty jersey, he performs with same intensity as an NRL match. When he takes the field in first grade, there’s always the confidence that he’ll deliver.
Watching Gowie go through his pre-season paces, it’s fair to say that this latter stage of his career sees him in his best ever physical condition. Indeed, last year I heard Eels Head of Athletic Performance, Lachlan Wilmot, jokingly declare that he would report him to the Integrity Unit for looking so good.
And over this pre-season, the articulate veteran played a key leadership role with the young players added to the Eels full-time squad. Given Gower’s credentials, the Eels are on a winner in appointing him to a part-time role in the club’s well-being department. It’s part of his career transition as his playing days wind down.
Speaking to Gower, there’s little doubt about the value he places on education. An NRL and Federal Government ambassador for their Vocational Education and Training (VET) Program, Gower practises what he preaches. Undertaking studies in Coaching, Sports Business and Elite Athlete Well-Being Management, he takes all opportunities to prepare himself for life after football.
And with that comes ambition.
Questioned at a function last year, Gower saw a future for himself in administration.
“I can see a day when I’m calling Brad Arthur in to my office for a chat,” was his almost matter of fact reply to an on-stage interview.
But for now, there’s unfinished business on the football field.
With his beloved Eels currently sitting in 6th place, the hard-working forward again finds himself in a key role coming off the interchange bench. And he’s producing the type of performances and statistics that indicate that this might not be his final season.
Consider these numbers.
In a middle defence which has had its share of questions asked, Gower has a tackle efficiency rate of 93.4%. Combine this with a disciplined game which has registered only one penalty conceded this season and an average error rate of 0.2 per game (a total of 2 errors for the season), and you have a forward providing great stability.
But it’s not just defence and discipline which earns Gowie his first grade spot. He has an important role to play in attack.
Coming off the bench, he averages 14.2 possessions per game. From this, he delivers 10.7 runs. The discrepancy between runs and possessions tells you that the talented forward plays a link role within the team – that the ball is shifted through his hands in attacking plays.
Gower’s running metres sit at just under 95 metres per game, or around 9 metres per run. From such runs, he averages 1.8 tackle breaks and 1.2 offloads per match. This places him as the second best forward (behind Paulo at 1.9) for tackle breaks and third best forward for offloads (Paulo 2.5, Ma’u 1.6). Little wonder that commentators have referenced the impact made by the Eels bench in recent weeks.
At the beginning of this season, it seemed a fait accompli that this would be David Gower’s last season. Now, I’m not so sure.
Without doubt the Eels have a group of talented young forwards such as Kaufusi, Utoikamanu, Fainga’a and Stone who could establish themselves as NRL players in the next couple of years. They will benefit from having strong guidance not just from a well-being perspective, but also on the footy field. Gower’s work ethic makes him the ideal mentor to have around, and given his current form, a spot in the Top 30 would be well-warranted.
Like a true clubman, Gower had this to say in a post earlier this year for Player’s Voice:
“I’m 34 in September. I’ll either be playing on for Parramatta – I don’t want to play against them – having a stint in England, or retiring. When my post-playing career does begin, I’m hoping it can be at the Eels. I’ve made my home here. But I’d love to rack up 100 games for the club first – I’m on 85.
I love this club. My wife, Erika, loves it. My kids, Amelia and Keira, love it. I turned my father-in-law from a Manly supporter into an Eels fan. I’ve got strong relationships with Bernie Gurr and Mark O’Neill in the administration. I work very well with Brad Arthur and the coaching staff.”
Moving into 2020, there’ll be a sense that a changing of the guard is taking place. Mainstays of the Eels pack such as Manu Ma’u and Tepai Moeroa have already confirmed that they’ll be moving on. It’s very likely that others will follow.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that our great clubman, David Gower, will again be running out onto BankWest Stadium for the Eels.
His form will probably demand it.