One of Siobhan Seiuli’s specialities is change management, but she’s found there aren’t many tougher unpaid jobs than shifting the psyche of a 120-year-old rugby club.
West Harbour’s president, the first woman to hold the office at a Shute Shield club, stepped down from her role in December after 12 months at the helm, and her legacy is that the Pirates are now under no illusions about their tenuous position in Australia’s premier club rugby competition.
The code’s presence in the sprawling football nursery of western Sydney took a hit when Penrith Emus were cut from the Shute Shield after four rounds in 2018 and it would be a development disaster if the club which produced current Wallabies Allan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio were to suffer the same fate.
It’s a future everyone at West Harbour is united in avoiding, but the method is in dispute, and Seiuli is a casualty of her own tireless efforts to close the growing gap between the Shute Shield’s haves and have nots.
“If people think that it (the club) can be run on a volunteer basis and that players will come back and play first grade because they love the club, frankly they’ve got rocks in their head,” she said.
“That’s the harsh reality.”
The Shute Shield today is unrecognisable from the last throes of amateurism in early 1990s when the best players could hope for in remuneration was assistance with accomodation, petrol money and perhaps employment within a club’s old boys network.
Top clubs now offer scholarships, sign-on fees and elite-level sports science - environments which provide the foundation for an opportunity in the National Rugby Championship or Super Rugby - but within the primal and popular atmosphere of suburban grounds and traditional rivalries.
West Harbour, founded as Western Suburbs District RUFC in 1900, are on the pace in terms of player development, thanks mainly to a professional program and new Rugby Performance Centre designed by outgoing head coach Todd Louden, but off-field woes continue to threaten its very existence in one of the code’s key catchment areas.
“While a few people genuinely wanted to assist the club to solve its financial concerns, the majority really didn’t want to hear about it,” Seiuli said.
“It’s something I’ve been very transparent about, which I know hasn’t been popular, and there are still people who don’t want to face up to it.”
West Harbour’s annual general meeting has been delayed until mid February while the board awaits the result of a full forensic audit of its operations over the past two years and, in a key non-rugby appointment, experienced chartered accountant Chris Charlton has taken on the position of club treasurer.
“Hopefully that will help enlighten people as to the reality of the club’s position but, even in handing over and looking at the books, I worry now because I know at this time last year we’d already done so much work to bring in off-season revenue to try and keep things ticking over,” Seiuli said.
“We need to get to a position where we’ve got something in the bank, we’ve got something to fall back on, we’ve got enough money to pay employees to take the pressure off volunteers, but also equally understanding the demands of the current Shute Shield environment.”
Seiuli worked closely with Louden and fellow board member Phil McCrea over the past two seasons at the club’s Concord Oval base, and admits she occasionally struggled under the weight of the role in such a critical year, but she will not be turning her back on the Pirates.
“In some ways I recognised I’d created a bit of a monster myself because I’m a control freak, I don’t let go very easily, and I felt in order for others to step up I ultimately had to step back.
“I need to give myself a break for a year.”
McCrea, who worked for more than a decade with Seiuli at Wests juniors, praised her efforts in 2018 and was more bullish about the club’s prospects in the coming season.
“We’re entering this year with a new coach in Mark (Gudmunson) and he’s attracted and retained a terrific set of coaches, colts in particular,” he said.
“I’m actually feeling quite positive in respects to this season, we’ll still have our financial difficulties, but we’ve cut our costs, we’ll be professionally managed and there’s a gung-ho attitude.”
Gudmunson has coached every grade at West Harbour since arriving as a player from Marsden High School, West Ryde, in 1995. He admits player retention from last season has been ‘thin’, but it’s been an off season of transition for most Shute Shield clubs, with only Sydney Uni (Robert Taylor), Easts (Pauliasi Taumoepeau) and Manly (Brian 'Billy' Melrose) maintaining head coaches from 2018.
The 40-year-old has built a strong connection with the Pirate faithful over his lengthy involvement and, while he sympathises with traditionalists, credits Seiuli with enlightening the club it was living beyond its means.
“And that’s dangerous. It’s when very bad things can happen,” Gudmunson said.
“What she’s done, nobody else would have been able to do it. Nobody else would have had the toughness to be able to go through with it, either.
“There’s a few times where I thought; ‘she’s gone, she’s out of here’, but she’s kept going because she had that goal and knew what she needed to do. It might have upset a few people going along, but it’s got us to a point where we can now say; ‘we have that gym, we have a club that understands financially where they’re at’.
“If that had not been done we would have just thought we were cruising, been happy with getting our money off (major sponsor) Club Burwood and thinking we were going alright. Then we would have got to a point where there was no ability to be able to turn it around.”
West Harbour has also frequently been at loggerheads with NSW Rugby, running all the way back to when the club was relegated from the Shute Shield after finishing last in 1951.
It was 1966 before the Pirates won reinstatement to first division, and the relationship remains frosty after Seiuli approached the state body last season requesting relief from fees and levies.
Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore says the club didn’t comply with a request for a copy of audited accounts and Seiuli did not appear at two meetings to discuss its situation, meaning NSW Rugby’s hands were tied.
“Why is it in the too-hard basket, when you’re asking for assistance, to supply some audited accounts?” he said. “Is it prudent of us (to provide assistance) without the facts, in respect of our obligations to many other struggling clubs out there?”
Hore also pointed out West Harbour receives unique revenue as a result of an agreement struck when NSW pulled out of Concord Oval in 2004, that the state body allowed the Pirates to host junior representative fixtures and the Shute Shield colts grand finals in 2018 and the club were the only top-flight entity yet to respond in regards to a proposed under-18 competition in the coming season.
Seiuli disputes this last claim, and said she found NSW Rugby’s request for proof the club was working with a pared back budget ‘insulting and condescending’.
“When I think back to last year and the strain the club’s situation was putting on our volunteers, that doesn’t exclude me obviously, and I think part of the issue is it’s not helpful when there is just what feels like a deflection of the issues,” she said.
“Fair enough, in reading his emails again, he (Hore) does say in the last line there in a couple of them; ‘let’s sit and talk’, but I think at the time, reading the other information it was like; ‘look, I’ve barely got time to scratch my own backside at the moment, so another meeting’s not going to help us right now.”
But what all parties agree on is the importance of growing the game in western Sydney, and Hore said West Harbour are in a unique position to take advantage of the projected population explosion in the club’s catchment area.
“There’s a really bright future for West Harbour if they embrace the changes that she’s (Seiuli’s) put forward and stimulate it,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity there, but to have the opportunity realised we need to galvanise and take key stakeholders on the journey, and I don’t think it’s good for anybody unless we deal in facts.
“We have to deal with the fact that the game as a whole right now is struggling and we’re going to have to look at alternative ways of generating income and working together to keep the game vibrant.”
Further complicating matters for West Harbour is the looming redevelopment of the club’s home at Concord Oval, due to start in October 2019.
The centrepiece of the 1987 Rugby World Cup, the ground has been underused since the development of larger and more modern venues like ANZ Stadium and Western Sydney Stadium, but the new facility will house a High Performance Centre for NRL club Wests Tigers, a state-of-the-art recreation centre as well as accomodating the Pirates and Inter Lions Soccer Club.
The ageing facilities at Concord mean less non-Shute Shield fixtures and the cavernous old stands mean the club’s home games lack the atmosphere of more intimate venues like Warringah’s Rat Park, but the temporary relocation is being seen as an opportunity by the club.
“The newly proposed grandstand and centre, from a community engagement perspective, will work far better going forward for West Harbour than what the club’s got at the moment,” said Seiuli, who will remain on a sub-committee dealing specifically with the redevelopment.
The club is guaranteed ‘like for like’ facilities at the revamped Concord and options floated for a temporary home, likely for two seasons, include Macquarie University, Lidcombe Oval, or modifying the adjoining field at St Luke’s North.
“It’s quite small, but within our precinct, which is important for community engagement,” Seiuli said.
“It’s a good thing, and that’s part of the understanding. Gone are the days of that beer drinking Saturday afternoon - of course there’s always going to be a place for that - but it absolutely must be about family.
“Bringing families in, buying the kids lunch at the canteen, picnics on the hill, the jumping castle…. I think it will be a positive thing, it’s just managing it in the meantime.”
That family focus is at the core of West Harbour, fitting hand in glove with its strong Polynesian influence. The average Pirates player turns up to training in a Hilux and high-vis, it’s a working-class club, and is fiercely proud of what it continues to achieve up against better-resourced opposition.
“On the smell of an oily rag we had over 18 players go through higher representative pathways in 2018 and, in 2017, we had about 13,” Seiuli said.
“That’s where you’re competitive edge is, if you can’t contract them financially, is offering that opportunity to be an aspiring player.
“But for the aspiring players to want to come, they’ve got to also understand they’re going to be in a club that’s governed in a strong sense, run professionally.”