A seat at the captain's table
Brumbies captain Ben Mowen and Raiders Captain David Shillington played junior sport together in Queensland. Photo: Melissa Adams
It looms as the biggest weekend of the ACT Brumbies' and Canberra Raiders' seasons and their rookie captains face a monumental task to galvanise their teams.
Ben Mowen and David Shillington grew up playing rugby against each other in Brisbane, their partners are best friends and now they're leading Canberra's two premier sporting teams.
They've taken very different paths to arrive in the capital as leaders and they're aware of the significance of the next 48 hours.
Mowen and the Brumbies can edge closer to a dream Super Rugby finals spot if they can topple the NSW Waratahs at Canberra Stadium tonight.
The Raiders face a different pressure as they attempt to end the mounting scrutiny on them when they clash with Manly at Brookvale Oval tomorrow.
Both sat down with The Canberra Times this week to talk pressure, expectation, form, coaches and how they used to clash on the rugby field.
Chris Dutton: A lot of people don't know you're good mates, how do you know each other?
Ben Mowen: The first time was we were playing in the battlers rugby competition in Brisbane, both of our schools were poor at rugby. My debut in the first XV was against Shillo and they beat us at Padua College, I remember I got bumped a couple times by the big fella. He could have made it in rugby.
David Shillington: I actually had to choose between rugby and league, the Reds wanted to put me in their academy but the Roosters offered me a deal. I was one or two years older than Ben when we played in Brisbane. The first time I've seen him since we played was when Sonia and I were doing the Coastal Walk in Sydney and we ran into you and Lauren. I saw you coming and I thought 'holy hell, this bloke is huge'.
CD: Is it strange after all these years that you're in the same town and captains of your teams?
DS: It's a pretty funny story, I started taking notice when he was playing good for the Waratahs and have kept track ever since.
BM: We used to catch up in Sydney all the time and we thought that was weird and then to be here is even weirder. It's like I keep following Shillo.
CD: This is a massive weekend for both the Raiders and Brumbies, what are you expecting?
DS: It's good for the town if both teams are going well, Canberra will be buzzing if we win. It's important for us just to stop the losses, it's easy to lose focus and confidence when you're losing. In 2010 the start of our winning streak was against Manly, we just need to show more urgency and get that belief back. Hopefully this is another turning point for us.
BM: These types of games for both teams can change your year. Everyone grows another leg and the switch goes on. For us, to have a chance to skip out to a nine-point lead in the conference would be an unreal lead. It's massive for us and would put us in a commanding position. There's a million reasons this one's big.
CD: You both have a massive task as captains of the Raiders and Brumbies. Shillo, you've stepped in to fill the void left by Terry Campese and Ben you're in charge of the youngest squad in Super Rugby, what's been the biggest challenge?
DS: I would have loved to still be in the leadership group with Terry Campese and Brett White, I was enjoying working with them. Without them now it's a big responsibility. I'm enjoying it and it has made me become closer with a lot of the other senior players like Bronson Harrison, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Dane Tilse and Shaun Berrigan. We're struggling to get the wins consistently and I don't have all the answers. But the least we can do is lead by example, on and off the field, to tick all of the boxes. It's going to take time.
BM: It's not to dissimilar to what Shillo said, first you need the senior guys performing because the young guys need the example and the standard. One of the big challenges as a captain is there are no easy days. Each day you put a shitload into the preparation and when you've had losses or disruption, you've got to take a lot of direction with the team. The rewarding thing is when the performances come out. It's hugely rewarding because the young guys are always motivated, they're excited because it's their first time and we're not going through the motions.
CD: The coaches - Jake White and David Furner - how do you think they've handled this year?
BM: Jake is intense, but only because he knows that if you don't have that, you don't get the results. It comes from a good place and that's why he gets such an immediate response and he's a proven winner. If he says something works it usually works, that's just the way it is.
DS: Furnsey really showed what himself and the coaching team was capable in 2010 and we played some unreal footy. He's still developing good players even though we've been through a lean period. It just has to start transferring to results.
BM: I love David Furner. Growing up in Queensland I used to love watching him play with that tape around his head. I've only got limited knowledge but from what I can see he's an extremely bright coach and the group seems to want to play for him.
CD: Have the off-season overhauls at Brumby and Raiderland worked?
BM: It definitely has for us. We had the feeling early on it was going to work with the coaching staff and rugby program. I believe we've got an international standard coaching staff. That's being reflected in the way the group is working. It's been a hugely successful year so far, but if we fall over and lose the next six it's a rotten year. It's about attitude from now on.
DS: I do believe our changes have worked, but injuries and form suggest otherwise. We made plenty of changes and we're in a lot better stead that way. People might think it has been a bit of a waste of time, but we just need to be patient with the things we've done and eventually we'll be better of it. You've got to be winning.
BM: But you're not even halfway through the NRL season. If you guys go on a run now and slide into the top eight then everything's perfect. It's so early in the season to judge the Raiders.
DS: We don't want to wait to make our run, we want to start now so we're not relying on anything later in the year.
CD: It's been a tough year for Canberra playmakers. First Matt Toomua ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, then Terry Campese. What does that do to a team?
DS: You just have to stay focused, you can use it as an excuse but we've got guys who are capable in the halves and they've got a strong combination. You have to keep the belief that you can have a successful year.
BM: The thing is you've got to build a team structure around those guys so it's not reliant on one player. As long as you get consistency from the performance, you're sweet.
DS: We felt for Campo more than the team, he has had a horror two years. He was playing good footy and you can still see the passion in him and hopefully he can pass that on to the boys.
BM: It's the same with Matt, you're disappointed for your mate. But the guys come back better players because they've mentally gone through that tough period so they can come back and direct the team better.
CD: Because you're good mates, can you go to each other and chat about the challenges of being a captain, even in different codes?
DS: Definitely, we had lunch the other week and I was asking Benny about the make-up of their day to try to tinker with a few things with what we're doing at the Raiders. Maybe we can steal a few ideas and tweak some things.
BM: The thing I've noticed is Canberra loves their teams. It's a good base we've got here and it seems like the crowds are getting back to what they used to be.
CD: Shillo, what position did you play in rugby?
DS: I was a breakaway or No.8, but believe it or not when I was 14 I was short so I was a hooker. Then I had growth spurts.
CD: Ben, could some of the Raiders make it in Super Rugby?
BM: Definitely, Shillo's size just doesn't exist in rugby. He'd get eaten up, they'd love him. I love Learoyd-Lahrs's explosiveness, Waddell could easily be a flyhalf or scrumhalf. The work ethic in both codes is what marries up so well. Maybe we should blend the Raiders and Brumbies in a team, I reckon we'd do all right.
CD: Any tips for Ben ahead of his first season of brutally cold nights at Canberra Stadium?
BM: We've already discussed this at lunch, I've started to notice the cold already.
DS: You get used to it. It's not like Queensland, you wear shoes instead of thongs and put a hoodie on as soon as you wake up.
CD: Now that your partners Lauren and Sonia have got you in the same town again, are you booked in for regular dinner parties?
BM: We ran into Sonia at the Canberra Show, the girls work full-time so it's hard. But when we can, we do.