PICTURE: Stephen Tremain
By Pat McLeod
Bull Sharks Second Grade coach Damon Virtue has a simple description for his team’s captain, Justin Bernstein: “He is Bond rugby.”
And Virtue isn’t one for over-kill when it comes to handing out plaudits.
“For a coach he is the sort of bloke you want around,” Virtue continues. “He brings so much energy and experience. Justin is an extremely popular player at the club. The boys just love being around him.”
So, when Bernstein says his team has the personnel and skill set to successfully navigate what is a bizarre next few weeks and take the premiership crown, most good judges will be listening.
Bull Sharks Second Grade are one of four Bond University Rugby teams that will be part of elimination finals on August 28-29. In a Covid-shortened finals series, the winners of those four games will go straight through to the grand finals the following weekend.
Adding to this curious plot is the fact that most teams have not played since July 24 and training has been severely restricted since July 31, when south-East Queensland went into lockdown.
However, rugby veteran Bernstein, 29, believes the Bond Seconds brand of 2021 is a unique model that can go all the way.
“We have the players now that can bring what is needed in this situation,” he says. “And this is a weird situation. You don’t play footy for a month and then you are straight into an elimination final.
“The difference will be who can come back from this break in better shape. I believe we can because I believe this is a premiership side. We have the right mix of what is needed.”
Bernstein should know. He first played premier rugby with Bond’s predecessor, the Gold Coast Breakers in 2010. He then stepped back to the Gold Coast competition for a few seasons before returning to premier rugby, but this time under the then-new Bond banner in 2014.
The majority of his ‘about 130’ games for Breakers/Bond have been in Second Grade at Number 10 and he was part of the Bond Seconds who won the premiership in 2015.
His value to the club was well sign-posted this year when he was called up to the top grade on several occasions, however he says he is happy to play where needed.
“You always want to play in the best team, but I have been behind some very good Number 10s over the years,” he says.
“I am happy playing seconds. I’m just happy to play where ever the club needs me to play. That is all there is to it. It doesn’t change how I play or how I approach it.
“I think the way I play has been a very good fit for both Bond firsts and seconds this year because we have got some very good backline players in both teams. My job is pretty easy - just get them the ball in some space.”
Bernstein says the key to the Second Grade team this year is an optimum balance between youth and experience.
“The biggest difference I would say between this year and the past is that we used to have a lot of Colts stepping up and they were quite young,” he explains. “This year we have a good blend of experience and youth and the younger players have now had that season or two of playing against men.
“They know what it takes. Players such as Tyrell Kopua (hooker), who has been one of our best, and centre Ronan Kapi, who has been really dominant and has seen some First Grade.”
For an example of ‘experience’ in Second Grade Bernstein doesn’t have to look far, to centre and ex-international Lloyd Johansson.
“What he has bought to the team is invaluable,” he said. “He is just that calming influence on everyone and any time he has something to say it is always exactly on the money. It is like having an extra coach on the field.”
Even more telling than the experience balance is the team’s playing systems and culture, borne out by coach Virtue. A big part of that is a style of rugby that can be best described as ‘old school tough’.
“We are a pretty physical side,” says Bernstein. “Our forwards have really stepped up and started to dominate this year and that was the catalyst for our turnaround at the start of the year when we lost a couple of games early.
“From there we made a decision and the forwards have picked up and stepped up and are a lot more physical. Here we are led by our front row of Helaman (Samuela), Tyrell (Kopua) and Josiah (Tavita) and especially by our forwards leader Tylor Bunting, who has been awesome.”
Bernstein is an accountant who recently took on the role of managing director of sportswear manufacturer, Cutter and Buck Australia, a long-time sponsor of Bond rugby. He says he was ‘50/50’ on whether he would play this season, but a premiership is unlikely to seal the exit deal.
“I have a couple of friends, Nick Turner and Brad Jones, who may reach their 200 and 100-game milestones next year, so I might stick around for them,” he said.
“But we will just have to see how it goes in the off-season."