Culture the Key As Eagles Prepare To Soar

by Paul Cook –

Tonight’s clash against Queensland Country looms as a must win game for the NSW Country Eagles.

Having gone down heavily to Brisbane City only four days ago, despite a hugely impressive opening half hour, the Eagles must regroup for the game in Newcastle, mindful of the fact that with only four rounds remaining, they need to start chalking up some ticks in the win column if they are to entertain any thoughts of a second successive tilt at the finals.

With two wins from four and trips to Perth and Melbourne yet to come, they are fast running out of second chances. But with a raft of injuries hitting the squad in recent weeks, and the impact of a four-day turnaround this week, head coach Darren Coleman admits he’s had to be a bit cute with his selection policy.

“We feel that five wins will get you in the play-offs and today was going to be one of the more difficult of our last five,” he told Rugby News after the loss to City on Sunday. “We had a few guys that were carrying injuries and a four day turnaround for the next match, so we could have potentially wheeled out a few others, and if it had been a final we would have, but we took what we think is the smarter approach to try and get to Thursday’s game with our strongest squad available.

“That said, we’ve had the core of our backline – Mitch Short, Jono Lance and Dave Horwitz – play the most games until this week, and they’re playing quite well together. But in an ideal world, you’d love to have seven or eight days between each game.”

Injuries are part and parcel of the modern day game, but the Eagles’ squad has resembled a casualty ward of late. Influential tyro Will Miller sustained a broken wrist in round two against the Vikings and is likely to miss the rest of the competition – “We may get him back for a play-off,” says Coleman –while there have also been absences for try-sensation Andrew Kellaway, combative centre Ed Stubbs and prop Jerome Vaii.

And the news wasn’t any better after the weekend with Ryan Dalziel, Sam Croke and Pauli Tuala joining the list of walking wounded. Coleman takes a glass half-full approach.

“The upside of the injuries is that it gave a lot of guys like Will Fay, Jack Pennington, Sam Croke and Tom Merritt opportunities to start [against City] and get some big minutes. That will be good for us going forward because there’s still a lot of competition for spots in this squad when everyone’s available.”

Try-sensation, Andrew 'The Fire' Kellaway, returns to the Eagles starting line-up this evening - Photo: Karen Watson Photography

Try-sensation, Andrew ‘The Fire’ Kellaway, returns to the Eagles starting line-up this evening – Photo: Karen Watson Photography

Kellaway and Vaii return to the starting line-up this evening, and the hope is that several more will be available for the finals run-in. Loose forward Sam Figg is convinced that the squad has the quality to at least match their achievements of 2014, when they lost to eventual Premiers Brisbane City in the semi-final.

“The bright side is, we’ve got a lot of guys coming back who offer us a lot around the park,” said Figg. “With four games to go, we’re really looking at finishing well, and those guys will make us a whole other team. A lot of our guys haven’t played much NRC footy, we’re young across the board and we just need to play a few more games when compared to sides like Brisbane City, who are star-studded and have been playing so well.”

He also feels that the tyranny of distance that comes with representing the Eagles in all corners of the state of New South Wales, is also something of a secret weapon.

“It’s going to be tough, and that’s very much the nature of the competition at the moment, you’re playing teams like City and the Vikings that have so much talent and a professional program behind them,” he said. “But the beauty of our team is that we travel a lot. Some people look at that as a negative but when you’re travelling, you get to know each other a lot better and we’re a laugh-a-minute at the moment.

“It’s a really good bunch of blokes and every time we’re together, we learn more about each other and how each other goes about things and that makes us stronger and harder to beat. We conceded a lot in that second half [against City] and that can sometimes lead to guys turning on each other, but everyone out there stuck together and tried to find a resolution to turn things around. That’s when you know you’ve got a really strong base and a really good culture.”

That culture will be tested to its limits against a Queensland Country side who are just as desperate to come away with victory. With only one win to their name so far, another loss would likely signal the end of their chances of going beyond the regular season and Eagles coach Coleman is not about to accept anything other than that outcome.

“It is a must win, you don’t want to be going into the last three needing three wins and realistically, if we don’t beat Queensland Country, we’re not serious play-off contenders,” he said. “We’ve been a little strategic in terms of what games we’ve targeted and we need three more wins to get us there and of our last four games, three are against teams below us on the ladder. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed by any means but if we can pick up wins in those games, we’ve definitely got aspirations to play finals footy and go well.”

Should they reach the final four, there is one team firmly in his sights.

“I think certain aspects of our team are better than the Eagles of 2014 but we’re down a little bit of experience, particularly in our forwards. I don’t think the result [against City] was an accurate reading of where we’re at compared to City and I’d love to have another crack at them with a full strength team and a bit more to play for.”

7.30pm, Newcastle No2 Sportsground
Fox Sports 3