Intrust Shute Shield: Northern Suburbs within reach of finals berth

Norths Richard Woolf lunges for the corner ahead of Rat Harry Jones 377A5644 - Karen Watson

Words: Sam Ryan; Photo: Karen Watson

If Northern Suburbs were trying to fly under the radar in the run towards the Intrust Shute Shield finals, they didn’t help their cause on Saturday afternoon, scoring 29 unanswered points in the first half of their round 15 clash against Eastern Suburbs.

Although they let Easts back into the match after the break, the Shoreman were good enough to hold on for a 36-29 bonus point victory, their seventh win on the trot.

Despite that, coach Simon Cron and his fourth placed side aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves with three rounds remaining in the regular season.

“The reality is that we still need to win every game (to make the finals) and it’s probably the same for almost everyone in that top eight,” Cron told Rugby News.

“We’re just trying to play our game and win one match at a time and hopefully the rest of it will take care of itself.”

Whilst Cron’s calculations are most likely correct, the reality has been far more impressive. Norths have been the big improvers of the 2016 season and have won 11 of their 15 matches to date, including seven of their past nine.

After finishing 11th in 2014 and eighth last year, something has clearly changed in Cron’s second year as coach.

“In attack, I think we’re able to use width really well at the moment because we have a high skill set right across the park and that helps us open up space. At the same time though, we’ve got some good ball carriers so when we choose to hit the middle of the field, we are getting over the gain line and then we are showing plenty of patience, which I’m really pleased about,” the coach said.

“There’s certainly a lot more cohesion and we’re trying to keep as many of the same guys out there as possible. Last year, we had to coach a lot of basics and work hard at that. This year, we had most of that in place already so we were able to move past that and create some innovative moves and new attacking structures so that we aren’t as easy to defend.”

Led by flanker Will Miller, arguably the most underrated player in the competition, Norths don’t have as many ‘big names’ as their rivals but play a simple style of rugby based on strong defence and belief in the player beside them.

“I think it was Will that said recently that he thinks this is the tightest Norths group he has ever played in and I think that is testament to the leadership. When our backs are up against the wall, those boys are really tight and they want to play for one another and you can see it on the field.”

Statistically, Norths have the best defence in the competition as well as the best record at home, where they’ve lost just once so far this year and before Saturday, had leaked on average just eight points a match.

“Defence is key to any team and it’s all about attitude and that is something we worked really hard on in the off season,” Cron said.

“It’s nice to be able to really back your defence to win games and we’ve done that quite a few times this year.”

In their final three regular season matches, the Shoreman travel to play West Harbour and Parramatta before they host Manly in a blockbuster final round clash that could determine both side’s seasons.

Two wins from three may be enough to secure a finals spot, but with just 10 competition points separating first place and eighth, Cron said his side didn’t want to take any chances.

“They are all tough matches and we’ll need to be at our best because we want to win them all. All three of those sides have beaten top teams this year, Parramatta are just a really tough side to beat, Manly on their day can beat anybody and West Harbour have proven that they can too.”

So are Northern Suburbs good enough to book a spot in the finals and go on to win their first Shute Shield title since 1975?

“I don’t think anyone starts the competition without thinking that they can win it. No one plays to come second,” Cron said.

“I honestly believe the playing group are good enough and have enough belief in themselves to make it happen.”