Rebonded Vikings Ready To Plunder NRC Title
by Paul Cook –
Given a roster that contained a host of ACT Brumbies, the expectations were that the University of Canberra Vikings would be a major contender for the inaugural NRC title in 2014. Instead, it’s probably fair to say that they disappointed more than most, racking up only two wins from their eight games to finish 6th on the ladder and out of finals contention.
At the halfway point of the 2015 season however, the Vikings are taking the competition by storm, lying second behind pacesetters Brisbane City, having claimed three wins from three starts and still with a game in hand on the reigning Premiers.
And while points were a problem in 2014 – they averaged just over 26 per match with only Queensland Country scoring less across the eight regular season matches – the class of 2015 has proven to be both easier on the eye and far more productive, averaging over 40pts a game and a try every 15 minutes.
So what’s the difference? According to Jordan Smiler, one of only four Vikings to feature in all eight matches last year, the key to their turnaround has been a greater emphasis on the synergy between the professionals and the next generation that make up their squad.
“We learned from last year in terms of the structure of the program,” explains Smiler. “We were running it a bit differently because the guys that were in the Brumbies would train a little bit earlier and the guys that were coming up from club rugby would do their gym work later in the afternoon after they finished work.
“We’d briefly come together after that for a team session so there was no real bond and cohesion in the team at all. But we’ve changed that up this year and everyone is doing everything together, so we all feel like we’re a part of one team. There’s no divide, there’s a real buzz and everyone is excited to play and I think that’s why we’ve had good results in the first few weeks.”
Being one of four Super Rugby affiliated sides in the competition, inevitably gives the Vikings somewhat of an advantage in terms of the contracted players they have available. Working in a professional environment on a daily basis and utilising the training and medical facilities at their disposal are also naturally beneficial, but it is the familiarity amongst the group, and within certain positions, that Smiler feels is possibly their greatest weapon.
“We consider ourselves lucky because teams like the Vikings, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, we’ve had the same playing group and we’ve been able to build those combinations over a few years,” he says. “Having that cohesion in place is good and is helping us to play some good rugby.”
“We’ve got a lot of combinations in the forwards,” adds Brumby and Wallaby prop, Ben Alexander. “I’ve packed a lot with Blake Enever this year and Rory Arnold and Allan Ala’alatoa have scrummed together a lot as well. The only bloke who hasn’t really done a lot of scrums with us is Robbie Abel, but he’s got a lot of experience from his time with the Force.
“He’s the only one who’s had to learn our structures because we’ve tried to take the blueprint of what works for the Brumbies, especially around our maul, and work it into an NRC game plan.”
That game plan has also involved a touch more elan than was on display last season, when the Vikings were often criticised for playing a style that didn’t exactly tally with the NRC ethos of free-flowing rugby and tries galore.
Anyone who saw them tear apart the Greater Sydney Rams nearly two weeks ago, would have borne witness to a shift in approach.
“You want to have an attack-minded game, especially the way the NRC is with the rules and the way the referees are policing the game which rewards attacking sides,” says Alexander. “We’re identifying when it is time to throw the ball around – I think some sides can get caught around throwing it willy-nilly – but if you can be clinical and attack at the right times you can get a lot of pay.
In fairness, there wasn’t a whole lot wrong with the defensive aspects of the Vikings’ game in season one, only Melbourne Rising and NSW Country Eagles – the top two on the ladder – conceded less. But as Alexander reveals, it is still an area of prime focus.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on our defence to make sure that’s rock solid because sometimes your attack doesn’t work, or blokes drop the ball, and it doesn’t matter about skills or the weather, you’ve still got to rely on your defence,” he says. “So, while we are working on our attack, we feel that we’re just building layers all the time and that it should improve week-in, week-out.”
For a player with the attributes of loose forward Smiler, an athlete with power, pace, stamina and ball skills, the competition is a positive boon.
“I really enjoy the style of footy, the open, fast game,” says the 30-year-old from Palmerston North. “It’s been pretty tiring coming in off a bit of a break and not too much match fitness but it’s good to play a bit of rugby and it’s good for the fans compared to the slow grind you can get sometimes in the traditional format of the game.
“What’s good about the new rules is that no-one is taking the penalty shots for goal because they’re only worth 2pts so teams are going for the try and that eight-pointer instead. It changes up the game, which is nice, and as a forward, I like it. Even though it’s more hard work for us!”
While Smiler enjoys his second season of NRC, and looks forward to adding to his 32 Super Rugby caps with the Brumbies next year, for Alexander, the competition offers a stepping stone towards redemption after missing out on selection for Michael Cheika’s World Cup squad.
This is his first taste of Australia’s fledgling ‘third tier’, and, although he may well prove to be a limited contributor across the nine weeks of the regular season at least – he wasn’t required for last weekend’s trip to Perth for example – he is still keen to make his mark, enjoy the experience and put his best foot forward ahead of a return to Brumby colours in 2016, and a shot at reclaiming a gold jersey.
“As a player I guess I’ve won a lot and played in some big games so I’m pretty keen to be a part of a victorious Vikings side and to win the comp,” he admits. “That’s the focus at the moment on the weekends. During the week I’m doing a lot of work to put me in good stead for next year with the Brumbies but as far as the mindset goes, I think we’ve got a pretty special group here that I want to be a part of.
“Hopefully, I can chip in when I can and help out to make sure we make the finals and hopefully finish on a high. There’s plenty of work for us still to get through, which is exciting. We’re getting some results but we’re still nowhere near where we need to be if we’re going to win this comp.”
The Vikings’ lofty ladder position may be tempered somewhat by the fact that two of their three wins have come against the bottom two sides, indeed, they were actually outscored four tries to three by Perth Spirit last Saturday. But their performances against the highly fancied NSW Country Eagles in round two and the Rams a week later, offered enough evidence to suggest that a top four spot should be a minimum requirement.
Next up are third-placed Sydney Stars, who visit the nation’s capital tomorrow night in Fox Sports’ live match of the round. Coming as it does off the back of a return trip across the Nullarbor and only a four day turnaround, it should provide their biggest test so far.
The Canberra faithful should be back out in force at Viking Park to cheer on a team that rewarded their support with 58pts and eight tries two weeks ago. And while the desire on the part of the team to succeed for each other is palpable, it is a drive to do it for their fan base and to make up for the disappointments of last year, that truly motivates this group.
“The old cliché is that you’ve got to take every week as it comes and you’re never looking further than your next game,” says Smiler. “We really want to make amends from last year, we didn’t really perform as well as we would have liked to and we want to put it on for the fans here in Canberra.
“They’re loyal supporters who always come out and to get a win for ourselves is nice but for your supporters is even better. Hopefully, they will keep coming along and we can keep winning for them.”