NRC Rd 9: Determined Stars Finish In Style To End Rays’ Season
It took them until their last hit-out of 2014 but the Sydney Stars finally came home with the bacon tonight, breaking their competition duck with a helter-skelter 49-40 victory over the North Harbour Rays at Leichhardt Oval, a result which also ends the Rays’ hopes of finals football.
After six losses and a draw, the home side were determined to finish their inaugural NRC on a high and their increased intensity was clear from the start as they went out to an early 13-0 lead. They then went up 18-8 off the back of arguably the most farcical TMO decision you’ll ever see, Rays prop Mitch Lewis placing the ball back in goal for a team mate to clear upfield but a try being awarded to Stars hooker James Willan instead.
Rays fullback Dave Feltscheer then snatched an intercept to run 80 metres and turn the game the way of the visitors. Leading 24-18 at the break, another try in the opening minute of the second half saw them open up a 14pt gap and it looked like a case of déjà vu for the Stars. But they hung tough, fought back to lead by a point and utilised an increasingly dominant scrum to force a penalty try two minutes from time, confirming a victory that sends them out on a high and leaves the Rays to wonder what might have been.
Clearly on a mission to finish in style, the Stars came out firing. Showing some decent handling skills early doors, they stretched the Rays’ line for flanker Jake Wainwright to break free and put lock, Tipiloma Kaveinga, over and around to the posts after only three minutes, leaving a simple conversion for Angus Roberts.
The Stars maintained the rage in the early exchanges, ferocious at the breakdown and happy to run it from anywhere and everywhere and they were almost in again before the 10 minute mark. Jim Stewart anticipated well to charge down a clearing kick only 15 metres out, but with the line gaping, the young centre slipped on the dewy evening turf and Michael Adams recovered well to clear the danger.
With the Rays struggling to get out of their own half, the home side put their pedal to the metal and deservedly forged further ahead when the pacy Wainwright broke clear and found the corner. Paddy Ryan did the initial hard yards, hitting the ball up over the 10 metre line and standing firm in a two man tackle to offload with one hand. Two timely passes later, Wainwright showed a nice turn of speed to race home.
The Rays needed something and they got it from pretty much their first visit to the opposition 22. The rolling maul and pick and drive have proven to be their most potent weapons throughout the NRC and they combined to good effect again, openside Kotoni Ale the man who found the chalk with a little help from his friends.
Their retort was short lived however, as three minutes later the Stars went in for try number three, only, they didn’t. Under pressure metres from their own line, Rays prop Mitch Lewis snaffled possession on the ground to place the ball back for a team mate to clear upfield. However, referee Ian Smith was unsighted and referred it to his TMO as a possible try.
Clearly focusing on the grounding of the ball and not the colour of jersey worn by the player holding it, the call came back for Smith to award the try, to the incredulity of anyone watching the replay as well as the stunned Mitch Lewis.
With fortune favouring them and the bit firmly between their teeth, the Stars went in search of more but as they threatened try number four, they were caught by the ultimate sucker punch. A pass from flyhalf Roberts was picked off with aplomb by the predatory Dave Feltscheer, who gleefully strode away into the Leichhardt night. If you’ve watched any Shute Shield rugby in recent years, you’ll know you don’t catch the flying fullback from there.
The score proved pivotal. While the Rays visibly grew a leg, realising they were now firmly in a game in which they had been on the backfoot for the majority of the opening stanza, the Stare were left somewhat shellshocked. It was the ultimate 16pt turnaround, a phrase you can only use in the NRC.
Confidence restored, the visitors started to cut loose and, although we’ve only seen it in patches through their seven previous matches, when they do click, they have the strike players to do some serious damage and five minutes before half-time, the fightback was complete. Hamish Angus conjured up a terrific wide pass that took out two defenders and released a hot-stepping Jack Dempsey into the corner.
Up by 6pts at the break, the Rays struck again barely a minute into the second forty. Centre Mali Hingano burned up the sideline before putting a deft grubber infield for Josh Holmes – the scrumhalf moonlighting in the no.11 jersey on the night – to pounce, grubber himself and dive over to open up a 14pt advantage.
Given the Stars’ propensity for second half collapses, the chance of them turning things around for that elusive maiden victory seemed slim. But they responded well, setting up camp at the other end and powering across the chalk off a scrum, only for referee Smith to rule they had been held up.
They persevered and, with the Rays coughing up penalties under pressure and seemingly close to a card, the Stars scrum kept their foot on the throat and from the next engagement, Jake Gordon peeled off to find the line.
When the halfback then made it a quickfire double two minutes later, running home from almost halfway with a swerve and a step, momentum had shifted back to the hosts as they retook the lead, 34-32. But as has been the case throughout their misfiring campaign, their inability to build on a lead or ability to resist the opposition for a significant period of time, came home to roost yet again.
Josh Holmes, evidently a try scoring threat no matter what position he plays on the field, was the right man in the right place again in the 54th minute to notch his own double, punishing some more lacklustre defence from their opponents. Switching off and conceding a soft score, it has to be said, is not a familiar trait of the Sydney University side from which the majority of these Stars are taken.
The game was now an end-to-end slugfest – throw your best shots and let’s see who’s left standing when the dust settles – and with a quarter of the game remaining, it was the Stars who found the next damaging blow. Regaining their early rhythm, a nice move along the backline allowed replacement rake Tom Coolican to find a speeding Michael Hodge off his shoulder and the Waratahs’ centre didn’t need a second invitation.
Roberts couldn’t add the extras but when the Stars found themselves within range again a couple of minutes later and earned another penalty, stand-in captain Hodge surprised everybody by pointing to the posts. With 14 minutes left on the clock, it was a bold decision to take the rudimentary 2pts on offer and back a defence as porous as the Stars has proven to be. But that was the call and another replacement, Jack Macklin, duly obliged for a 41-40 advantage.
With the crowd increasingly engaged in the nip and tuck contest, both sides suddenly froze in the headlights of a meaningful result. The Rays needed a win to maintain any hope of finals football, the Stars needed a win to restore some semblance of pride from an underwhelming first season. As a result, the desire from both sides to chance their arm and run at will was suddenly usurped by a bout of safety first kicking in the hope of forcing a mistake. But it was a traditional show of strength that decided matters.
The Stars had grown in ascendancy at scrum time across the 80 minutes but when the experienced Paddy Ryan and Jeremy Tilse left the fray, it was their replacements who stepped up to sustain the dominance and ultimately, bring this one home. The Rays had been spoken to on numerous occasions and with a card again apparently imminent, the Stars ramped up the pressure one more time, the Rays collapsed and Smith had no hesitation in running to the posts to award a penalty try and with it, the game.
Sydney Stars 49 (Jake Gordon 2, Tipiloma Kaveinga, Jake Wainwright, Penalty Try, James Willan, Michael Hodge tries; Angus Roberts 3 cons, Jack Macklin con, pen) defeated North Harbour Rays 40 (Josh Holmes 2, Kotoni Ale, Dave Feltscheer, Jack Dempsey tries; Hamish Angus 4 cons, Harry Jones con)