NRC Wk 5: Stars Fight Back To Frustrate Vikings In High-Scoring Draw

Hugo Dessens powerhs his way through the Vikings defence to score the Stars' second five pointer before the break - Photo:

Hugo Dessens powers his way through the Vikings defence to score the Stars’
second five pointer before the break – Photo:

Paul-Cook-webby Paul Cook –

The Sydney Stars have earned their first points of the 2014 NRC with a dramatic, 37-all draw with the UC Canberra Vikings at Leichhardt Oval. Trailing 13-0 after only 12 minutes, the Stars looked to be heading towards their fourth straight defeat but two tries in the closing seven minutes of the first half had them level at 13-13 at the break.

A game that saw three yellow cards turned into a tit-for-tat contest in the second stanza with the Stars replying to every Vikings score. But when JP Smith went over with nine minutes remaining, it looked like the visitors would be claiming the spoils. However, the Stars held firm and after Jono Sullivan went in with only 20 seconds remaining, flyhalf Jack Macklin stepped up to slot the conversion and earn a creditable draw.

Stars captain Pat McCutcheon was pleased with his young side’s fortitude after that early deficit. “They got one try which I thought was pretty good and another which was maybe a bit lucky but only the one conversion and in this comp, one converted try and you’re right back in it,” he told Rugby News. “Once we held onto the footy, we showed how dangerous we can be and we managed to get back to 13-all by half-time which was really good.”

Despite needing the last gasp try from Sullivan to salvage a draw, McCutcheon felt that his side had maybe missed an opportunity to open their account for the season. “He’s [Sullivan] fitted seamlessly into the squad and been a real standout player so it was great to see him come up with that final try but by the end of the game we were applying a lot of pressure to them and we were perhaps a bit unlucky not to convert a few more points there,” he said.

“We had much better control of the ball in the second half and we were able to apply pressure, it was just that final execution that we lacked. It’s a young team, they’re growing each week and getting that maturity and patience to back their own game and hopefully, we can start to rack up a few wins from here. The fundamentals are right, it’s just putting it altogether but it’ll come.”

Jesse Mogg racked up a 17pt haul but it wasn't enough for the Canberrans to come away with the win - Photo:

Jesse Mogg racked up a 17pt haul but it wasn’t enough for the Canberrans to come away with the win

Vikings skipper, Fotu Auleua, said he would come away from the game proud of his team’s resolve given their injury problems. But seeing the win snatched away in the final moments would leave a bitter taste in the mouth for their return journey to the nations’ capital.

“I thought we showed plenty of fight out there, considering the amount of injuries and cards that were dealt,” he reflected. “I was pleased to see our guys continue to create opportunities and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

“We never really got out to a position where we could defend our lead, even with a minute or two to play they kept coming at us. A draw isn’t the result we came here for so it’s a disappointing way to end the game.”

The Vikings settled the better early on, finding territory and applying pressure through a pack that has become a valuable weapon in this competition. Nine minutes in, they got their reward, flanker Sean Doyle driven over off a signature rolling maul.

When Auelua went over just three minutes later, feeding off a terrific offload from prop Allan Ala’alatoa, the warning signs were writ large for the Stars. Having lost their first game at their adopted home venue to the Rising, 45-13, there must have been fears of another touch-up at the hands of one of the competition heavyweights.

When big Will Skelton was binned in the 15th minute, those fears can only have increased, especially with the Vikings scrum turning the screw at every engagement. But to the Stars credit, they didn’t panic, stuck to their game plan and gradually gained a foothold in the game before it went away from them.

An equalising sin-binning for Vikings winger Rodney Iona, levelled the playing field and the Stars grew in confidence as they began to build their own pressure on the visiting defence.

When Jack Macklin went over in the corner in the 33rd minute, it had been coming and, keeping their foot to the floor, the Stars procured another score before the break. Hugo Dessens left a trail of defenders in his wake to muscle his way across the chalk with Macklin converting, and from a situation that had looked particularly bleak at one stage, the hosts had wrestled their way back into a position of parity at oranges.

The Vikings started the second half under an injury cloud, the Australian hooking curse forcing Seilala Lam from the field after a head knock, only for his replacement, Mitch Wade, to incur an injury of his own. Prop, Joel Penders, thus became a makeshift rake for the rest of the match, while Brumby Robbie Coleman was also forced into an early bath with a leg injury.

Stars' prop Tom Coolican, wrestles for possession - Photo:

Stars’ prop Tom Coolican, wrestles for possession

Impressively, the reshuffles didn’t affect the Vikings ability to trouble the scoreboard and it was they who got off the mark first in the second forty, debutant Lausii Taliauli going in under the posts and Jesse Mogg slotting his second conversion.

However, this time the Stars rallied with immediate effect and it was captain McCutcheon leading by example, targeting some loose defence to go under the posts himself and give Macklin an easy leveller.

The Stars now had the bit firmly between their teeth and they set about looking for a chance to take the lead for the first time in the match but just as they were in the ascendancy, they were hit by a sucker punch.

In a moment of trademark opportunism, Vikings fullback Mogg intercepted a Stars attack to go a full 80 metres in the 52nd minute and restore the visitor’s advantage. For Pat McCutcheon, it was a pivotal moment in the match. “If he hadn’t got that, we were looking good for a try ourselves so you’re looking at a possible 16pt turnaround there which makes a big difference.”

29-21 then, but when Vikings captain Auelua was given 10 minutes for no arms in the tackle, the home side were again given a leg-up in their quest for that elusive first victory. They took advantage through the giant frame of Skelton, the bustling Wallaby loose forward too hard to stop from close range and a Macklin conversion drew the sides level once again.

The game then looked to have gone the way of the Vikings with a touch under 10 minutes to play, a break from Taliauli paving the way for Iona to put his seagulling prop, JP Smith, over in the corner for 35-29. A superb sideline conversion from Mogg meant the Stars needed a converted try of their own just to come away with the draw. And they did just that.

Applying plenty of pressure in the closing stages, the clock had ticked down to the last 20 seconds when winger Jono Sullivan, who impressed across the 80 minutes, found his way to the line to give Macklin the chance to be a hero.

The youngster didn’t disappoint and while both sides may feel they could/should have come away with the chocolates, there’s no doubting it’s the Stars’ camp that will be the happier as they reflect back on this one.

Sydney Stars 37 (Jack Macklin, Hugo Dessens, Pat McCutcheon, Will Skelton, Jono Sullivan tries; Jack Macklin 4 cons) drew with University of Canberra Vikings 37 (Sean Doyle, Fotu Auelua, Lausii Taliauli, Jesse Mogg, JP Smith tries; Jesse Mogg 4 cons)

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