Rebel Marlins Return Home To Sting the Rays
by Paul Cook –
There was a familiar look to the faces on show at Manly Oval last Thursday as the North Harbour Rays took on Melbourne Rising in the Buildcorp NRC. Naturally, with the Manly Marlins being one of the four Shute Shield clubs feeding players into the Rays set-up, there was an inevitable sprinkling of home favourites turning out on their own turf (seven Marlins made up the Rays squad of 23). But what made things even more interesting was the return to the Village Green of two members of the opposition.
Back in 2013, Jordy Reid and Pat Leafa were ploughing their trade in Manly colours – Reid the local young gun about to get his break in the big time and the Auckland born Leafa, who had plied his trade in the Canberra club comp before getting his own Super Rugby call up for the Rebels. So with the NRC hitting the road around some of the smaller, traditional club stomping grounds in 2015, the former Marlins were in a great position to impart some ‘local knowledge’ to their Rising team mates, including the perils of the Village Green cricket pitch.
“We did our mobility session here after we got off the bus from the city and we checked out the field and the first thing everyone noticed was how dry the middle of the field was,” Leafa laughed afterwards. “It is pretty rock solid, it’s like concrete, so they started making plans to kick it away from that area during the game. The ref was pretty kind to us though, I don’t think we had to pack a scrum there for the entire match thankfully.”
“I think it’s my first time under lights here so that was a good experience,” said Reid. “The pitch was rock hard in the first half and then slippery in the second half when the rain came in but it was alright – I’m used to playing on it!”
“It felt like a home game,” the 23-year-old continued. “It’s the first time I’ve been in the away sheds but I really like it here, it’s very familiar surroundings and I knew a lot of faces in the other team so it was good fun. I’ve played club footy against a lot of the guys like the Holmes’s for example and you know what they’re good at, so I tried to give out a few tips like how Josh Holmes is difficult around the ruck and likes a quick tap. I just told the guys to keep an eye on him and don’t give him too much opportunity.”
The last time the Rising pair were on the same side at the same venue was the 2013 Shute Shield Qualifying Final against Sydney University, a game the Marlins agonisingly lost in the last second to a drop goal from a certain Bernard Foley. “I was gutted,” Leafa recalls. But when he looks back on those days, it is the number of players from that year’s Marlins squad who went on to forge professional careers that pleases him most.
“What’s good about coming back now is that so many players have moved on to higher honours – Will Helu to the UK, Eddie Aholelei to the UK, Mali Hingano to France – and it’s just awesome to see and hear the boys doing well. I’m gutted they’re not still playing here because I would like to have seen them but I guess I better come back next time and see if anyone has returned!” he smiled.
Add to that list Dave Porecki (Waratahs/Saracens –UK), Matt Lucas (Waratahs/Calvisano – Italy), Brian Sefanaia (Western Force/Timisoara Saracens – Romania), Cadeyrn Neville (Rebels/Reds) and Luke Jones (Rebels) and you have a fairly successful pathway from ‘Boom Boom’ to ‘big-time’ and the trend will continue next year with Manly and Rays utility back, Reece Hodge, having already been snapped up by the Rebels.
Now 33 caps into his Super Rugby career, hooker Leafa is in a perfect position to subscribe to the validity of the NRC, and the opportunities it gives to players hoping to make the same leap forward as himself. He’s also clearly relishing the experience as he tunes up for another season in the Victorian capital.
“The guys that play club rugby, that play Shute Shield and Dewar Shield, they’re coming through and being exposed to a level where they’re up against contracted players who have the experience, and they’re getting a little taste of what it feels like in a professional environment and to see what they can do and it’s exciting,” he said.
“For the contracted guys, it’s a chance to not only express ourselves, but also really have fun out there. I really enjoy the company of these guys and love to share our experiences and knowledge, as well as playing alongside our peers – it’s fun.”
For Reid, who can boast 22 Rebels caps but only a frustrating five starts, the competition offers a chance to get some weekly football into his legs. Playing alongside a hugely talented group of young players keen to go one better than last year’s Rising squad – they finished as unbeaten Minor Premiers before coming unstuck in the semi-final – is the next best thing to the regular Super Rugby he craves.
“I haven’t played a heap of rugby over the last two years so it’s nice to get some games under my belt and some match fitness,” he confirms. “You can only train so much so it’s good to be out there playing.
“We’ve got a lot of different guys this year so we’re not really trying to compare ourselves to last year’s team, although they set a pretty good standard that we want to try and live up to. I also think that this year’s competition is quite well spread and the Sydney teams are a lot stronger with plenty of good players. I just think the level of competition has gone up this year.”
The stats from the first three rounds back up that statement. In the NRC’s inaugural season, the three Sydney based sides – the Rays, Greater Sydney Rams and Sydney Stars – finished with a mere 25% win ratio across their 24 matches. After a third as many games thus far this season, it stands at 50%.
The Rays were the embodiment of that progress last Thursday, in the second half at least, as they regrouped from a damaging 40-16 half-time deficit to draw level with 18 minutes to play, only for Rising vice-captain Colby Fainga’a to score the decisive five-pointer and ensure his side would leave Sydney with two wins in the bank from their three matches.
Having torn the home side apart in the opening stanza with searing pace and some dazzling attacking play, Reid admitted that by the final whistle, they were just happy to just to get out of dodge with the win.
“The first half we were pretty slick, the passes were out in front and the ball was sticking to the hands and everything we seemed to do came off,” he said. “But in the second half I guess turnovers cost us, we didn’t hold onto the ball for long enough and try and control the game, so we let them back in and it was good to come away with it in the end.
“The same thing happened last week. We were up against Brisbane City and let it slip and it’s clearly something we need to work on – starting well in the second half and not letting teams back into the game.”
“It just shows that anything can happen and that the mentality after half-time is important,” concurred Leafa. “We went to sleep there for about 10 minutes, pressure turned into points and points turned into momentum but luckily we’ve got some cool heads and some awesome leaders in the team in Jordy, Colby and Scott Fuglistaller, and just the experience they bring.
“Closing off a game is just as important as starting off well. The Rays had their chances, they were putting pressure on us but there was just that window there where we held out and we pulled together to close them off and it was the cool head of our senior players that brought that calmness and composure that got us home – their actions fed into everyone else,” he added. “I think we were the better team and we knew that if we stayed patient, we would get the result. There’s a lot of trust and belief amongst these boys.”
The Rising now have the weekend off in round four before heading just under two hours east of Melbourne to the country town of Morwill, to take on the Greater Sydney Rams. Gifted a return to his roots by the draw, Reid was taking advantage of the break to show a few of his team mates his old Manly haunts for a few days – “A couple of the guys are staying up at my parents place before we go back next week, it’ll be great showing them around,” he beamed.
Leafa meanwhile, was left to reflect on a happy homecoming to a place that will forever be special to him for the role it played in his progress as both a rugby player and a person.
“It’s so good to come back here, I’ve missed Manly a lot and I’ve made a lot of good friends here,” he said. “I still keep in touch with a lot of people and any time I am back here, they’re always opening their arms and their doors so it’s a place that means a lot to me. I had a really good season here in 2013 and gave my all and it got me the chance down in Melbourne. I’m still there doing what I love doing, playing Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels. I’m enjoying it, I’m loving it!”