The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 4 – Greater Sydney Rams v Q’land Country
by Paul Cook –
Eighty minutes away from the halfway mark of the season, both sides were desperate to grab that elusive first win to set-up a potential finals run-in. Queensland Country were in greater need, three good performances thus far failing to bring anything but a solitary bonus point and with a plague of injuries running through the squad, time was fast running out for them to make any kind of impression on the ladder.
While the Rams were also yet to taste victory, they had a game in hand on their opponents having had the bye in round two. The previous week’s visit to Canberra had shown some positive signs from their array of attacking weapons but defence would need to improve if they were any chance of kick-starting a finals push. The return of Messrs Holloway, Ayoub and Carbone to the starting side, were an obvious boost.
Anyone who has watched anything of Queensland Country so far in 2015, would be aware of the burgeoning talent of young flyhalf, Sam Greene. Ticking pretty much every box required of a dominant pivot, he is also blessed with a fairly rapid pair of heels, and he didn’t waste much time putting them on display, finding a gap in only the 4th minute to run all too easily through a static Rams defence and open the scoring.
But as seems to be the case with the NRC, it’s not too long before the opposition manages to hit back and from virtually their first foray into enemy territory, a lovely break and perfectly timed pass from Jai Ayoub put Brad Curtis away for his second try of the competition.
The tit-for-tat continued when a tap-and-go set Country winger, Pierce Fitzgerald, off on a slaloming run before he found his experienced hooker Saia Fainga’a in position to crash home from 5 metres. But the score ignited the home side’s fire and they had arguably their best spell of the match for the next 20 minutes, laying siege to the Country 22, yet unable to find another breakthrough.
Paul Asquith thought he was over on 15 minutes only for a superb last ditch tackle from Campbell Magnay to hold him up, before Curtis thought he was in again in the opposite corner a minute later, only for the attentions of flanker Maclean Jones to force a foot into touch.
While the Country defence was up to the task, in Greene, they had someone who controlled their exits with aplomb, consistently producing a long touch finder to release the pressure valve and frustrate their hosts. But the Rams finally worked the numbers just after the half hour, a nice line from fullback BJ Hartmann earning an overlap for Denny Godinet to do the rest.
And it was the Rams who ended the half on top. A penalty after the bell – allowed to be kicked to touch for the lineout under the NRC law variations – precipitated a textbook rolling maul, well structured and superbly finished off by Jono Hayes, who peeled off to stretch his frame over the chalk in style.
Jai Ayoub’s third failed conversion left the Rams trailing by a point at the break, despite outscoring Country three tries to two. But an effective rumble from the forwards eight minutes after the restart got their noses in front. A number of pick and drives near the line earned the territory, a damaging ball carry from the impressive Cohen Masson split two Country tacklers to create a hole, and lock Fili Tufui scooped up and drove over for the lead.
It didn’t last long. Good work from Fainga’a in the tight, opened the door for loosehead Reuben Leilua to crash over only two minutes later, and with a positive return from injury for Jed Holloway brought to a close on 55 minutes, momentum swung the way of the Queenslanders.
He’d been the standout solo act of the match, so it was no surprise when Sam Greene got in on the scoring act again in the 67th minute, loitering out wide before injecting himself into the play to burn a hole through the Rams line and help his side to a 29-23 lead. He simply had too much gas.
However, just as they appeared to have wrested control, Country shot themselves in the foot from the restart, a loose pass from replacement Dion Taumata putting his support runners under pressure and a predatory Brad Curtis picked off a cheap turnover to race home unchallenged for his second.
Ayoub’s improved radar guided the conversion home for a precious 2pt lead for the Rams with time running out. But they hadn’t factored on the impact of the ‘Tongan Thor’ – Taniela Tupou.
Already something of a cult hero in Queensland rugby circles, the 135kg 19-year-old came off the bench to produce the match-winning play in trademark fashion, hammering his way through three Rams from 10 metres out to find the line and earn the visitors a precious first victory of the season.
Still winless, the Rams require a miraculous second half of the season if they are to make the top four.
Having watched his side perform well in the opening three rounds, only to come away empty handed. Queensland Country head coach Jason Gilmore felt the shoe was somewhat on the other foot this time round. But he wasn’t complaining.
“It’s good reward for the boys,” he told Rugby News. “They really aimed up well in our first three weeks against good opposition, and then we picked up a few injuries last week which put us on the back foot, but they did enough to scrape home. But while it’s great to get the win, it’s probably our worst performance across the four games, so we’ll definitely take it.
“The Rams are a big, physical team and what we tried to do was beat them on foot speed around the field to see if we could run them around. But to their credit, their big boys moved well and dragged us into a bit of an arm-wrestle, and we knew that physically we might struggle a bit there. We got a little bit of ascendancy in that last 10 minutes but really, the game could have gone either way.”
Those injuries were no minor setback either, seven players ruled out including the experienced Radike Samo, gun Reds winger Chris Feauai-Sautia and loosehead prop Haydn Hirsimaki, alongside other key positions. The Country side were also still missing former Wallaby Anthony Fainga’a but twin brother Saia’s return was one positive.
The Reds and Wallaby hooker felt the win was grounded in hard work and plenty of heart.
“We talked about losing seven players last week and coming out with nothing to lose and our defensive efforts were based on attitude and making sure we kept getting up across the park,” said Fainga’a.
“It’s hard when you lose two second-rowers and a loosehead and you’re taking on a side like the Rams, who are very strong up front. But I thought we did really well with the players that came in and it was a matter of just digging in and sticking with them. Everyone had to step up today and they did.”
For Rams head coach Jim Williams, the game was a missed opportunity. While acknowledging the nuances of the NRC competition, it was a lack of success in executing the game’s basic tenets that he saw as the root cause of the loss.
“We had opportunities but just at crucial times we turned over the ball, we made breaks but kicked the ball away or we didn’t control lineouts, and when you get down into those attacking zones, you need to be able to convert pressure into points,” he rued.
“We missed a tackle off first phase from a scrum and they scored and you’ve got to be better than that if you want to compete with these sides. Every time we scored a try, they’d come back at us and that’s the nature of this competition. But while it is the NRC, you still need to be able to do the fundamentals well – you need to win your lineouts, win your scrums and win you restarts – and that’s something we haven’t done consistently through all three of our games. Country did that and probably managed the game a bit better than we did too.”
Making his first NRC start of the year, captain Jed Holloway was his usual combative, aggressive, all-action self. But while he was understandably pleased to be back amongst it, he too felt that the Rams had missed a trick execution-wise and had little complaint about the final result.
“There’s a lot of fool’s gold out there and you can really take it if you have a game plan around that and I thought we just didn’t really hone in on that today,” he said. “I love playing the NRC, it’s wide open and there’s a lot of space out there but unfortunately, we struggled to hit those areas today and play with the identity that we want to. We didn’t take our opportunities when we had them and I think Queensland Country were the better side.
“It’s about building that momentum and trying to continue it throughout the game. The match was on a pendulum the whole time but I thought their kicking game was quite good and was what turned it around for them. When it came to that grind of the last 20 minutes, they were just punching corners and putting the pressure on us and in the end, they were the ones that made the right decisions and came away with the points.”
Pendulum could just about be the best word to describe the NRC experience as a whole. Time and again we see teams going try-for-try, unable to break the pattern of ‘score-fatigue-concede’, and it’s often the team that manages to put successive five or eight-pointers together, that goes on with the job.
Given their propensity for turning a positive into a negative – the turnover try for Rams wing Brad Curtis in the second half a prime example – it is a frustration that is not lost on Country coach Jason Gilmore.
“We’ve just got a real tendency at the moment that we score a try and then concede an easy try straight away,” he admitted. “It’s something that we’ve addressed with the team, just to get that hardened edge about us so we score back-to-back tries rather than that try-for-try syndrome.
“It’s that maturity of decision making in terms of exiting. For that try, rather than exit and give a good kick-chase, we tried to run it and it caused an error and, to the Rams credit, they’ve picked it up and gone 40 to score and get themselves back in the game. Having a young team, we’ll get that a little bit but we’ve just got to make sure that the boys learn from it and don’t make those same mistakes again.”
The relatively old head of Fainga’a agreed.
“We went into half-time knowing that in the last 20 minutes of the half, we gave them a lot of possession and allowed them to score points off the back of our mistakes, so our focus for the second half was keeping hold of the ball a bit better and exiting well out of our 50,” he revealed.
“We talk about back-to-back efforts and back-to-back tries so it’s very disappointing when you score and from the restart, don’t kick out of your 50 and end up conceding a try. So we’ll have to go back and have a look at that.”
But he was more than pleased to be heading back to Brisbane with a big monkey off his side’s back.
“We’ve had three losses before today and to come away with the win with all the injuries that we’ve had is great. It was a case of sticking in there and coming away with the result, and we were lucky enough to do that. The Rams were good but I think the last 10-15 minutes probably changed things with the bench players coming on and it was our replacements that got us over the line. It’s a position we’ve put ourselves in before in previous games but haven’t capitalised on. Today we did.”
Next up for Country is a home game against bottom side Perth Spirit, and a chance to kick-on off the back of this breakthrough win.
“We knew looking at the season that our first three games were always going to be pretty tough,” said coach Gilmore. “But this middle patch of games now, they’re games where I think if we play well we can grab them and then we finish off with Canberra, which will be tough. If we can get on a little bit of a roll now, that would be handy.”
For the Rams it’s back to the drawing board as they prepare for a difficult trip to country Victoria next Saturday to take on the Rising. The mantra for Jim Williams – in contrast to the thoughts of at least one of his fellow NRC coaches, Sydney Stars head honcho, Peter Playford – is to increase possession and then make good use of it.
“We’ve done far too much defending throughout this competition in the first three rounds and it’s really killed us and really taken something out of our attack,” he stated. “While we did defend really well at certain stages today, it was only a matter of time before that came back to bite us later in the game.
“We need to be able to get our fair share of ball and hold onto it and convert it into pressure in order to stay with – and even kick away from – teams. We’ll keep working hard, the boys have got a lot of faith and they’re keen to do well and keen to get a win up soon so hopefully, we can do that too.”
QUEENSLAND COUNTRY 37 (Sam Greene 2, Saia Fainga’a, Reuben Leilua, Taniel Tupou tries; Sam Greene 4 cons) defeated GREATER SYDNEY RAMS 31 (Brad Curtis 2, Denny Godinet, Jono Hayes, Fili Tufui tries; Jai Ayoub 2 cons)