The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 5 – Brisbane City v NSW Country Eagles
by Paul Cook –
Dealing with the pressure of being the reigning NRC champions hasn’t hampered Brisbane City one iota, such has been the dominance they have shown in this year’s competition. The round four defeat of the North Harbour Rays made it four wins from four in 2015 and with an average of almost 44pts per game, it wasn’t hard to see why.
But this clash offered arguably their toughest test so far, a rematch of last year’s semi-final, which saw City eventually overcome a hugely impressive NSW Country Eagles side, 36-32, to reach the decider. The boys from the bush have had a disjointed start with two wins, a loss and a bye, and with a raft of injuries and a four-day turnaround for their game against Queensland Country on Thursday, the odds appeared to be stacked against them.
They obviously hadn’t read the script. Only three minutes were on the clock when Jack Pennington ran a great line off a David Horwitz pass to dissect the City defence. And when Pauli Tuala found no-one home to run in from 10 metres in the 14th minute, and Jono Lance added the extras, the visitors found themselves 13-0 in front.
The Eagles were slick in almost every facet, controlling the breakdown, locking up the set-piece and in Tuala and lock Sam Lousi, had two guys getting over the gain line with every carry. City meanwhile, as has often been the case early on in games this season, were still stuck in second gear. So it was somewhat against the run of play when Scott Higginbotham profited from a barnstorming Samu Kerevi run to grab one back for the hosts at the end of the first quarter.
Unperturbed, the Eagles just went straight back up the other end to bag another, the irrepressible Tuala (‘the best player you’ve never heard of’ – see here), running off another power surge from Lousi to claim a double. Lance converted and the visitors were ticking along at almost a point a minute, 21-8.
If you’d told them they wouldn’t score again until the 70th minute, they wouldn’t have believed you, such were their levels of execution in the red zone. But when Cadeyrn Neville took a short ball off Sam Talakai to skittle his way through four or five Eagles and dot down a couple of minutes later, City had seemingly woken from their slumber, and they were just getting started.
They aren’t sitting at the top of the ladder by chance, and slowly but surely, their forwards started to build a platform from which their ridiculously talented backs could prosper. And a minute before the break, it was they who combined superbly to edge City in front for the first time in the match.
Kerevi was again the initial architect, breaking the line before offloading to Junior Laloifi off the floor. The wing fed Chris Kuridrani on his outside, got it back 10 metres later and released fullback Karmichael Hunt, who’d shadowed the play and injected himself at the perfect time to run home.
Jake McIntyre’s conversion took City to the sheds with a 3pt lead, and when they returned, it was clear that all cobwebs had now been fully blown away. Laloifi profited from a destructive five-metre scrum to cross for his 6th of the season on 47 minutes, before a turnover allowed Kerevi to put Kuridrani away for a fifth.
Perhaps sensing the game had drifted away at 40-21, and with one eye on Thursday, Eagles head coach Darren Coleman withdrew Lance and Horwitz before the hour. But the tries kept coming, Kerevi in for a well deserved double to open up a 32pt advantage before the Eagles grabbed a consolation with 10 to go, the bench combining to good effect with Dave Harvey putting fellow replacement Brogan Roods over the chalk.
Fittingly, the last word went to City and their backs, a terrific move finished off by replacement Alex Gibbon after a perfect draw and pass from Laloifi, and a final scoreline of 61-29. The UC Vikings had shown their title credentials with the 76-16 demolition of the Stars a few days earlier, this was a stark reminder that City are still the team to beat.
Having seen his side start with such gusto, Darren Coleman was naturally disappointed with the disparity of the final outcome. But he still saw plenty of positives to take forward for the rest of the season.
“The scoreline wasn’t that flattering but I was ok with how we went today,” he told Rugby News. “That first 20-25 minutes was probably our best footy for the year but the weight of possession shifted, they had more ball after that and just controlled it better. We really took our chances in that first 20 and then just before the break, we had one or two visits down there that we didn’t capitalise on but that happens, you’re not going to score every time you enter their red zone.
“In the second half, we just gave them too much ball, our execution dropped and our speed to the breakdown was poor. It could have been a lot better but we had a lot of changes and lost our shape and the difference between our first and second half efforts was that they were still scoring as frequently but we were giving them more ball so they had more opportunities to score. “
Flanker Sam Figg agreed that their ability to trouble the reigning Premiers to such an extent in the 1st half was a clear indication that this Eagles side are on the right track. All they need are a few bodies back and for their batch of talented greenhorns to keep racking up that precious experience.
“For the first 20-30 minutes, our execution was just phenomenal – every lineout was hit, the scrums were looking good and the biggest thing was, we were just hitting those rucks properly, clearing guys out and being really accurate and efficient,” he enthused. “As soon as we got a bit tired, they started consolidating and when they got that great try on half-time through Karmichael Hunt, things just changed.
“Some of their guys were saying afterwards that we gave them a really good fright, and that’s what we’re after. We’re a young side, especially the team that were out there today, and that first quarter really gives us the confidence in knowing what we’re capable of. Now it’s just going to come down to experience and consistency as we try to put out a performance like that across the full 80, and understanding that, yes, there’s going to be times when teams get a bit of a roll on and it’s a case of rolling with the punches and waiting for your turn again.”
In spite of their unblemished record thus far, City prop Sam Talakai agreed that his side’s propensity to start slowly is an unfathomable tendency that could come back to haunt them in a few weeks time if it remains unchecked.
“I’m not sure what it is but it’s definitely a trend that’s happening. We’ve been talking about it week after week and it’s something we’re really going to need to knuckle down on, especially coming into the last few rounds and into finals. We shouldn’t be leaking points before we start putting points on, we should be on it from the outset and we really need to start well because we’re just making life hard for ourselves.
“They’re a good team. They had a very good pack and they worked very hard and we couldn’t match them for that first 15-20 minutes,” he conceded. “They put us on the back foot for a while but the boys dug in deep, we went back to our game plan and our set-piece and came away with the result, and I think that’s what’s impressive about this team. It was the little details that were killing us but we fixed them up and things started to come good for us. I think we just need to be a bit harsher on ourselves in those early stages of the game.”
Having worked their way back into the match, Talakai felt that the terrific try concocted by the backline on the stroke of half-time was a pivotal point in the game.
“It was big, I thought that was a game changer,” he said. “We got back into the sheds after that and ‘Stilesy’ [head coach Nick Stiles] kept it pretty simple, he just told us to stick at it because the Eagles weren’t going to go away. We adapted and it paid dividends in the second half. Although we’re pretty young, we’ve got a lot of boys with Super Rugby experience now and they know how to step up and change the momentum in the game.”
And it was that imbalance of experience that began to tell in the second stanza. That and the array of attacking talent at City’s disposal.
“Once we made a few personnel changes after half-time, we had a lot of guys out there who hadn’t played with each other or hadn’t had many minutes in the NRC and we lost our shape and structure,” explained Darren Coleman. “We didn’t attack well and once we gave them the ball, they’re really hard to handle. To beat those guys, you’ve got to be looking at scoring five or six tries, we got four but you need a couple more if you’re going to be in with a genuine chance.
“There’s some really good footy players in that team. I’m not sure how the numbers stack up in terms of the Super Rugby contracted players they have this year compared to last but a lot of those young guys that played against us in the semi-final last year didn’t have Super Rugby experience but now do, and they’ll definitely be one of the top two or three teams.”
Such is the embarrassment of riches in the City backline right now, that former Aussie Sevens star Alex Gibbon had to make do with a place on the bench for this one. The Southern Districts flyer headed up to Brisbane at the end of the Shute Shield season for a chance to try out for a contract with the Queensland Reds, and coming off the bench to grab a second try in four appearances can only enhance those chances. But the chance to run off some of the competition’s most damaging – and inventive – line breakers, is proving to be an invaluable experience.
“For the first three rounds, I was just learning but now I know how they play and you’ve just got to be there, backing up and working really hard,” he said. “Once we build more than three or four phases, we start to open up teams, which is a real positive, and there’s so many opportunities off people like Samu [Kerevi], who can create something from nothing.
“Obviously, everyone’s chasing tries in the NRC and that makes the game a lot more exciting and expansive and it’s a really fun type of football to play. Playing Sevens, you get used to that sort of thing as it’s not as structured as Shute Shield rugby, it’s a lot more free-flowing, and playing against teams like Fiji, I’m used to seeing those flick passes. It’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time to finish them off.”
City have a well earned bye in round six, a time to reflect on what they’ve done and a look ahead to what will be needed if they are to repeat last year’s title triumph. But while Gibbon agrees that there are plenty of hurdles yet to be successfully negotiated, he sends a warning out to the rest of the competition – the best is yet to come.
“I think the next few weeks are going to be really exciting,” he smiles. “The Stars will be a really good challenge, as will the Vikings, and it’s good to finish with some really strong games before the finals because it will show us where we’re at. The aim is to peak towards those last couple of games and then on into the finals, and while we’ve won five so far, we’re still improving each week and we haven’t played our best footy yet, and that’s exciting too.”
“I think the bye has come at a good time for us,” said Sam Talakai. “We’ve got a few boys who are carrying little niggles and we haven’t had many injuries, so it’s a good chance for the boys to rest up. Also, it gives us time to work on some of the finer details. We got to a point last year where we pushed that at training, we did a lot more video stuff for the club players and it really took our game to the next level. We’ve definitely got some points we can improve on so the next week we can focus in on those little details and try and clean them up.”
Next up for the Eagles is a ‘must-win’ clash against Queensland Country, tomorrow night in Newcastle. While the vagaries of the NRC schedule dictate a pretty hectic next few weeks, coach Coleman feels that the lessons learned against City will see his side go to new levels in search of that place in the final four.
“The draw doesn’t help us, we’ve got a four-day turnaround and then a 10-day break and then we’re off to Perth and Melbourne on another four-day turnaround, so it’s hard,” he said.
“What we took from today, and it’s something we’ve always known, is that when our breakdown and our attack shape is good, we can put points on anyone, and a lot of points. They weren’t ‘gimme’ tries, we worked hard for them against one of the best defences in the comp and we were doing it pretty easy so we know we’ve got the guys to do that and that gives us confidence that we can be in the mix come finals time.”
For Sam Figg, each challenge thrown at the Eagles is another test of the mettle required to reach the top. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I was really proud of the boys today and we’re definitely not upset, we’re learning a lot from it and it was the kind of game that a lot of the young guys had to have just to understand the level of the NRC and what it takes to win it,” he said.
“The Country game is a must win and I think the timing actually plays into our hands a little bit. You saw today that we are a tough team, we show a lot of heart, we show a lot of ticker, and the four day turnaround is going to play well for us because we love it when it gets tough.”
BRISBANE CITY 61 (Samu Kerevi 2, Scott Higginbotham, Cadeyrn Neville, Karmichael Hunt, Junior Laloifi, Chris Kuridrani, Alex Gibbon tries; Jake McIntyre 7 cons) defeated NSW COUNTRY EAGLES 29 (Paulie Tuala 2, Jack Pennington, Brogan Roods tries; Jono Lance 2 cons, Dave Harvey con)