The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 6 – North Harbour Rays v UC Vikings
by Paul Cook –
One win from four starts was not the first half of the season the Rays were seeking. But a draw that had pitched them against each of the top five sides in the first five rounds, as things stood before kick-off, meant that they certainly knew what it was going to take to be a genuine challenger. Having beaten Perth Spirit in Perth and pushed Sydney Stars, Melbourne Rising and Brisbane City hard in defeat, they came into this clash keen to turn those positive efforts into victory over one of the competition favourites.
Given the UC Vikings record of four wins from four starts, with an average tally of just under 50pts per game, that was going to be a task much easier said than done. The Canberra side arrived in Sydney’s northern beaches off the back of a 76-16 demolition of Sydney Stars, and with games against their fellow heavyweights in the offing as the regular season nears completion, a bonus point dismissal of the Rays was a mandatory requirement.
Clearly intent on a lightning start to catch the Vikings on the hop, the Rays were on the money from the off. Quick taps were the order of the day as they ran hard and fast from everywhere in the opening 10 minutes, only some terrific scramble defence from the visitors keeping them out. But the dam eventually burst, a nice line and neat pass from Michael Adams putting Reece Hodge over and Hamish Angus added the extras.
It was somewhat against the run of play when the Vikings hit back off a trademark rolling maul five minutes later, skipper Jarrad Butler the man to profit. But a miscommunication in defence straight from the restart allowed Rays loose forward Harry Bergelin to pounce and put up an outrageous ‘no-look’ reverse pass for John Porch, the debutant scorching away to the chalk for an instant riposte.
They struck again three minutes later, a well-worked lineout play putting Hodge through on a nice angle and he fed Dennis Pili-Gaitau off his shoulder and through to the posts. 24-8 and the Vikings were looking a tad ruffled. But an unbeaten side with bags of Super Rugby experience to call upon by comparison, wasn’t about to hit the panic button and it didn’t take long before Jerome Niumata found the corner for 24-16.
A spell in the sin-bin for Nigel Ah-Wong, for a lifting tackle, was soon equalised by a yellow for Harry Bergelin to leave both sides a man down for the final 10 minutes before the break. But with the bit now firmly between their teeth, the Canberrans ramped up the pressure, going in twice through the hardworking James Dargaville and ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ Butler from – you guessed it – a driving maul, to turn a 16pt deficit into a two point lead at the break.
The skipper was at it again five minutes after the restart as the visitors’ set-piece continued to gain the upper hand, Butler thwarted just shy of the line on this occasion, only for Rory Arnold to scoop up and dive home from a metre. But just as the game appeared to be slipping from their grasp, a yellow card for Dargaville gave the hosts a sniff and they took immediate advantage, Josh Holmes sending it wide for Reece Hodge to return the 1st half favour and put Michael Adams over in the corner.
Tit-for-tat scores ensued either side of the hour mark, Ah-Wong crossing for his 5th of the season for the Vikings, before the electric Porch pounced from halfway to bag his second. Hamish Angus’ superb touchline conversion set up a grandstand finish at 39-37.
Except, it never eventuated, the Vikings illustrating their greater strength in depth and fitness levels to come home with a wet sail. Ita Vaea – a standout performer yet again – claimed their seventh five-pointer from in close, and replacement Frankie Fainifo illustrated he’s lost none of his finishing skills from his stint in France with a quick-fire double.
Amongst all that, there was still time for a yellow card for Rays’ prop Vance Elliott, an indiscretion that was soon superseded by a rarity in the game these days, a double red card for throwing punches – Nick Fraser and Tyrel Lomax evidently mistaking the NRC for UFC!
Vikings head coach Brad Harris was relieved to see his team come out on the other side of a stern challenge.
“It was a tough game and we knew it would be, the Rays are pretty desperate in terms of the stage in their season and were playing for a tough win,” he said. “We knew they would throw the ball around, which they certainly did, but we were also pretty confident that if we held onto possession, controlled the tempo and got some field position that we’d get some reward, and I think that’s the way it panned out in the second half.
“They’re a really good side, chock-full of really good Shute Shield players and fringe Super Rugby players and they’ve got attacking threats across the park. They play an expansive style…they’re really effective at that style and full credit to them, we had to play really well in the second half and we had to dig really deep as well to get the reward.”
Centre James Dargaville had an eventful 80 minutes, scoring one of his side’s nine tries but also copping a yellow card. He admitted the Vikings had been somewhat under the pump in that frenetic opening from their hosts, but was also proud of the way they fought through to come home in style.
“We knew it was going to come,” he told Rugby News. “The players the Rays have suit that open style of game and before the match we were speaking about the quick-taps and that the Holmes brothers and Boyd Killingworth would be playing on quickly and not letting us get the set-piece.
“Even though we spoke about it, they did have us rattled at the start and I guess it took 20 or so minutes before we could slow the game down, get our set-piece going and work our way back into the contest,” he continued. “We knew we hadn’t held the ball and when we did, we scored from our first attempt, so we had plenty of confidence that we could score points. It was more a case of being disciplined and not being too open at the other end.
“When we had the ball, we were still a bit scrappy with our connection at the breakdown and that causes us generally to have a tough time at halfback. That tightened up a bit in the second half and we played behind a bit better structure and that paid off as they fatigued and we managed to get a few more breaks on them.”
From the Rays perspective, that first quarter couldn’t have gone much better. They had the game plan, the problem was, they couldn’t sustain it for long enough to keep the Vikings out of the contest.
“It was pretty good for us to get away to a good start, I think we’ve been slow out of the blocks against other teams in recent weeks and been more of a second half team,” said Rays winger Michael Adams. “That was our focus today and we did start pretty well and got some points early in the game, it was just a shame we couldn’t keep it up for the whole 80.
“They’re a big, strong forward pack and they’ve got guys like [Christian] Leali’ifano at 10 who can control the game very well. We nutted out through the week that we had to try and take their forwards out of the game so we wanted to go a bit wider and get outside them. We did that early on and we looked really good but when we stayed in tighter, it was tough for us to get our go forward.
“We went to sleep a little bit in that middle period of the game, conceded three tries and they were back in it, so we’ve just got to make sure we’re switched on for the next game for the full 80.”
“It seems to be an ongoing thing with us, getting there or thereabouts and falling away,” added Rays flanker Harry Bergelin. “The pre-match talk was all about them and having so many Brumbies and our goal was to stick it to them and we definitely took that onto the field, which was great.
“But things can change very quickly in the NRC. I think in most of our games we’ve started well but ended up losing and in the one game we’ve won, we’ve come from behind and ended up winning against Perth, so you can get into a false sense of security being ahead because in this competition, it can be taken away really quickly.”
Down by only 2pts at the break, the chat in the Rays sheds focused on a return to getting the basics right and on how exactly you stop the Vikings’ biggest weapon.
“We went into our units and the focus for the forwards was on getting the scrum back into a workable shape and also on maul defence and how we could stop them as they’d already got a couple of tries from it,” revealed Bergelin.
“They get the ball to the back very quickly and cleanly and even if you bring the front of the maul down, they’re able to transfer it and keep moving. It’s what they do for 10 months of the year, they spend a lot of time together perfecting it and it’s time we just don’t have.”
Whilst similarly frustrated by the Vikings’ set-piece dominance, Adams, a comparatively svelte 90 kilo wing/centre, wasn’t about to offer up any answers.
“They scored three or four tries just by getting into our 22, kicking into the corner off the back of a penalty and mauling and once they got that rolling maul set-up it was nearly impossible to stop. I’m not in the forwards so I couldn’t tell you exactly how to go about it but it was clearly something we needed to stop because they got most of their points from it!” he laughed.
Despite their set-piece struggles, the Rays rallied to rack up further tries from Adams and John Porch, meaning it was still only a 2pt ball game as the final quarter approached. But as with many sides in the NRC, an inability from the Rays to put together back-to-back scores means they are unable to kick away from teams, especially with 8pt converted tries on offer.
“We’re going a bit too tit-for-tat at the moment, we score a good try and then we spend the next five minutes down in our own half and make a mistake from kick-off and then the opposition are back in it after a quick try,” bemoaned Adams. “If we can really focus in the next few weeks on backing up a try with another and then another and staying focused, it will go a long way towards us getting the results we need.”
It was the impact made by the Vikings’ bench that took them away in the end, the influx of quality that joined the fray in the last 20 minutes proving to be simply too much for a gallant Rays side that began to run out of legs as full-time approached.
“The bench has been really good for us and we’re definitely getting really good impact from the guys coming on,” agreed Dargaville. “Frankie [Fainifo] scored another couple of tries and Dean Oakman-Hunt is playing some great footy and so is Rowan Perry. It’s great for us to have those guys adding something at the end of games.”
Five games in and five wins on the board, this victory took the UC Vikings to the top of the ladder on points difference from reigning Premiers Brisbane City. Having racked up 139 points in the last two matches alone, there seems to have been a clear shift in attacking philosophy from the side that only managed 210 points in the entire 2014 season.
But Dargaville feels that the high scores they are amassing are simply a by-product for a team that is ticking all the right boxes.
“It’s more just about doing your role and the points will come from that,” he said. “The big forwards are getting good go-forward off scrum and lineout ball and it’s pretty hard for teams to defend when they’re going backwards. Someone like Christian [Leali’ifano] really gives us a lot of direction around the park and then it’s everyone else’s job to finish and it’s all working really well so far.”
The Vikings will host both Melbourne Rising and Brisbane City over the next two rounds, and if the Canberrans can get over the line against the 2014 Minor Premiers and Premiers respectively, their odds for taking out this year’s title should shorten dramatically. But they’re not counting any chickens just yet.
“I think it’s a matter of going back and reviewing this game and seeing what we can improve on moving forward,” said Dargaville. “If we’re peaking at this time of the year, you’re not going to be lifting the trophy. As we saw with Rising last year, they went through the regular season undefeated and still didn’t make it so it’s a matter of improving the team every week, weeding out a few mistakes with each game and putting ourselves in the best position to challenge.
“If we can keep our momentum and keep getting better each week, which I think we are doing, I think we’ll go a long way to finishing up in the final two and we’ll take it from there.”
UC VIKINGS 63 (Jarrad Butler 2, Frankie Fainifo 2, Jerome Niumata, James Dargaville, Rory Arnold, Nigel Ah-Wong, Ita Vaea, tries; Christian Lealiifano 6 cons) defeated NORTH HARBOUR RAYS 37 (John Porch 2, Reece Hodge, Dennis Pili-Gaitau, Michael Adams tries; Hamish Angus 4 cons)