The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 8 – UC Vikings v Brisbane City
by Paul Cook –
This was the eagerly awaited clash of the NRC season so far. Two unbeaten teams, chock-full of Super Rugby talent and averaging almost 50pts per match between them, meant this game was being viewed as a potential grand final rehearsal. And with a Minor Premiership and home advantage in the finals at stake, it all pointed to a thriller.
City came in off the back of a 58-0 demolition of third-placed Sydney Stars the week before, a result that stretched their unbeaten run in the competition to 10 games including their run to the title in 2014. The Vikings meanwhile, were fresh off a clinical 42-16 dispatching of fellow challengers, the Melbourne Rising, as they looked to put down a marker in the sand as the real deal in 2015. Something had to give…
It was the home side that drew first blood, and from a familiar source, Jarrad Butler claiming his 7th try of the competition from a textbook Vikings driving maul. City knew it was coming, they simply couldn’t stop it.
Christian Leali’ifano couldn’t add the extras, a recurring issue across the 80 minutes. But the Vikings had begun in a positive manner, taking the game to the visitors at the set-piece and preying on their typically slow starts.
The one thing you can’t discount is City’s ability to strike from anywhere, at any moment in a match, and ten minutes in, they did just that. Neat hands stretched a Vikings defence that measured up well until a surge from Karmichael Hunt drew plenty of interest and left a hole for prop Pettowa Paraka to pounce from 10 metres.
Two very evenly matched sides continued to go toe-to-toe. The scrum was an intriguing tussle, the Vikings were contesting hard at the breakdown, pressuring City in their own half and limiting their exit options, while building patient phases through the likes of Allan Alaalatoa and Ben Alexander.
City looked dangerous every time they had ball in hand, the usual suspects of Hunt, Samu Kerevi, Chris Kuridrani and Junior Laloifi to the fore. And in Sam Talakai, they had a prop with the ability to put a 60 metre clearing kick into touch. Frightening.
But for all the Vikings’ huff and puff, they failed to make any inroads on the scoreboard, and City’s strike players punished their profligacy. A lovely set play off a lineout just after the half-hour mark got them in the ascendancy. Flyhalf Jake McIntyre used a decoy runner to pop a pass up for the onrushing Laloifi, and the potent winger streaked through to bag try no.11 of the season.
The increasingly influential Nick Frisby instigated a third five-pointer four minutes later. Spotting some lazy runners, the Reds halfback darted through the traffic to set up an attacking platform. But when the ball was spun wide, you would be forgiven for thinking the Vikings would have been happy to see the ball in the hands of a tighthead.
However, Sam Talakai is no ordinary tighthead and the 24-year-old – clearly a frustrated no.10 – showcased his repertoire again, taking it to the line and executing a superb one-handed offload for Ben Hyne to run into the corner. McIntyre’s third successful conversion took the visitors out to a 24-5 lead at oranges.
Whatever the half-time mantra in the home sheds, conceding a fourth try within three minutes of the restart clearly wasn’t part of the script. But when Samu Kerevi played creator supreme once more, holding a pass for just the right moment to put Hunt through the line and over, the game was in danger of slipping the Vikings by.
They needed something, and quickly, and after Ita Vaea had softened up the line with a trademark carry, hooker Robbie Abel punched through a forest of yellow jerseys to stretch for the line and give his side a much needed shot in the arm on the scoreboard.
The score didn’t stop Vikings coach Brad Harris from emptying his bench with over half an hour to go, and his early call began to pay dividends as the replacements brought some much needed impact, swinging momentum back in their favour. Buoyed by the Abel try, they struck again within five minutes, Vaea again on hand to put Rodney Iona into the corner.
Five minutes later, the big Brumbies backrower was at it once more, mixing up a lineout drive with a wraparound play before putting replacement prop Albert Anae over the chalk. The only blot on the Vikings’ comeback copybook was Leali’ifano’s radar, his sole conversion from four attempts the only difference on the 32-23 scoreboard.
Sparked into action as the Vikings threatened to come over the top of them, City kicked again. Hunt countered in style to put the ever-willing Kerevi through a gap and the powerful centre had Laloifi in support. He fed Henry Taefu who popped up the ball in the tackle for returning captain Liam Gill to scoop up and twist his way over next to the corner post.
A yellow card to City replacement Markus Vanzati with 14 minutes remaining, left the door open for a late Vikings rally, and when another replacement, Les Lealua-iali’i-Makin, powered home from in-close and Leali’ifano added the extras, it was a 6pt ball game with a touch over 10 to play.
The home side turned up the heat, challenging City’s scrum, maul defence and goal line desperation, as they went in search of the converted try that would maintain their unbeaten status. But despite throwing the kitchen sink at the visitors, and the game going four minutes over time as they hammered away with pick and drives under the posts, City stood up manfully to the task, a final turnover sealing a hard-fought, and potentially pivotal victory in terms of the Minor Premiership and home advantage in the finals.
Returning skipper Liam Gill admitted the game could have gone either way. But he was certainly happy to come away with the win.
“We somehow got there in the end,” he told Rugby News. “I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to finish up at one stage but we stepped up really well. Our forwards did a really good job tightening our line defending set-piece and the whole team stood up and shut them down for the last couple of minutes. It was funny, running into the wind is where both teams scored their points so it was certainly a game I expected to go a lot differently but hey, we’ll take that result.”
A slow start and the concession of a set-piece try in the opening minutes certainly wasn’t a part of City’s game plan. But it was the response of his team and the way they went about their business for the rest of the first half that impressed the captain the most.
“We mucked up right from the start and pretty much gifted them the first five points so we had to get back to the way we wanted to control things and put as much pressure on as we could field position-wise and just backed our defence,” said the 23-year-old. “That’s what put us so far ahead in that first half and ultimately, that’s what shut the game down. To be able to keep them to just five points in the first 40 was incredible because they’ve been running away with 70pt wins in recent weeks.”
Ten wins in a row would rightly give most teams confidence in their ability to respond under pressure, and prop Sam Talakai sees the unquestionable belief in the City squad as having played a vital role in this win and for the challenges ahead.
“Stilesy (head coach Nick Stiles) said all week that we would have mistakes in the game, it was a case of which team responds to them better,” he said. “I thought the boys defended really well for the rest of that half and we were then able to put some points on ourselves so it was a very pleasing first 40 minutes.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in the squad and I think that’s an advantage that we’ve got as well as a number of Super Rugby players who can produce game changing moments. Today we were lucky enough to come away with a couple of those and take advantage, which put us in a good position.”
From the other side of the fence, a humble Ben Alexander paid tribute to a quality opposition, whilst ruing the fact that they had been given such a first half leg-up towards victory.
“They’re a class side and they showed why they’re the reigning champs and why they’re top of the table,” said the prop. “They really came at us in the first half and we didn’t play all that well and they deserved to have a 30pt lead with over half an hour to go. We showed a lot of character to fight back but you’re never going to catch a side with the quality of Brisbane if you give them a 30pt lead.
“They were really good when they had the ball and really made us work hard to try and get points when we had it, and you don’t need a lot of possession if you’re scoring from only a couple of phases. We knew they were going to be really up for it, especially at the start. We wanted to start well too but unfortunately, we didn’t play well enough and with the backline that they’ve got, if you give them enough ball they’re going to eventually cut you to pieces and guys like Nick Frisby and Karmichael Hunt did just that.”
Having won their previous six games of 2015 with an average scoreline of 48-21, finding themselves 24-5 down at the break was somewhat unchartered territory for this group of Vikings. Alexander admitted a few home truths were issued in the sheds.
“We copped a bit of an earful from the coach. We’ve had a few easy victories in the last few weeks and maybe some bad habits have crept in to our game and Brisbane exposed them in the first half. The intensity wasn’t there that’s required if you want to beat the Premiers and it showed. We needed to go out and do what we do but do it a lot better.”
Presumably, a fourth try for the visitors only three minutes after the restart wouldn’t have improved coach Brad Harris’ mood. But as winger James Dargaville explains, it proved to be the line in the sand that kick-started the revival.
“The game can change so quickly in the NRC, it’s a case of sticking in there and being there in the last 10 minutes when things really open up and the good thing about this side is that we’re pretty relaxed under pressure,” he explained. “People like Christian [Leali’ifano] are very good for that, telling us to reset after that try, go through our processes and back ourselves.
“We hadn’t actually played in that first half. Every time we built a bit of pressure, we turned the ball over and City were equal to it so it was a matter of holding onto the ball for a few phases and stressing their defence to see what would open up. When we did, our scrum and lineout started to perform and we put them under a lot of pressure and I thought we were going to come away with it at the end.”
Given they’d put themselves in such a strong position at half-time, there was a fair degree of frustration in the City camp that they’d let the Vikings back into the contest in the second stanza. But there was also a realisation that they had been up against a formidable opponent.
“We weren’t comfortable at any stage, we didn’t know if they were going to comeback but if they did, we were hoping it wasn’t going to get as close as it did in the end. I think that’s a credit to the way they play and how good a team they are,” said Gill.
“Their big boys got a bit of a roll on and we just needed to front up in defence a little better than we did but once we turned the tide a bit and got that fifth try, we just bunkered down and closed out the game and that was what we needed. We weren’t overly happy with that 25-minute period midway through the second half where we were a little bit complacent. But we dug in and got the result, so there’s not too much I can be unhappy with.”
“They’re a good side, the hardest we’ve faced so far,” observed Talakai, “But we were disappointed that we gave them a sniff to come back from where we were at one stage. All they need is that little opening to put one or two scores on you pretty quickly and after our try after half-time, they turned it up another level.
“We were pretty much on the backfoot for the rest of the game but credit to the boys, this NRC has a lot of focus on attack but off the back of last week’s effort against the Stars, we really scrambled well again and stopped them from coming back to win it. We want to build our own identity and being the best defensive side has been a big goal for us. Brisbane City stands for hard work, enjoyment and opportunity and I thought all the guys that put on that jersey today definitely added to that identity.”
While the City bandwagon rolls on, it’s certainly not time for the Vikings to throw the baby out with the bathwater after one loss. They are still guaranteed a top two finish and a home semi-final at least, and from there, all bets are off.
“There’s a lot to take out of this for us,” confirms Alexander. “As far as the actual detail in our game, we were still pretty good today. I don’t think we need to change anything it’s just the application. We’ve been winning games well but it was a step up in class with the side that we played today.
“That first half was a tough half of footy but we don’t need to panic, we may have lost the home grand final if we get there but there’s still a lot to like about our game. It was a good reality check, we’ve just got to make sure we knuckle down and get ready for the next match. We’re still in a good position to give this competition a shake.”
BRISBANE CITY 37 (Pettowa Paraka, Junior Laloifi, Ben Hyne, Karmichael Hunt, Liam Gill tries; Jake McIntyre 4 cons) defeated UC VIKINGS 31 (Jarrad Butler, Robbie Abel, Rodney Iona, Albert Anae, Les Lealua-iali’i-Makin tries; Christian Leali’ifano 2 cons)