The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 9 – Melbourne Rising v Sydney Stars
by Paul Cook –
With Brisbane City and UC Vikings having already cemented the top two spots on the ladder a week earlier, there were a potential five teams playing for the two remaining finals spots before a ball was kicked in the final round of the regular season. But with Saturday’s results pushing both Perth Spirit and North Harbour Rays out of the equation, only NSW Country Eagles stood between the Rising and the Stars’ hopes of at least another week’s footy. A win for the Stars would send Rising to an early Mad Monday, while victory for the Melburnians by 8pts or more would render the Stars’ 2015 season over and out. However, a bonus point loss for the Sydneysiders would take both teams forward at the expense of the Eagles. But with the Stars having leaked 166pts in their last three games, that couldn’t happen, could it…?
Rising got off to the positive start they wanted when Ben Meehan profited from a crash ball run from Lopeti Timani only three minutes on, the giant loose forward skittling two or three Stars to open a pathway for his fellow forwards to rumble within a metre, and Meehan was on hand to snipe over.
The Stars didn’t have much to work with in the opening quarter as their hosts looked to put them away early. When they did have some ball, their attack was a touch too lateral and lacked a cutting edge when they neared the 22, so they were more than happy to be gifted a way onto the scoreboard when a loose pass from Jack Debreczeni was picked off in mid-air by Harry Jones, who raced half the field for his 8th try of the season.
Rising suffered a further setback when tighthead prop Duncan Chubb was forced from the field after only 18 minutes, and the home scrum wobbled for a while before his replacement, Tom Moloney, found his feet.
But it was still Rising asking most of the questions in attack, and despite being held at bay for the next 10 minutes by some sterling defensive work from the Stars, it was they who crossed next, Justin Marsters into the corner for his first in Rising colours and Debreczeni adding the extras.
With half-time looming, the visitors upped the pace in search of a reply. Tolu Latu led from the front with a succession of powerful ball carries, while Tom Kingston was a constant menace from the back, picking his moments to insert himself into the play and attract defenders.
But in their eagerness to make something happen on the scoreboard, they inadvertently shot themselves in the foot. A quick tap on the edge of the Rising 22 found Kingston and the fullback immediately targeted the potential space out wide. But when Rising reset their defence, an ill-advised grubber from captain David Hickey was stymied at source by Sam Jeffries and the ever-dangerous Stacey Ili scooped up the loose pill and found no-one home to race 80 metres for his side’s third.
Now 18-5 down, the Stars were in danger of letting the game get away from them, but when the chips are down, who better to lead the charge than Tom Carter, the old warhorse breaking the line with a dummy and swerve after the restart to get his team on the front-foot. A quick tap penalty after the hosts went offside gave the visitors a chance to go through the hands and when Guy Porter ran out of turf, he popped a magical reverse pass back infield for Jim Stewart to stroll home and keep Spirit on their toes as they went to the sheds.
It was a scrappy opening 10 minutes after the break, Rising looking for a knockout blow but coughing up too many penalties as the Stars belief in their chances of getting something from the game visibly grew.
They thought they’d bagged a second on 51 minutes, Carter lending his weight to the back of a rolling maul before flopping over, only to be ruled held up. But the Stars kept their foot on the throat, an increasingly fruitful scrum giving them the platform to launch a series of raids inside the Rising 22 and four minutes later, they thought they were in again, only for Jake Gordon to be pinged for playing the ball again after being tackled.
That double let-off served as a wake-up call for Rising and when a Lopeti Timani pop pass set Colby Fainga’a off on a 40 metre gallup upfield, the flanker only needed a couple of team mates on hand to have created a five-pointer. But by the time the support did arrive, the Stars had scrambled well and a knock-on from Luke Jones thwarted the play.
And that was pretty much that.
The last 20 minutes was a case of the Stars defence continuing to front up to the challenge and holding on for that precious bonus point, while Rising struggled to finish off a plethora of chances that would have afforded an easier ride home. All of which left us with the first ever ‘pointless’ half of NRC footy.
As a result, the Stars edged out the NSW Country Eagles by a point to claim 4th spot and will head to Brisbane City this Saturday to try and avenge that 58-0 shellacking only a fortnight ago. And while Rising did enough to confirm 3rd spot and a successive finals appearance, they will need to combine sufficient recovery with plenty of skills execution if they are to survive a visit to the nation’s capital on Friday, where they take on the UC Vikings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first pointless half of NRC footy so far, contributed to the lowest aggregate score in the 75 matches played in the competition’s two-year history, beating the 31-2 scoreline played out between the NSW Country Eagles and Greater Sydney Rams in Round 1 of 2014.
Rising loose forward Luke Jones, felt the outcome was indicative of the situation both teams found themselves in at kick-off. With so much at stake, the game assumed a finals-like intensity and importance, becoming more attritional and less open than your standard NRC fayre as a result.
“It was a big slog-fest,” he admitted to Rugby News. “It was really tough and neither team let up at any stage. Just when you think you’d got it over them, they’d come back and play to their strengths and next thing you know, we’re fighting for our finals lives again. But there aren’t any comfortable wins this year, I think the rest of the competition has really turned it on and teams are really starting to make good use of the new rules.
“The Stars were always going to put everything on the line, both teams were competing for the finals and they played some smart footy. They tried to play an up-tempo game and catch us off our guard but we went out there with a plan to win the game and got the job done and are lucky enough to move onto next week. It was tough but we got what we needed.”
Rising certainly had the chances to open up a gap on the scoreboard, but much to the Country Eagles’ chagrin, they lacked a bit of spark and a clinical edge needed to punish the Stars further and possibly alter the make-up of the finals series. Jones admits it is an area they will be looking at over the next few days.
“We were really happy with our defensive work but I think our attack let us down a bit,” he said. “We probably put a bit too much pressure on ourselves at times and that’s something we’ll need to work on this week. Everyone says finals football is about defence so we’re comfortable in that department, but we do need to work on our attack.”
“We simply had to come today and win, that was the equation, and I’m really pleased we got the job done,” said Rising head coach, Zane Hilton. “To miss out on finals would have been a real disappointment, and now we’ve gotten ourselves to the dance.
“The whole squad got the team across the line today but I thought our tight five worked exceptionally hard around the paddock, carried hard and got low to tackle. That was really pleasing. Lopeti Timani led the line and he was really our marker today.”
The disparity between attacking nous and defensive prowess on the day, was echoed across the sheds by the visitors. Considering the calamitous events that unfurled against Brisbane City last time out, this was some fight back from a side sprinkled with higher-level experience but predominantly a group of talented but unproven young men. The oldest of them all, Tom Carter, bore the character of a satisfied soul at full-time.
“[Head coach] Pete Playford has spoken all year about our identity and our values and pre-game, we all sat and wrote down what the Stars meant to us. It got us pretty fired up and I think the boys really fed off that,” revealed the veteran centre.
“We were down 18-5 and then 18-10 for all of the second half but the way we defended was very pleasing. It’s not something that has been our forte, particularly against Brisbane City and the Vikings, but I think we showed today that when we play for something greater than ourselves, that we were more than willing to defend well and that’s probably the most pleasing aspect against a pretty good Melbourne Rising side.
“Our attack could have been better but that may be down to the fact that Gussie Roberts and a few of us haven’t been around in recent weeks. But I think our defence was outstanding and that’s a great record to be proud of, to hold out a team like Rising for a whole half in the first pointless 40 minutes in NRC history.”
Given their historical propensity for leaking points, Carter admits he feared the worst when Rising went in for their third try in the shadows of half-time. But the way his young apprentices rallied to stay in the game was indicative of the virtues extolled by the former Waratah throughout his career.
“The pressure at this level forces guys to do things they wouldn’t normally do in club rugby and also, that you can’t get away with and credit to Melbourne, they punished us and the writing was on the wall at 18-5 with a couple of minutes to go before the break,” said Carter. “But I think it shows the resolve in the group and as we’ve said all along, for these guys at this level, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about hanging in there, having the courage to keep going and trying to work hard for your team mates.”
“We were on the charge after half-time,” he continued. “I was held up off a rolling maul and then Jake Gordon was done for a ‘double movement’ and that probably affected the way the momentum of the game was going. I think if we’d scored then we certainly could have pushed harder for the last 10-15 minutes for a win. But credit to Rising, they fought really hard and got themselves out of that and came back at us towards the end and our forwards had to really stand up. The amount of rolling mauls they sacked or turnovers they forced after a line break really showed what this group is about.”
But while Rising’s appearance in the final four is somewhat expected given their roster and off the back of their Minor Premiership last year, the Stars spot amongst the title contenders was a lot less likely, coming as it did off the back of a wooden spoon in 2014. Credit for the turnaround, in Carter’s eyes, goes to the coaching ticket.
“I’ve been in a lot of teams but this one has an incredibly unique feel to it and credit to Parksie [Dan Parks], Playf [Peter Playford], Davo [Tim Davidson] and Dave Lyons – who was with us early on before heading over for the World Cup – for making rugby very enjoyable every week for someone as old as me. They can’t be thanked enough, they’ve created something for young guys to believe in.”
“People probably won’t take us seriously going into the semi-final next week and I’m sure Brisbane City are red-hot favourites but we’re really proud of what we’ve done here and I think we’ve created something for the future.”
For Rising, it’s now a case of looking forward to what might be, rather than back at what could/should have been. While failing to hit the heights expected – and that they demand of themselves – across the regular season, the slate is now wiped clean for the finals series and all bets are off. Round seven’s 42-16 defeat at Viking Park still smarts and Rising believe they have the tools to get the job done second time around.
“We haven’t had the consistency we’d have liked but at the end of the day, we’ve made the top four, we’re in the finals, and what better way to do it than to go to Canberra and try and get some redemption next week,” said Luke Jones. “We’ve got a few days to concentrate on the Vikings now, hopefully, we’re coming together at the right time of the year.
“We didn’t concede any points after half-time today, our defence has got better in the last two weeks and that will be a strength for us. We also need to focus on being very defensive, strong in possession and playing better field position because the last time we played in Canberra, we got ourselves undone a few times by playing too much on our own half. We just need to tighten up our game a bit, if we can do that and bring that defensive attitude of the last two weeks, we’ve got a good opportunity to reach that grand final.”
For coach Hilton, the message was a simple one. Just keep on keeping on.
“We’ll be looking for everybody to raise the tempo again on Friday. It doesn’t matter how you got there, and our eight matches mean little now; it’s up to us to control our own destiny and head to Canberra to get the job done again. We’ve been playing finals football all month, knowing that if we slipped up we were gone, and we’ll take that same intensity into the contest on Friday.”
MELBOURNE RISING 18 (Ben Meehan, Justin Marsters, Stacey Ili tries; Jack Debreczeni con) defeated SYDNEY STARS 10 (Harry Jones, Jim Stewart tries; cons)