The NRC Wash-Up: Rd1 – North Harbour Rays v Sydney Stars
by Paul Cook –
Only a week after the thrilling finale to the club rugby season in Sydney, six of the players that featured in last weekend’s Shute Shield Grand Final (five from Manly and one from Eastwood) reconvened at a sunny Manly Oval on Saturday afternoon to kick-start the Sydney leg of this season’s NRC.
The North Harbour Rays finished a lower than expected 7th in last year’s inaugural competition, while the talent laden Sydney Stars squad also disappointed, finishing bottom of the ladder with only one win from their eight matches. Suffice to say then, that both teams were keen to get off to a good start this time out.
Added to the mix was the fact that a full 18 players across both squads had faced off against each other at the same venue only two weeks ago, under their club guises of Manly and Sydney University. On that day, the Manly contingent ran out winners by 20pts, bringing a premature end to the Students’ season. You got the feeling that those involved returned with something to prove.
The match played out as almost four quarters rather than two halves, the Rays dominating both opening 20 minutes after the whistle, only for the Stars to end each stanza in the ascendancy. With precious little time together to form combinations, it was a surprise to see how well the Rays gelled from the off, the Warringah spine in jerseys 7, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 15 clearly a benefit as the home side helped themselves to two five-pointers in the first 15 minutes through Alex Northam and Michael Adams.
But having looked like relative strangers for the first quarter, a Stars side that had formed the majority of Sydney Uni’s first XV for the last six weeks of the club season, understandably began to click. And when they went through the gears and started to tick the box marked ‘execution’, they proved to be a fairly unstoppable force.
A score from captain David Hickey in the 21st minute kick-started a four-try salvo in just nine minutes – Jake Gordon, Tom Robertson and ex-Ray, Harry Jones, the other contributors – as a shell-shocked home defence was exposed time and again by the pace, running lines, support play and handling skills of an invigorated Stars.
The set-piece was another area where the visitors gained the upper hand, the scrum a potent weapon throughout and the lineout creating a host of attacking opportunities, one of which was finished off by Rebels-bound James Hanson a minute before the break after a pop pass off the floor from Dave Dennis.
But it proved to be a half-time the Stars could have done without, the 10 minutes rest breaking their dominant rhythm and affording the Rays a chance to regroup, regather and go again. So it was that Tom Hill went over next after 42 minutes from a lovely offload from Richard Woolf, before the ever-dangerous Josh Holmes pounced on a kick through from the impressive Adams in the 52nd minute to make it an 8pt ball game – 3pts for a conversion in the NRC don’t forget!
That narrow margin was the tonic required for the Stars to take it up a notch once more. But while they struggled to make the same inroads as they had before the break, largely due to vastly improved line speed from the Rays as well as the fatigue factor of the sheer pace that the game was being played at, they did manage to cross the white line once more to seal that all-important opening day win, Tom Coolican over in the 68th minute after more good work from Harry Jones.
“For a week of preparation – and that’s all you get going into it – and in terms of new guys coming in, I was really, really happy,” new Stars head coach Peter Playford told Rugby News. “I think it was important to win, not so much as a team, but specifically for some of these guys because it is a confidence game.
“I worked really hard this week with our assistant coaches to make sure we had some certainty coming out of our end and our exits were really good today and I credit that to Dan Parkes. Our defence, which Dave Lyons did a lot of work on, was also good and it was exits and defence that you could probably say won us the game because we built a lot of pressure and off that pressure, we scored a lot of points. But we left a few out there as well.”
Having recovered from a slow start, it was the attacking onslaught in the second quarter that ultimately turned the game the way of the visitors. Whilst agreeing that the nature of the competition lends itself to a more ‘laissez-faire’ approach with ball in hand, captain David Hickey felt their success in that pivotal period was more the result of concerted pressure paying dividends, than any specific attacking brio.
“I wouldn’t say we carved them up but we broke the line a few times and got in behind and put a bit of pressure on them,” he said. “It’s obviously more of an attacking focus for us with the penalty only being worth 2pts but at the same time, we still wanted to play field position and try and squeeze the opposition enough down their end and try and force their hand a bit. Our halves did a pretty good job of pinning them down for that second quarter and the tight five also did a great job today across the 80 minutes.
“We knew they were going to come back in the second half, they’re a good team. We just tried to get back down their end and squeeze them but we coughed it up a few times as well, which was disappointing, but you kind of expect that with no prep. This is the first week we’ve really had a chat as the ‘Stars’ and we’ve only had two sessions going into this game and that’s been about it. There’s been a fair bit of knowledge to get through and you can see we were very rusty around some of our stuff, with blokes not knowing what to do in certain situations and not being used to certain combinations but you’d expect that after two sessions – it was like a Barbarians week!”
The lack of preparation time for round one will continue to be a bugbear. But as experienced Rays skipper Luke Holmes observed, it is what it is.
“I don’t think we can get caught up in that stuff, you’ve just got to live with it and deal with it,” he said. “Yeah, it’s tough but no excuses, if you want to play at the next level and you want to play in this competition, that’s what it is and I think all the guys wouldn’t really worry about it, they’ll do what they have to, to be a part of it. The Manly boys and Tommy Hill from Eastwood, they’ve all come in off a massive week so it was always going to be really tough for them and we also had a lot of guys playing their first NRC game, so, this whole week will be a great experience for everyone.
“We ran out of gas a bit,” he conceded. “It was a shock to the system and the week it’s been caught up on a few players. We made a few bad errors, a few bad decisions and to the Stars credit, they capitalised but that’s the next level and it’s a good experience. I think all the young players that made their debuts this week will be all the better for it and we’ll see a different side come out for round two.”
The switch from club rugby to the different rules of the NRC involves quite a leap for the participants, and it takes a harder toll on some positions than others.
“It’s definitely fast, it’s definitely hard and I think you forget how quick it is, it’s a shock to the system,” Holmes admitted. “But that’s what this footy is about, you’ve got to go to some dark places and you’ve just got to hang in there. With the shot clock and the time limit for scrums there’s no chance to rest in between and when we got to the first couple of scrums, all you could hear was some pretty deep breaths. I would hate to have been big Wayne Borsak today in that heat, carrying around 135kgs would have been tough!”
“The speed of the game was just crazy,” Rays head coach Geoff Townsend concurred. “It was very much like our first game last year in Melbourne. That finished 50-40 or something and again today, we came out on the wrong end of it and it’s one of those things where you’ve got to find ways at times to slow it down and be a bit smarter about how you do things. I’d say there would have been eight to 10 more minutes of actual footy played in the game than usual, so it’s not the traditional game where blokes keep coming around the corner because they just don’t have the petrol left.”
Understandably frustrated at the final scoreline, Townsend still saw plenty of positives for his team to take forward.
“I was pleased with our start. The first 20 minutes were very good, we were up by two tries and we could have been up by more with any sort of luck and then certain areas started to fall down,” he admitted. “We didn’t defend real well and a lack of work there was apparent, we didn’t work back hard enough to help our players from kicks and they got a couple of cheapies. They got a couple of good ones as well and four tries in that short space of time was the killer wasn’t it?
“We’ve got to be a bit more efficient in our clearances and making sure that we make it harder for the opposition to play and also be a bit more creative with our contestables. But I can’t fault the guys, they showed a lot of ticker. They could have put their hands up at half-time and said ‘This is all too hard’ and they didn’t and we came back and we were in the game. We had a chance to make it 37-all there where we made two breaks and didn’t capitalise, and maybe that momentum would have got us home. But once again, it comes down to the fact that we didn’t do the little things well enough.”
The Stars will have the chance to build a fledgling lead at the top of the ladder when they face Queensland Country at Leichhardt Oval this Thursday night. For Peter Playford, it’s another chance for his new charges to put his game plan to the test, and while success in the competition is an obvious driving factor, he happily concedes that it’s far from the be-all and end-all.
“We’re not playing how Uni used to play, I made a really clear distinction between that,” he revealed. “There’s different rules so it’s a different speed to the game and there’s an area of the field in the middle which is really there for open footy. You can’t play this narrow footy, you want to throw it around and you can see that our intention was to do that.
“We threw a few forward passes but everyone in the team has been throwing it around so from that side of it, hopefully it’s entertaining in a sense but it’s also about field position and building points. I’m happy now for the rest of the comp that we’ve started something today and whatever happens from here on in, it’s footy. We’ve got depth and every young player we’ve got here I’d back to be able to go to this higher level. There’s some that are a bit younger that will take a bit longer to get there but I’d back our players against anyone.”
For skipper Hickey, the NRC offers a shot at redemption for a missed opportunity on a personal level at this time last season, as well as a chance to resurrect hopes of lifting a trophy following Uni’s Shute Shield disappointment.
“I just want to finish the footy season on a high,” he admits. “We [Uni] got knocked out of the semi so there’s a bit of unfinished business and I was pretty keen to get into this next comp and test myself because I only played two games last year due to injury. I dusted myself off a week after we lost that semi-final and it’s a completely different environment now. Pete’s in charge, there’s a new coaching staff and there’s some outsiders that have come in to the Stars so it’s completely different and a chance to freshen up, which is good.
“We didn’t go well last year, we had a lot of injuries, which were pretty disruptive and it was a bit of a rush going into it. It was the first year of the comp and we didn’t know what to expect. We’re taking it week-to-week this year, we’re just happy we got a win today. We’ve got to play again on Thursday and we’ll see how we go then but there’s no use looking too far ahead at the moment. Hopefully we can go a bit longer than eight weeks and into the semis.”
For the Rays, this week is about doing the hard yards on the training paddock and preparing for a whirlwind tip to Perth to take on the Spirit on Saturday evening. Despite it being only round two, Geoff Townsend is under no illusions as to the potential brevity of the result.
“In a short competition you need to be winning games, so we’ve got to come out and get a good result over there, it’s essential,” he said. “We’ve got to make the finals this year, no doubt about it. If we don’t then I don’t expect to be here next year and I’m sure there’ll be other people running the show – in my position and others.”
SYDNEY STARS 45 (David Hickey, Jake Gordon, Harry Jones, Tom Robertson, James Hanson, Tom Coolican tries; Angus Roberts 5 cons) defeated NORTH HARBOUR RAYS 29 (Alex Northam, Michael Adams, Tom Hill, Josh Holmes tries; Hamish Angus 3 cons)