The NRC Wash-Up: Rd 3 – UC Vikings v Greater Sydney Rams
by Paul Cook –
Given their roster, the expectations were that the Vikings would be a major contender for the inaugural NRC title in 2014. However, it’s probably fair to say that they disappointed more than most, racking up only two wins from their eight games to finish 6th on the ladder and out of finals contention. The focus for 2015 then, has been about redemption, and nothing less than a full blown tilt at the Buildcorp trophy will suffice. After a bye in week one, round two’s demolition of the NSW Country Eagles served as a warning that they were ready to make good on their promise.
For the Greater Sydney Rams, 2015 was about building on a decent first season and eking out the extra effort and execution to turn 5th place into a shot at glory in the finals. A narrow first-up loss to the NSW Country Eagles was a blow but certainly no disgrace, and having had the week off in round two to bed in a few more plays and combinations, they set off for the nation’s capital in search of a valuable win. However, the absence through injury of Jed Holloway, Hugh Roach, Jai Ayoub and Marcus Carbone, left them somewhat down on artillery for the battle ahead.
What the Rams didn’t need on a sunny afternoon at Viking Park, was to concede a try within two minutes. But after conceding a scrum penalty from the first engagement, the home side drove skipper Jarrad Butler over with relative ease from the ensuing lineout to set the tone for the day.
Ita Vaea was man-of-the-match in the win over the Eagles the previous week and he started in a similar vein on Saturday, flaying Rams aside like a shearer on double time as he racked up one powerful carry after the other. But it was his underrated handling skills that carved out try no.2 for the Vikings on 13 minutes, another damaging surge capped off by a delightful one-handed reverse pass to release Jerome Niumata to the corner.
The Rams could barely muster a response, so well drilled was the Vikings defensive line, and so rapid their line speed, that the visitors had precious little time or space to construct anything like a coherent attack. And when the ubiquitous Butler was driven over off another effective rolling maul in the 23rd minute to help the score along to 21-0, it looked like a long afternoon in the sun beckoned for the Sydneysiders.
But inspired by the intermittent probes of fullback Paul Asquith, and a drop in intensity from the hosts who maybe thought this was going to be a walk in the park, the Rams fought their way back into contention. Prop Sam Needs went over from in close after positive work from Cohen Masson, before a lightning fast Brad Curtis ran onto a precision pass from flyhalf Rohan Saifoloi and found a path to the posts. Seven minutes out from the break, it was game on.
The irrepressible Vaea however, had other ideas. A minute before oranges, the 119kg behemoth laid waste to all before him once again, powering his way to the chalk only for a superb goal line tackle from Nick Batger to hold him a couple of inches short. However, Rory Arnold was on hand to scoop up and dive home for a 26-13 half-time lead.
When Cohen Masson span off a ruck to snipe his way over four minutes after the restart, momentum swung briefly the way of the Rams, and another score in the next 10 minutes would have been an interesting insight into the Vikings’ fortitude. But their inability to drive home a potentially pivotal successive five-pointer cost them.
Frankie Fainifo, returning to Canberra after five years ‘en Francais’, showed he’d lost none of his finishing power to rack up the Vikings’ fifth on 53 minutes. And it would have been a travesty given his contributions if Vaea had gone home without adding his name to the score sheet, the no.8 on hand to slide home and finish off a terrific length of the field effort from his team mates.
Sam Needs pounced on a charge down to grab a rare – but ultimately fruitless – double on 65 minutes, before the home side came home with a wet sail. Replacement Dean Oakman-Hunt went over near the posts after the deftest of offloads from hooker Robbie Abel, and speedster Niumata claimed his second with five to go, crossing out wide after his fellow backs had worked an overlap.
Add to the mix a pretty decent display – and six conversions – from Wallaby Christian Lealiifano, a strong 50 minutes from fellow international Ben Alexander, and a man-of-the-match performance from the athletic and ubiquitous Brumby, Jordan Smiler, and this Vikings team look like they might just be the best equipped side to trouble favourites – and reigning Premiers – Brisbane City.
Interestingly, it turns out the opening try for the home side off the 2nd minute driving maul, wasn’t exactly how either team had anticipated that particular play evolving.
“We knew what they were going to try and do and there was a plan to sort of hold off and not let the rolling maul happen but it kind of backfired on us a little bit,” Rams winger Nick Batger admitted to Rugby News afterwards.
“They stood off and tried to get a truck and trailer penalty but we identified that they weren’t pushing,” explained Vikings prop, Ben Alexander. “Jarrad [Butler] broke off the back and scored and that was pretty much a dream start to get that first try so early.”
It was certainly the rock the hosts built upon, racking up two more scores by the end of what transpired to be a difficult first quarter for the visitors, who simply couldn’t get hold of the football.
“It was a bit tough to start that way and hard to get the boys back up and into a good tempo after that,” observed Rams halfback Dewet Roos. “They’re a side that can capitalise well off their lineouts and any penalties within the five.
“They had a really good defensive line, which came up as one and with big guys like Ita and Jarrad Butler and Allan Ala’alatoa always coming up and trying to put hits on, they put us on the backfoot. Every time we got the ball, we had very little time, whereas they always played off nice front-foot ball and managed to come away with points in that first quarter.”
However, the Vikings didn’t go on with their early domination, and, according to Jordan Smiler, may have ironically paid the price for that initial control of the match.
“I didn’t think we were going to put on points that quickly and it was nice to get away early and build some confidence,” said the rangy loose forward. “But I think because we scored points early on and we had a lot of possession, we didn’t really get a chance to get into our defensive rhythm.
“We started to make a few mistakes trying to exit and then we had to defend and it was a bit of a wake-up call, that realisation that the Rams were going to have a crack as well. We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit with individual errors at times and maybe a bit of inexperience, guys not being in the right spot at the right time.”
Ben Alexander felt it was a combination of two factors.
“We definitely switched off a bit, but part of that was also that the Rams fought back hard as well,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of young guys who are keen to impress, they stepped up a gear and we might have been guilty of backing off a bit.
“What we took out of the game was that when we exited our defensive zone well, we were able to put pressure on the Rams and control the game. But when we were sloppy exiting our defensive zone, the Rams would get a turnover or a penalty and were able to score points off that because they’re a very good attacking side. So we’ll take some learning out of that.”
For the Rams themselves, it was always going to be a case of having a go. They are a team chock-full of attacking flair and irrespective of the scoreline, they weren’t about to die wondering.
“We’ve got some really good players that know how to identify space and there’s nothing wrong with our ability to play, it’s maybe just a different couple of combinations and plays that we need to get used to and how we want to play and I think it will all fall into place,” said Roos.
“It was hard for our backs to try and spark anything when we did get the ball because we were usually on the back foot,” noted Batger. “But when we did get down there, we did pretty well and showed that we could come away with points and at half-time, we were fairly happy with how we were going. We hadn’t had too much ball or too much territory but we were still in the game.”
The try on the stroke of half-time from Rory Arnold was a bitter blow – “a great time to score” – said Alexander. But the Rams came out with renewed belief off the back of their second quarter resurgence and when Cohen Masson went over to make it an 11pt ball game, there was more than a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
Another score at that point would have made life very interesting indeed but Batger feels they probably shot themselves in the foot with some of the option taking.
“I think we threw away too much ball in the opening period of the second half, whether that was through some average kicks or a few dropped balls, and that was the time we needed to switch it up to another gear,” said the 28-year-old. “We probably saw that the wind was with us and we might have kicked a bit too much when we were actually finding inroads keeping the ball in hand, but that can happen when the wind is behind you.”
Failure to put consecutive scores on their hosts came back to bite the Rams with a vengeance, four more tries in the last 25 minutes leaving a rather lop-sided scoreline at full-time. But for Ben Alexander, they are still a team to be wary of in this competition.
“With about half an hour to go it was still anyone’s and that’s credit to them for trying to find a way to stay in the game,” said Australia’s most-capped prop. “Experience was definitely on our side, we have a group of professional players at the Vikings, but the Rams have nothing to lose and they threw themselves at us and scored some really good tries.
“If you give them a sniff and let them get a few tries in a row – especially with eight point tries – they’re a side that can put 20-30 points on you really quickly, so we just wanted to make sure we ensured the result. We knew that there was a good chance some late tries might come in and blow the score out a bit and help us secure the bonus point and that’s how it played out.”
Despite the fact that the NRC is awash with points across the board, the concession of 58 was still a bitter pill to swallow for the visitors. Said more through the prism of simple reality than complaint, the disparity between the sides in terms of Super Rugby experience was a valid one that Dewet Roos was keen to point out.
“Conceding 58pts is obviously not good but they do have some damaging players who mostly picked the right options at the right time and caught us off guard in defence and got us on the outer edges,” he reflected. “We’re probably quite fortunate the score wasn’t a little bit bigger because I think they bombed a couple of tries as well.
“The teams that are more professional get a bit more time under their belts to form combinations, plays and structures, and it clearly works for them. We only train three nights a week and for some of the boys, it’s an hour trip either way, while the Super Rugby teams put in two sessions a day. They’re just in that environment to continually improve themselves, so they are always going to have the upper hand and it’s always going to be tough.”
Two games and two losses leaves the Rams already behind the eight-ball if they are to go at least a week further into this year’s competition. Next up at Forshaw Park in Sydney’s South this Saturday, are fellow stragglers Queensland Country, who, like the Rams, are yet to taste victory. That fact alone makes this a game of the utmost importance.
“You don’t want to be starting a short competition like this with three losses so it would be great to get that win over Queensland, but it’s going to be a case of going back to the drawing board this week,” said Nick Batger. “The will is there, it’s about getting everything to connect and building on those combinations that we do have from some club players, while forging new ones from players that have been playing against each other for 15 weeks of the Shute Shield.
“We believe we can make the finals, no doubt. We know the Vikings are going to be up there at the end of the season so we always knew this one was going to be a tough game. Momentum is a funny thing in sport, if we can get a couple of wins on the trot you never know what can happen.”
The Vikings are back on the road – or in the air to be precise – as they head across the Nullarbor to take on another winless side, Perth Spirit. Jordan Smiler believes that – while there is plenty of room for improvement – they can travel there with a fair bit of confidence after this performance.
“It was still a bit patchy and we need to improve our communication in some areas as well as not being able to get off the defensive line quick enough, but we came good in the end,” he said. “We need to look back at the game and see where we let the Rams in and how they put points on us but we’ll have plenty to take into the game in Perth for sure. So far, so good.”
UC CANBERRA VIKINGS 58 (Jarrad Butler 2, Jerome Nuimata 2, Rory Arnold, Frankie Fainifo, Ita Vaea, Dean Oakman-Hunt tries; Christian Lealiifano 6 cons) defeated GREATER SYDNEY RAMS 26 (Sam Needs 2, Brad Curtis, Cohen Masson tries; Rohan Safoloi con, Tayler Adams con)