Just as was the case this time last year for long time Wallabies teammate, Benn Robinson, UC Vikings and Brumbies prop Ben Alexander comes into the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship determined to put the disappointment of his national omission behind him.
After being aligned to the Greater Sydney Rams via his junior club Eastwood last season, but not playing a game, Alexander will make his NRC debut this weekend off the bench for the University of Canberra Vikings against NSW Country at Woollahra Oval in Sydney.
Having not played a lot since the end of Super Rugby, Alexander will be eased into action, though the Vikings still have the luxury of naming a starting pack featuring seven Super Rugby-contracted players. Alexander has loved getting back into the swing of playing again.
“For me at the moment, I just want to play,” he told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week. “I’m sort of on pre-season duties at the moment trying to make sure I come back bigger and better next year, so yeah, I am really excited to be playing again.
The pain of missing the Wallabies is softening, and may never really disappear, but Alexander is finding solace - and enjoyment - in getting stuck into a new team environment again.
“At the moment, it’s all about the excitement of playing [in the NRC]. I found out quite a while ago - probably six or seven weeks ago now - that I wasn’t going to be part of [the Wallabies campaign] this year, and it was extremely disappointing, but you’ve just got to get on with it, and on with life and with playing.
“And it’s going to be hard watching the Rugby World Cup but in saying that, I’m very excited about running out with the Vikings - a lot of the boys I’ve already played a fair bit with, but there are also a lot of good Canberra club players who have been training hard. We’re really excited for Saturday.”
Though Alexander takes the field as one of the veterans of the Vikings side, such is the level of leadership from the likes of skipper Jarrad Butler, and key forwards Jordon Smiler, Rory Arnold, and Blake Enever, Alexander has found that he hasn’t had to say too much in preparations to date. He’ll be sure to have words with young props Allan Ala’alatoa and Leslie Leuluai’ali’i-Makin, but they will also be well served by Vikings forwards coach and renowned scrum-junkie, Dan Palmer.
Something Alexander is yet to experience the general pace of an NRC match, as well as one of the NRC Law Variations, whereby scrums need to be set within 30 seconds of the referee making the mark.
“That’ll be something I’ll have to adjust to on the run, it’s going to be quite quick. The boys who played last year said it is a lightning quick game, so that’s something I’ll experience on Saturday,” Alexander said.
“We haven’t practised packing scrums against the stopwatch or anything, but we’ll just have to know that once the mark has been set, it’s get on your bikes and no dawdling.
“I might just have to follow the ref around the field, so that when he blows for a scrum, I’ll already be standing there. That’ll teach the blokes that hand out on the wing; they’ll soon learn not to hang out so wide!”
The speed of the NRC has seen a number of teams working hard in preparation on their core fitness, but Alexander said this was something the Brumbies’ Super Rugby program prepared them for anyway.
“There has been a fair bit of fitness and defence work that we’ve done over the last few weeks in our prep, but no more than what we did with the Brumbies. For the fulltime guys, it’s just been a continuation of what we’ve been doing, and so it hasn’t been so much of a shock.
“But for some of the guys that aren’t fulltime, we’ve had some pretty tough, professional sessions. It’s a bit of a shock for those guys, and gives them a taste of what Brumbies Rugby is all about, and what professional footy’s all about. We train hard, and that’s generally what we base our results on; working hard down here in Canberra.”
Though he’s looking forward to pulling on Canberra Vikings jersey again - Saturday’s game will be 10 years almost to the day since he last played for the Canberra Vikings team in the Shute Shield competition in Sydney - Alexander still has an eye on gold.
“I want to get back into the Wallabies and if it’s not this year, it’s definitely next year, so my focus has been on really trying to get myself in shape, use this time off - I really haven’t had a pre-season since I started playing; I’d always be selected [for the Wallabies] and be going from game to game. So it’s been nice to have a little bit of down time.
“But I’ve been training hard to stay in shape, and to get myself in the best possible shape for next year, and still keeping me in good shape now, if I do get called up. I’ll be ready to go, should there be any injuries, but the mindset’s just about really enjoying playing with the Vikings while building myself up for a big 2016.”
Alexander said the Vikings squad has taken many lessons out of expectations from last year, and even from the Vikings side in the 2007 ARC competition, where they were also chock-full of Super Rugby players, but couldn’t deliver on those expectations. He said there are both positives and negatives about having so many contracted players in the program, with one of the major down sides being motivated to play in a new competition after an already long Super Rugby season.
“They made sure we got plenty of rest after the Super Rugby season was over, just so that we could get our energy levels back up, and get the excitement levels back up, too. It doesn’t matter how good a player you are, if you’re not excited or you’re not up for it, you’re not going to play well.”
And with a tweaked schedule to allow for the club players who still juggling jobs, Alexander said the Vikings’ ambitions for the 2015 Buildcorp NRC are clear.
“We want to win. We don’t want to shy away from that aspiration,” Alexander said, matter of factly.
“It was a disappointing season last year, to not even make the finals with the squad we had, and with the Brumbies we’ve come close in the last few years, with a Grand Final and a couple of Preliminary Finals. We really just want to see something through, get the win, and come away with the title.
“That’s what I want to get out of it, and I know that’s what the group wants, because we’ve been training hard, and we want to get some pay out of the hard work we’ve been doing.”
The UC Vikings travel to Woollahra Oval in Sydney tomorrow to take on the NSW Country Eagles, kick off 3pm AEST. Tickets from $15 or watch LIVE on foxsports.com.au and FOX SPORTS Now.