The halfway point of the 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship saw some big wins posted around the country, and the downhill run home to the finals commence in earnest.
For the North Harbour Rays, however, it was the point in the season where a number of players finally got to put the feet up after a long season. Head coach Geoff Townsend told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week that the bye was reasonably well timed for a large contingent of his players.
“It was probably handy for the Manly contingent,” Townsend said. “They probably haven’t had a weekend off for quite some time.”
(Manly played in the Shute Shield Grand Final in Sydney, the weekend before the NRC kicked off.)
“I think it would’ve been ideal at the start of the season for us, because we only had a one-week preparation, once again, going into the competition. With the whole group now, we’ve probably still only had eight training sessions, and it’s a bit awkward trying to put all the structures in place, and things like that.
“In every session, you’re maybe adding a little bit more, and becomes a little bit difficult. It’s something we could have done with a little earlier, I think.”
Adding to an already difficult campaign, the Rays have lost a trickle of players - seemingly one a week - since the season began. Highly regarded young flanker Jack Dempsey was last week ruled out for the rest of the NRC with a broken cheekbone, while scans revealed flanker Tyson Davis not only broke his leg against Brisbane City at Ballymore in Round 4, but also suffered damaged to his anterior cruciate knee ligament.
News came through over the weekend that winger Alex Northam was heading to French club La Rochelle as injury cover for former Waratahs flyer, Alofa Alofa; the Rays had already lost Sam Ward, Ed Gower, and Mark Johnson to French and Italian cubs since the NRC began.
“We’ve now lost four players to contracts overseas this year, on top of five last year,” Townsend said. “We have to see that as a positive, and the competition has been great for providing opportunities for these guys, but it’s hard sometimes to fathom how some of these guys we’ve lost aren’t ranked in the top group of players in Australia.”
“Without being disrespectful, I think there’s some players in certain [Super Rugby] franchises, where some of our boys probably could be taking those positions. I cite someone like Greg Peterson for one - how he wasn’t in the top 20 second-rowers in the country last year, it astounds me. It’s similar with Alex, and guys like Gower and Ward, who were two of our best players last season. They’re very good players, and it’s a great opportunity for them to go overseas. And for someone like Ed [Gower], probably long overdue and deserved.
“So as far as ‘outs’, we’re bringing in new players all the time, because of the opportunities these players are receiving. It’s obvious now that the strong competitions overseas are looking at this competition as a feeder competition. And that’s good in way, but it’s frustrating for us, because we’re losing players who potentially could be playing for one of our five teams.”
North Harbour’s first four games have seen them lose to three of the current top four, while also posting an impressive win over the now-resurgent Perth Spirit over in the west.
“We’ve had a tough draw, and we’d obviously like to have a few more games, but we were in positions to win all those games. The 14 men situation in Brisbane, where we got back to within five points was very encouraging, but we just couldn’t complete that game, and against Melbourne we scored three unanswered tries to tie it all up. We were probably worth of getting some sort of result there, but we allowed another try in with a man in the bin, and that was essentially the game.
“With any sort of luck, we could certainly be sitting higher. We’ve now put ourselves in the position where we probably need to win three of our last four games.”
And that’s certainly the case. Townsend agrees with the point I’ve been making in recent weeks, that teams will need at least four wins to make the semis in 2015, even suggesting four may not be enough. Perth snuck into fourth place last season with three wins, but the competition is much tighter this year. The rise of the Uni of Canberra Vikings, along with Brisbane City and Melbourne, and even with Perth back in the frame now, means that the NRC sides with heavy Super Rugby backing are setting up nicely.
The Rays face the unbeaten Vikings this Saturday, and Townsend says his side just has to get out there and take up the challenge of facing off with one of the competition’s dominant teams.
“We’ve just got to get stuck in. It’s not a situation where we can view them as being any better. A lot of those guys are very fortunate to be in the situation where they’re playing rugby for a living, whereas our guys are digging holes and doing other things through the course of the day. You just have to present that challenge to the guys, and tell them, ‘this is where your want to be’.”
Canberra’s game plan is hardly groundbreaking; it’s a complete and arguably more deliberate duplication of the Brumbies’ strong set piece and driving maul forwards game, though as centre Nigel Ah Wong showed last week with four tries against the Stars, they have plenty of firepower out wide.
“They haven’t changed much at all from what they do at the ‘Brums’ and that formula has been successful for a number of years,” Townsend said. “We know they’ll be coming hard at us, and we know they’ll be strong at set piece, and whilst we we’ll focus where we can on that, obviously we’ve got a lot of other things to take care of as well.”
SATURDAY: North Harbour host the University of Canberra Vikings at Pittwater Rugby Park from 3:00pm AEST. Tickets available at the gate and via www.raysrugby.com.au.
For all the latest news and views from the 2015 Buildcorp NRC head to www.buildcorpnrc.com.au