It’s one of those funny situations where the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship has reached the Semi-Finals in a heartbeat, yet the start of the nine rounds of the regular season feels like it was eternity ago.
And it took until the end of the very last match of Round 9 last weekend before the four semi-finalists were confirmed. With Brisbane City and Uni of Canberra locked in the top two spots, Melbourne Rising and the Sydney Stars only had to beat each other to qualify for the finals. Waiting tentatively in third spot were the NSW Country Eagles, needing either Melbourne or Sydney to win comfortably in order to qualify.
The worst possible scenario for Country was a Melbourne win and a Stars’ losing bonus point, and of course, that’s exactly what happened. Melbourne’s 18-10 win, with the first scoreless half of rugby in NRC history, was enough for both teams to qualify. The Eagles were done for 2015.
And so, to the Semi-Finals. We’ve spoken to all four captains for both previews, and even asked the same questions, to get an idea of how they see things currently.
Here are the responses from Canberra’s Jarrad Butler, and Melbourne’s Colby Fainga’a, ahead of Friday’s first Semi Final in Canberra:
How is your form line coming into the Semis?
Butler: “I guess for us, it was really important that we came up against a really strong [Brisbane] City side. The lessons we’ve taken out of that loss is we now know what it takes to beat the big sides, and that will be the case against Melbourne, where set piece will be so important, where being able to play for 80 minutes is so important.
“So for us, the loss (to Brisbane City) came with a little silver lining, in that it gave us a bit of a kick in the butt as far as what we need to do when it becomes crunch time in the finals.”
Fainga’a: “I think that’s something we’ve been trying to work on, but we’ve probably struggled a bit with consistency throughout the season. In saying that, on the weekend and even for the last few games, all we said was that it doesn’t matter how we win, all we’ve got to do is just win.
“If we can get to the finals, we give ourselves a good crack to win it.”
What were the lessons from your Round 9 result?
Butler (Canberra beat Queensland Country 42-8, on the Sunshine Coast): “You can take losses two ways; you can dwell on it for too long, or you can just get back on the horse, and I think that’s what we did against Queensland Country last week.
“And especially having some young guys coming into the side, too. (Flyhalf) Mitch Third had a really strong game, and Dan Penca came off the bench and was really good. I think it’s important that we have that depth, knowing how important depth is going to be over the next couple of weeks.
“We were all pretty pleased with how we turned it around, and especially coming into this really strong Melbourne Rising team.
“It was really important that we played some good footy last week, going into the finals, because I think that momentum is really important. And again, especially after that City game - you have a loss, and you learn your lessons, but then you need a strong performance to help roll in, and it worked really well.
“Against a bolstered Melbourne Rising team who are quality, we know we’re going to have to play even better again if we want to stand a chance.”
Fainga’a (Melbourne beat Sydney 18-10, in Frankston): “Having to defend so well in that second half is a big confidence boost coming into this weekend against the Vikings, but we need to look on the other side as well.
“We were camped down in their half for a long time, even in their 22, but we just couldn’t make that final execution to put points on the board. That’s something we’ll talk about this week and trying to work on.”
What were the takeaways from your last clash against them?
Butler (Canberra beat Melbourne 42-16 in Canberra, in Round 7): “We’re definitely not going to use the game a couple of weeks ago as a guide for what might happen this week. They had a couple of players missing, so they’ll be bolstered by a few returning backrowers, and a few forwards who are going to be strong, and they’re leaders within their group, as well.
“I think it’s going to be a huge game, and if we aren’t able to turn it on, then Melbourne are quality team and they will definitely capitalise on any opportunities. There definitely won’t be any complacency from us, that’s for sure.”
Fainga’a: “We actually came out of that game quite confident. We played quite well, and I think the key parts where we probably let ourselves down a bit was just mainly in the forwards, and probably just scrums.
“Obviously, the Vikings have an awesome forward pack and they’re very technical around the set piece, so that’s something we know we need to really focus on this week.
“But coming into this game, all the focus is going to be on us, because we haven’t really put together consistently great performances recently, but we’re in the finals now, so what better time to start putting together some performances! We made it hard for ourselves to get there, but now that we are, hopefully things start falling into place for us.”
How do you get them this week in the Semi?
Butler: “Last time we played them, it was a battle of set piece and I think that will be the case again. Our scrum has been really important for us, and so has our maul and lineout. I think if we’re able to get up there deep in their half, then we can really put some pressure on their backs through the set piece, and on the flip side, you can give your own backs some clean, front-foot ball.
“When we’ve got the backs that we do, if we can get them going forward, they’ll be pretty tough to stop.
“Their backrow has been really good all year, and Ita [Vaea] and ‘Jordy’ [Smiler] have been outstanding for us. It’s a battle that you look forward to, coming up against a Super Rugby backrow, so that matchup is going to be huge for us personally.
“Once again, I think it’s going to come down to the tight five and the forward pack as a whole, and that momentum from the set piece is going to be so important, and that will be one of the key points in how we get the ascendancy.”
Fainga’a: “I think the only thing that let us down last time was the scrum, so we really need to be technically correct at scrum time, and really have a crack there so that our backs can have a solid set piece to play from.
“Last time we played the Vikings we attacked really well, we defended really well. We were getting off the line well, putting some big shots on. We were really energetic, and the intensity was high.
“If we can play the way we did the last time we played them, and just fix up a few things around the scrums, that’s probably it. They’ve got an awesome forward pack, and that’s where they’ll try and take it to us, so it’ll be forward pack against forward pack.
“I feel like the last couple of weeks, our forward pack has really stood up as well, and we’ve been playing well, so I think it’s going to be a great battle.”
Who will you play in the Final?
Butler: “Oh, I don’t know. That’s the thing about semi-finals; it’s often about who turns up.
“City have been outstanding all year, and obviously haven’t lost a game yet, but the Stars when they turn it on can be such a devastating team who can score tries from anywhere. It’ll be an awesome game, and I’m looking forward to watching it, and regardless of what happens, hopefully we can be there to play the winner.”
Fainga’a: “Brisbane City have had an unbelievable season and haven’t lost a game, so they’re going to be tough to beat, and especially playing [their Semi Final] at home too.
“Most likely, if we can get through this weekend, we think we’ll be travelling to Brisbane, but then again, the way the Stars played on the weekend, if they can bring that form to Ballymore, they’ll have a good chance to win as well.
“And then after playing all our games in regional areas, to have a Final at AAMI Park would be awesome. That would be the ideal situation, to have one last hitout for the year on our home ground.”
FRIDAY - Semi Final 1: University of Canberra Vikings v Melbourne Rising, at Viking Park in Canberra; 7:30pm AEDT.
Tickets: Adults just $10 via www.ucvikings.com.au | Broadcast live on FOX SPORTS 2.