This time last year, the Melbourne Rising were flying.
The dominant team of the inaugural Buildcorp National Rugby Championship had amassed 35 competition points on the back of seven bonus point wins from seven games, and after they recorded an eighth bonus point win, there was more than a few suggestions floating around that the engraver could start work early on the brand new NRC trophy.
It’s history now that Perth Spirit beat Melbourne in a home Semi-Final. The overwhelming runaway favourite to claim the first ever NRC title fell at the first hurdle.
In 2015, it’s fair to say things haven’t gone quite as smoothly for the young Rising side. A seemingly never-ending injury toll as seen them use upwards of 40 players in seven games, and though they are equal on points with fourth-placed Perth, Melbourne sit just outside the playoff spots on points differential.
In that context, their win over NSW Country down in Geelong last Thursday was crucial. Had they lost that match, they’d have been pitched into mathematical territory in reach the finals. Beating NSW Country as they did put them in a much better position.
It means they’re essentially in finals mode now; with Perth having the bye in Round 9, Melbourne must simply beat the Sydney Stars down at Frankston on Sunday to ensure a playoffs berth. If other results go their way, they could even finish third overall.
It does, at least, make Melbourne’s planning for this week pretty simple.
“We know if we beat the Stars, we’re in,” Rising backrower Jordy Reid told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week. “It’s pretty much a playoff, to see who gets into the finals, this game.”
“We’ll just worry about winning, because that just eliminates all doubt, really. If we win, we’re in, and we’ve been aware of the equations for the last few games,” Reid said.
With their remaining regular season match effectively a quarter final, Reid said the Rising wouldn’t change their approach at all, though they do have a few little things to work on.
“No, we won’t change too much. I think our discipline has been the big thing that’s been hurting us over the season; we’ve had a few yellow cards and that. So I think our main focus is going to be to just be more disciplined and not give them any opportunity.
“But we were happy with our defence last week, and our attack has been pretty solid for most of the season, so I think if can just stick to what we’ve been doing and not give them any easy field position and penalties, it will help us a lot more.”
The Stars have been one team in this year’s NRC not afraid to play the traditional field position game, and Reid said that even at this early stage in the preparation, they had taken a good look at the footage of what threats the Stars pose.
“We’ve had some footage of them that we’ve been able to watch, as well as some previous games. Obviously, last week we were just focussed on the Eagles, but now we’ve looked at a bit of footage of some Stars games and their key players, and what they like to do.
“They kick out of their half a lot and we’ll go into more detail and come up with our gameplan at training this week, but we’ve got a good idea of the style of game they like to play and what they’ll try to do to us.
“I think if we can have a strong set piece like we did last week, it will help us to build a good go-forward and gets our big forwards pack in the game. With the size of our pack, I think we can try and get on top of them around the park and at set piece, and then we’ve got a lot of zing out in the backs.
“If we can set a platform up front for the backs, I think that’s quite important for our side. Against Canberra (in Round 7) when our set piece was struggling, we found it hard to control the game, whereas if your set piece is going well, you can control the game a lot easier,” Reid explained.
Though their overall season performance hasn’t perhaps been at the consistent level they’d prefer, the Rising have managed to pull off wins against Greater Sydney and North Harbour when they were really put under pressure. NSW Country last week was the same. However, there has still been some cause to rue a missed opportunity.
“The big one was Perth (in Round 6),” Reid said. “We were pretty disappointed with how we went over in Perth, and we probably weren’t as switched on as we needed to be. And they’re a good side. We started the game well, but then pretty much for the last hour they just got on top, and our defence was as good as it should’ve been. That was the big one; that was the one we think we let ourselves down in.”
Reid’s own form has been excellent, but that’s not exactly surprising given he came into the Buildcorp NRC on the back of a really strong Super Rugby season for the Melbourne Rebels. In teammates Jack Debreczini, Nic Stirzaker, and ‘Super’ Sefa Naivalu, he saw for himself what how NRC was able to accelerate their rugby development. So it was interesting in that regard to hear him say that he just wanted to use the NRC to keep doing what he does best.
“It’s not something I’ve been too focussed on; I’ve just wanted to play my game and do my role and not overplay my hand. This competition does push for more exciting rugby, but I’ve tended to leave the backs to do all the flashy stuff, and I’ve just worried about carrying strong and hitting hard.”
And he certainly has carried strong and hit hard in defence, agreeing with my point that it’s a bit hard for him to stay inconspicuous with the dreadlocks flying everywhere in contact. “Yeah, they’re not subtle,” Reid laughed.
The feeling in the Melbourne camp remains strong, however, and Reid says the team feels like they are capable of beating the likes of Brisbane City and Uni of Canberra Vikings in a knockout game, in much the same way Perth knocked the Rising out of contention in 2014.
“The score sort of blew out a bit at the end both times we played them, but we were right in the match and led ‘Brissie’ at halftime, and we were only 10 points behind Canberra with about 15 minutes to go.
“We’re super confident we’ve got the ability to beat the top two teams, and any other team that we come up against. We’re still really positive and we’re a tight bunch of guys.
“We know that if we can get a win this week, then as we found out last year - the hard way - anything can happen in the finals. So we’re still positive we can do some damage in the competition,” Reid said.
Melbourne’s campaign for the finals starts on Sunday, where Frankston Park will see the Rising-Stars game cap off a massive weekend of rugby in the southeast of the city, which is becoming a real hotbed of rugby in Victoria. Boom young centre Sione Tuipulotu will play at his Southern Districts home ground, across the road from where he went to school.
The Frankston Festival of Rugby includes a two-day Melbourne International Rugby 7s carnival complete with a $25,000 prize pool, and all kinds of Pacific Islands cultural foods, performers, stalls and atmosphere.
SUNDAY: Melbourne Rising v Sydney Stars at Frankston Park, from 1:30pm AEDT as part of the Frankston Festival of Rugby. General Admission tickets are $15 per day or $25.00 for a weekend pass, with kids under 12 FREE; click here to buy tickets.