The final round of the 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship sees no less than five teams competing for the final two spots in the finals series.
After starting the season with three straight wins, the Sydney Stars probably thought they’d have had their spot sewn up by now, but a tough middle month of the competition saw them suffer three losses - two of them heavy losses at the hands of competition frontrunners, the University of Canberra Vikings and Brisbane City.
Though they picked up a fourth win in the middle of that period, a bye in Round 8 and some remarkable results elsewhere in the competition has seen them caught up in a mid-table contraction, where just eight points separates the Stars in third from the North Harbour Rays in seventh spot.
They may have lost some momentum, but Stars and former Waratahs centre Tom Carter believes the Round 8 bye will help the side, and allow them to rechart the course for a semi-final tilt.
“A fair few of the boys were pretty banged up after a long year of club rugby or Super Rugby, heading into the NRC,” Carter told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week. “So some of those guys had a bit of a rest, but the rest of us had a bit of work to do.”
“The bye can come at a good or a bad time; I think it probably depends on your momentum, or how you’re going as a group, and I think for us it was a good opportunity to take stock and regather and just get a few bodies in order.
“It’s an exciting couple of weeks for us, and we’re quietly confident that we’ve been able to fix a few things post the Brisbane game (a 58-0 loss in Round 7), and get a few blokes back on deck, which I think is important.”
The magnitude of the twin losses to City and the Vikings certainly would have taken the Stars by surprise, particularly since they had been playing some pretty solid rugby up until that point. And while some teams might have been tempted to put such performances behind them and quickly move on, Carter says the Stars have much to gain from the experience of coming up against near-Super Rugby sides.
“Those two teams have shown by far and away that they’re best teams in the comp, and they showed us what can happen if you don’t step up, and you don’t make your tackles or stick to your systems. So we won’t put them behind us. I think it exemplifies what this tournament is about; it’s about stepping up to the next level, and if you don’t, the margin for error is so small that you can be exposed very quickly.
“Pressure does funny things to people; we’ve seen that even at the World Cup. If one or two guys deviate away from the gameplan, and if you kick the ball away poorly, teams that have guys like Scott Higginbotham, Karmichael Hunt, Christian Lealiifano, Ita Vaea, etc, are going to punish you. That’s what you saw in those games; you saw us going away from what we’d done really well early in the tournament, and we went away from our identity and what we’d practiced as a team.
“I think for our younger group, that will be an incredible learning experience for those aspiring to play Super Rugby, or the NRC for that matter. It will teach them the harsh lessons, and that’s what the tournament is about, it’s about growing the game and being a development pathway. From those two games, you can learn so much.”
Carter hasn’t played for the Waratahs for two seasons now, but his passion for the game remains as strong as ever. So it must be really pleasing for him as a senior player to see this young Stars team turn their fortunes around in 2015, after a not-so-good season in last year’s Buildcorp NRC.
“That’s a testament to the coaching staff,” Carters says. “It’s a totally different coaching team this year - obviously Pete [Playford] was around last year, but with Tim Davison, Dan Parks, David Lyons, they’ve just reinvigorated the entire Stars brand. We spoke about wanting to stand for something, and I think they’ve done it; I think, you know, a lot of people would’ve written us off with the team we had on paper and the players we’ve rolled out, but I think that’s the most exciting bit.”
“Each week, we try to add to our history, even though it’s quite young, and leave the Sydney Stars in a better position for years to come. It’s great to be an older guy and be part of that; it’s exciting.
“And I don’t think the competition is done and dusted. We saw last year when Perth rolled Melbourne in the semi-finals. So there’s plenty to play for this year, and if we can get ourselves into a semi and there’s a few opportunities we can take, we can out ourselves in a good position.”
But being the older guy in a young team, and with the body not getting any younger, is NRC 2015 the Tom Carter swansong, or has he been energised to keep playing the game?
“No, it’s definitely not the swansong. I’ll run around for Sydney Uni again next year, and I’ve always said that as long as I can keep contributing positively and I can earn the respect of the team, then I’m willing to keep going back to the well.
“I’ve had a year interrupted by injuries, so I probably need to work hard in the off-season. That idea that as you get older you get to rest more is a furphy; someone should’ve told me that years ago and I would have retired on the spot.
“But I love the game. I’ve loved to see the re-emergence of Tom Kingston after two injury-riddled years, and to see guys like Jake Gordon and Matt Phillip grow. To see Tom Robertson and Dave Hickey emerge as genuine representative-level footballers. And Pete and ‘Davo’ have made it so enjoyable that I just want to be around.”
On that though, Carter admits that his coaches - “some of my best mates in life” - have made him work hard this NRC campaign. There have been no shortcuts for the veteran, and he said he didn’t enjoy being benched early in the season. “But credit to them, they haven’t shown any favouritism, and it’s been really interesting and really enjoyable.”
Though there are all sorts of complicated equations floating around for some teams, for the Stars it’s very simple: beat Melbourne on Sunday, and they’ll finish in third spot. It makes planning pretty easy.
“Yeah, 100%. We’ll have David Hickey and Angus Roberts and a few guys back, and ultimately, whatever happens for the rest of the season, if we win this weekend, we’ll have won fine and lost three, and that’s a pretty successful year for the Stars after winning the wooden spoon last year
“You want to go into the semi-finals with winning form, and as I said about last year, once you’re in the finals, anything can happen. I don’t think we’ll be as poor as the last times we played Brisbane City or the Vikings; for a lot of the guys, they’ll know what’s coming now.
“So this weekend is about getting the win, regrouping, and then going again the following week.”
But obviously, while the equation might be simple, beating a very good Melbourne Rising side with a Super Rugby-quality backrow is no simple task.
“We’re under no illusions, their backrow is outstanding,” Carter says. “Jordy Reid and Colby Fainga’a were stand out Super Rugby players this year, and when given the opportunity, they’ve got a big abrasive forward pack. With Sam Jeffries and Lopeti Timani, you probably don’t want to run one-out off the ruck too much. And obviously, Jack Debreczini controls the game the game incredibly well, and they’ve got some pretty electric ball-runners out wide.
“It’s going to be about playing out way. Pete has emphasised all week that it doesn’t matter about the result; we just have to go down there and do what we spoke about, and stay true to our own systems and beliefs.
“And I know that’s a cliché in rugby at the moment, and I’m sure we’ll continue to hear it as the World Cup unfolds, but I think that’s the most important thing. We saw England absolutely capitulate at a World Cup because they really stood for nothing.
“I think it’s really important that the Stars stay true to what we believe in, and if we do that, then we’re quietly confident that our game is good enough to upset a few teams.”
SUNDAY: Melbourne Rising v Sydney Stars at Frankston Park, Melbourne, 1:30pm AEDT; streamed live on www.FoxSports.com.au.