After a disappointing 2014 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship, incoming University of Canberra Vikings coach Brad Harris knew that 2015 was going to be a season of high expectation.
A squad laden with a full complement of Super Rugby-contracted Brumbies players, and even a marquee Wallaby in Christian Lealiifano, meant that anything less than a finals appearance would once again be seen as a failure. The bar was set high, but so it should be when the Vikings squad is viewed alongside several others in the competition.
Fortunately, Harris has done a very good job in first season in charge, and the Vikings remain unbeaten after seven rounds heading into a highly anticipated showdown with similarly undefeated Brisbane City on Saturday in Canberra.
Harris is under no illusions that his side needs to play their best game of the campaign to remain unbeaten.
“For us, we’ve got a big emphasis on set piece, and they certainly present our biggest challenge to date at scrum and lineout,” Harris told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week.
“So if we start by winning our ball there, and then executing our shape and structure, as well as being really effective at the attacking breakdown. They’ve got a number of on-ball threats where they’ll look to disrupt our attacking breakdown.
“Similar to when we play any team, if we can win clean set piece, get good clean delivery at breakdown, and hold the ball for significant periods, that will stress their defence and we believe we’ve got the individual talents and threats in our team to be able to exploit some opportunity there.
“That probably hasn’t changed week-to-week for us, but our level of execution and level of detail will need to improve because of the quality of the opposition we’re facing, without doubt.”
Certainly, the Vikings’ accuracy exiting from their own half is going to have to be from the top draw, coming up against the side in the competition that can switch from defence to attack faster than any other.
“Yeah, their transition from turnover to counter attack is really good,” Harris agrees. “We’ve spoken about our reaction time, and making sure our reaction time is really good, and just being clinical; being prepared to hold onto the ball for long periods.”
After a six year involvement with the powerhouse Tuggeranong club in the ACT, and having being involved with the Vikings last season, Harris said this week that taking that step up from club rugby to the NRC has been challenging as Head Coach, but really enjoyable personally.
“Yeah, it’s been great, and having that involvement last year, I think we learned a fair bit in year one of the competition. Managing the load of the Super Rugby boys, but also marrying into the program the combination of Super boys and the club boys training together, and that’s been massive for us this year.
“We’ve got a really united squad, which is great, and for me personally, I’ve been lucky enough to come from a full time role at Tuggeranong, where we also put a fair bit of detail into what we do. And whilst it’s not an NRC program, it’s still run very professionally. So it hasn’t been a massive step up in that sense, but it been a step up in dealing with a bigger management group.
“Here at Tuggeranong, even though you’re fulltime, you’re pretty much doing everything yourself, whereas when you step up to the NRC, you’ve got specialist coaches, physios, S&C; so it’s more about managing and co-ordinating that. I’ve been pretty lucky to have Dan McKellar sitting in that (Director of Rugby) role overarching, where he has a clear understanding of how the Brumbies system works, and he’s there to help steer the program the right way. So it’s been really enjoyable, coming up to the next level.”
While he appears on track to guide his side to a maiden NRC finals appearance, Harris also knows that the competition will mark the end of an era for him. After 11 years away, Harris will head back home to the Gold Coast at the completion of the campaign, and rejoin his wife and kids who headed back in January.
“I went over to Ireland in a player/coaching role, and had five years over there. Father time didn’t wait unfortunately, so the playing days were done, and the opportunity to come to Tuggeranong in a dual capacity as a coach and rugby manager presented.
“I was in a fulltime role over in Ireland, and there’s very few fulltime roles in Australian club rugby, so I looked at it as a good opportunity to come to a really good club, get involved and prove myself. I wanted to keep the coaching ticking over, so I took on the Colts coaching as well as the rugby manager role, and then when Dan [McKellar] moved on to Japan, the coaching director role came up, and that was something I aspired to.
“I was lucky to get the opportunity, and so I’ve been in that role three years with Tuggeranong. And over that time we’ve had a lot of success, though not as much this year as we’d have liked,” Harris laughs. Tuggeranong lost all five grades plus the Women’s on Grand Final day back in August.
“But we’ve seen a real change in the program in that time, through necessity. We’ve put an academy program in place four or five years ago, and a wider training group program, and on the field this year and the last few years we’ve started seeing the fruits of that. The guys that have been in that program, a lot of them coming from that Colts team I coached, have all transitioned into First Grade, and a lot of them are in the NRC squad now.”
Though he wants to stay in rugby on his return to Queensland, Harris has no firm plans locked in as yet.
“Finding that next challenge is pretty critical. I’ll sit back and take a break for a while, and see what opportunities come up. There’s a couple of Brisbane clubs who have spoken to me, but I don’t have anything set in stone at this stage. We’ll just see what the future holds,” he said.
“Hopefully, we can have a successful program here, and that will certainly lift my profile and maybe open some opportunities.”
And beating both Queensland teams in successive weeks would certainly be one very good way of boosting the profile. After hosting Brisbane City this weekend, Canberra will head to the Sunshine Coast next week to take on Queensland Country in the last Thursday night game of 2015.
Already significant for his team, these last two rounds and the finals campaign now take on extra significance for Harris personally, too.
SATURDAY: University of Canberra Vikings v Brisbane City at Viking Park, from 2:00pm AEDT. Streamed live onwww.FoxSports.com.au. Tickets available at http://www.brumbies.com.au/ucvikings/Tickets.aspx and at the gate.