The Sydney Rays look primed for a maiden Buildcorp National Rugby Championship finals series, but Matt Lucas says his side will keep the focus on just the week ahead, despite the obvious carrot dangling in front of them.
“At the start of the season we came together as a group, and we obviously said we wanted to win the thing,” Lucas told rugby.com.au this week.
“But being a short season, it’s a sprint, so you really can’t afford to be off the ball for any period of time, otherwise you find yourself out of the loop really quickly.
“One of the things we have prided ourselves on this season is being process-driven. So while we’re under no illusions of where we want to be come the end of the season, we know that if we stick to what we’re about and if we stick to our processes, then the outcome will take care of itself.”
The Waratahs and Manly Marlins scrumhalf has enjoyed a strong, consistent campaign for the Rays in 2016, and in many ways, his form has been a perfect snapshot of his team’s: enormous potential in need of a platform to shine.
Lucas’ service has been first class, as has his leadership, but perhaps it’s been other aspects of his game that have benefitted the Rays the most. His vision and running game has created opportunities, and heading into Round 6 this weekend, he’s a 77% goal kicker. It’s a skill Lucas says he’s always had, just hasn’t really had chance to show it off.
“It’s something I’ve worked on my whole life,” Lucas said, making reference to growing up with a houseful of brothers, all of them pretty players, including former Queensland Reds flyhalf and fullback, Ben.
“It’s something I’ve always put time into, and enjoy doing. To get an opportunity to do a bit of goal kicking for the Rays, I finally get to put all that practice into play and work on it more. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and always chipped away at off the field, and it’s been really enjoyable to kick at NRC level.”
Talking with Lucas, you quickly find out that a focus on skill – and particularly new skills – is a bit of a thing at the Rays this season. A change of coach, with Northern Suburbs Premiership coach Simon Cron coming on board, and a decent turnover of playing talent has refreshed the club in the best possible way. And now, there’s some really healthy momentum behind the Rays with two rounds to go.
“We’re probably running off the momentum of that Norths side, to be honest,” Lucas says. “We’re playing a similar brand of rugby, which you’ve got to be highly skilled to do, but also do the basic skills of rugby really well. It involves a lot of passing, and the majority of the squad has got to be able to do everything to a pretty decent standard.”
“It was made known very early that our skills needed to be really high; that was really drilled into us before the comp started. And every training session now involves a very similar start; a lot of ball-handling, passing, basic skills. It’s a big component of what ‘Cronny’ is about, and what we base our game on.”
There might be no better example that what the Rays do on turnover. How well, and the speed with which the Rays transition into attack is very similar to how Brisbane City were knocking over all comers last season. City did it with Liam Gill and a mobile backrow feeding the quick blokes out wide in 2015, and the Rays similarly possess a mobile and skilful backrow unit in 2016.
“We’ve got ground rules in place, and everyone knows how it works; turnover ball actually produces the most tries,” Lucas explains. “It’s something we’ve worked heavily on, that as soon as that ball turns over, everyone’s got to light up and click into gear.”
“We do need a mobile pack to do that; we do need blokes who can hit a lot of rucks, can carry a lot, can move around the field really well. Hopefully in the coming weeks, we can string together some prolonged patches of that good footy.
“And having those dynamic backrowers is huge for us. Jack Dempsey’s playing amazingly well, Will Miller, Michael Wells, and our second rowers, too. Connor Vest has been one of our best, if not our best forward all year. We’ve got these guys who are really dynamic, really fast and fit, and it really does aid the way we want to play.”
The Rays have the Canberra Vikings at Pittwater this Saturday, and finish the regular season down in Melbourne against the Rising on October 9. Lucas knows that if they can come through those two games with wins, they’ll have earned their semi-final spot.
“Yeah, absolutely, and I think it’s a good thing. We’ve got two extremely quality sides to come, and while it’s a tough finish to the season, it puts us in good stead. We can get a real gauge of where we’re at, and any deficiencies we might have.
“Hopefully we’ll be getting better each game - and we have done all season – and we can challenge ourselves against those two sides, see where we are, and hopefully come out on top of both of them.”