They’ve been the standout team of the 2016 Buildcorp NRC, and the NSW Country Eagles head into the first semi-final in Newcastle having lost just one game. Their coach Darren Coleman admits he couldn’t have taken it quick enough, had you offered him six wins before a ball was kicked.
“Definitely. Looking at the quality of the competition as the rosters started coming out pre-tournament, I’d imagine most teams would’ve jumped at six out of seven,” Coleman told rugby.com.au this week.
Country’s season was always going to be defined by their start, in which they faced three teams expected to feature heavily from this point of the competition: Brisbane City, the Uni of Canberra Vikings, and Melbourne Rising.
“The Brisbane game we were a little clunky,” Coleman begins. “But I was most impressed with our intent, and our will to be physical was great.”
“And that first 60 minutes against Canberra in Round 2, I’ve never sat through a game of footy like that. I was pinching myself waiting for the dream to end, but it was one of those days where everything just clicked.”
That belief was boosted by a really impressive defensive effort in the second half to hold off a fast finishing Melbourne Rising side, and suddenly, the Eagles were three-and-zero by the midpoint of the competition.
A win in Round Four over the Sydney Rays – also unbeaten at that point – meant that a semi-finals appearance was almost assured, and from there the Eagles were essentially playing to determine how high up the table they would finish. Before the season started, Coleman was a little nervous about those first up games, but by the end of it, his side was unbeaten and had established itself as the team to beat in 2016.
You’d be excused for thinking that big win over Canberra was what set everything up for the Eagles this season, but Coleman points toward another of their six wins as the one he looked back on and pinpointed as being really important in their run to the minor premiership.
“Obviously, the Canberra game was important for the belief it gave us; at that point we understood the potency we had in our attack, and we knew from then that we could score enough points to beat anyone.
“But the one that perhaps snuck up on me, and when I looked back at the results and how the season panned out, I thought our Perth win (in Round 5) was probably one of our better ones now, because that game was their only hiccup in the last five weeks.
“I definitely won’t say we did it comfortably (Country won 48-24, after leading 24-16 at halftime), but the scoreline towards the end showed that and I sort of always felt pretty comfortable through it.
“We’d actually earmarked that one as a bit of a danger game, too; we were up for the Rays the week before, but I was a little worried we might be a bit flat mentally and effort-wise, but it really impressed me the way the guys performed, and we were just clinical.
“To me now, looking back, if we happen to win the Championship, that win will be the one where I realised this team’s got both aspects to it: it’s got the points in it, but it’s got a bit of resilience about it and a bit of consistency as well.”
Now in his third season as NSW Country coach – he’s the last coach remaining from the inaugural group of nine NRC coaches in 2014 – Coleman normally doesn’t rap his players too deeply but during this chat, he found himself mentioning players quite regularly, such has been the quality of their performances.
Jake Gordon, Coleman said, is “a player we’ve had a focus on for two years whenever we play Sydney Uni,” and his standout form hasn’t surprised at all. Dave Horwitz is “one of the top two or three players I’ve coached,” and is a major reason the Eagles’ counter attack is as potent as we’ve seen.
Coleman “can’t speak highly enough” of Kyle Godwin, who he says is having a great time “on a 10-weeking working holiday living in Bondi before he moves to Canberra,” and Ned Hanigan, who will miss the NRC Finals with an ankle injury, “is big, raw-boned country kid” who plays bigger than he actually is, and “seems to just knee and elbow his way through anything!”
The Eagles’ counter attack has indeed been a hallmark of their standout season, getting sharper and sharper every week. I was keen to find out if this became possible simply because the playing talent, or whether it’s something the side has developed in-season.
“It’s probably a bit of both,” Coleman says. “If you look at the stats, we’re clearly ahead of the competition in unstructured tries, off kick return and turnover, and our structured tries are down; we’re actually not happy with that aspect, but I think that has a lot to do with the quality and consistency of our set piece. Some games we’ll have a good scrum day and a poor lineout, and other days we’ll flip it around.”
“But it’s a combination. I’d like to be able to take a bit of credit for our unstructured attack (laughs), but we do do a bit of work on it and we genuinely highlight it. We play some games (at training) that are based around that, and we have some basic systems that assist us with that, but then you look our backline, and they’re a fair reason for it, too!
“I say this to the guys, we’re just as much a chance of scoring a try from our side of halfway, as we are from inside their 22m. If we can link together four quick rucks, our shape and our skill and the firepower we have off the back of that shape, it’s hard for opposition sides to handle.”
Melbourne will be the next opposition clubs tasked with trying to ‘handle’ that Country attack, though the Eagles have also gained a significant set piece boost with the inclusion of Wallabies tourists and front rowers, Tm Robertson and Tolu Latu. The Rising will also welcome back a couple of Wallabies in Sefa Naivalu and hooker James Hanson coming off the bench.
There are no bonus points from here, and everyone is back to square one, though the carrot of knowing an NRC title is just 160 minutes away would have to be right there, right?
“Yeah, it’s there, but I really haven’t given the Final much thought, to be honest,” Coleman says. “The challenge in front of us this weekend is big enough, and though the Rising have been a little bit scratchy and they probably wouldn’t be happy with their form, I’m basically expecting the Melbourne Rebels to roll out on Saturday, and they’ll gain confidence in doing that.”
“But by the same token, you can’t manufacture confidence in three training runs. Our plan is to give it to them early and pressure them and do what we’ve been doing, you’d like to think there might be some skeletons in the closet there, and some boys might start question what their season has been to date. I’d like to think we might hold an advantage in terms of consistency.”
“So we’ve got to get out and start well, but we’re under no illusions that it’s going to be anything other than a tough game.”