If a winning NRC team is playing really good rugby but manages to stay out of the limelight, it’s never for long.
The compact nature of the NRC means you’ve got maybe the first three rounds to yourself. If you’re still unbeaten going into round four, forget it.
The Canberra Vikings are unbeaten after two rounds in 2017, but you might not have noticed that, and coach Tim Sampson doesn’t mind that at all.
He’d especially like it if you were, say, Brisbane City coach Mick Heenan.
The Vikings sit second on the table, but the headlines have been around the resurgent Greater Sydney Rams, the flamboyant Fijian Drua, Queensland Country’s defence, and even how tough Perth Spirit will be to beat over in the west at McGillivray Oval, particularly when they recall the Super Rugby contingent who sit out the away games.
So, while Sampson was happy to talk to RUGBY.com.au this week, he knew there was a risk the lid may be lifted on his team.
“Totally!” he laughed, when I put that to him. “I always like travelling quietly. It’s now four years into the NRC and those early rounds are week to week, in terms of performance, so to sneak those two wins in like we did, it’s important.”
“I still see a lot of improvement, though. There is a really good buzz about the squad at the moment, and we are having a good time down here which is very important. That was one of the first things I said to the Brumbies staff and senior players that came in, we spoke about the enjoyment factor. As the tournament goes on it only gets harder to stay under the radar.”
The Vikings face Heenan’s Brisbane City side at Ballymore on Sunday, but they enjoy three of their four home games at Viking Park in Canberra over the first five rounds.
Sampson sayd there’s now a huge opportunity to set up their season over the next few weeks.
“From day one that is something we discussed. We need to win those home games. If we can get those home wins you can be well on the way to making finals footy,” he said
Sampson speaks from good experience when he mentions the importance of winning early.
Though this is his first season as an NRC head coach, it’s his fourth year involved in the competition.
He was involved with Queensland Country in the first few seasons, and then became one of Wayne Southwell’s assistants at the Vikings last season, after arriving in Canberra from Brisbane.
His rugby journey takes him all the way back to four years of age with Sunnybank in Brisbane, the club he played with his whole life, winning a XXXX Medal as the 2005 Player of the Year, and from where he was selected for the Ballymore Tornadoes for the single season of the Australian Rugby Championship in 2007.
In a 2007 ARC round one program, Sampson is pictured sitting next to a woolly-haired scrumhalf named Will Genia, and both were named on the Tornadoes bench, in a side that included the likes of Greg Holmes, James Horwill, Scott Higginbotham, Sam Cordingley, and Berrick Barnes.
“It’s in my blood. It’s just part of me and something that I love and I don’t think I could have a year away from it. I went straight into coaching at Sunnybank after I finished playing, which my wife wasn’t too pleased about,” Sampson explains.
“I had a good couple of years at Sunnybank. We made the prelim final in my first year. The club didn’t have a great year, the year before, so the main focus there was to get enjoyment back into the club and building that club culture, which I see as the first box you should tick.
“I did have a little break after that, my wife and I had just had our first daughter. But a mate of mine was coaching at Easts Rugby Club and he’d moved down to the Gold Coast.
'He knew I’d moved in the area and he asked me to come and coach one night a week. So I did that, on Tuesdays, because you want family time the rest of the week, but eight weeks in he said he couldn’t commit to two nights a week up to Brisbane any more, ‘could you take the reins?’ He’d lured me in and got me!
“But Easts was a great club. They gave me a really good opportunity there with fantastic people involved, and we had success. We won a premiership there in 2013, were minor premiers in 2015, which was my first year as Head Coach there, losing the Grand Final to Souths.”
At the end of the 2015 season, Sampson took up the offer to move to the ACT and head up the Tuggeranong club, a role that had been on his radar for some time, with his wife’s family from Canberra.
Success came immediately, with a Premiership in 2016, and a preliminary final again this season.
Back on the field, Sampson was really impressed with the way his experienced players stepped up in the last ten minutes against Perth last Sunday, with Brumbies Sam Carter and James Dargaville combining to create the space for Tuggeranong and former Sydney Stars centre Andrew Robinson to score the match-winner.
Carter’s presence in the team wasn’t planned, but it’s already proving to be handy.
“Aside from Blake Enever, and Carter, there’s a couple of young locks in the squad - Darcy Swain and Liam Rasch. Learning off the Brumbies guys will hopefully have an effect in their club rugby as well. Given exposure in this program and also to bounce off Sam Carter’s been invaluable for them,” Sampson says.
The same goes for all the young Vikings picked from ACT clubs and the Brumbies U20s program, the likes of prop Harry Lloyd and flanker Angus Allen, both from the Wests club.
The Royals pair of Ben Johnston and scrumhalf Pedro Rolando were both excellent against the Spirit.
There are huge wraps in Canberra on young Gungahlin Eagles flyhalf Mack Hansen, and Sampson admits he’s a bit of a fan too.
“Mack’s certainly one I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes, and he will get an opportunity throughout the tournament,” Sampson said.
New Brumbies coach Dan McKellar is on the phone weekly, and while it’s important the contracted players who didn’t play a lot of Super Rugby get plenty of game time – like Vikings skipper Tom Cusack – the Brumbies haven’t given Sampson any ‘player X must wear jumper Y’ directives to help their 2018 planning.
It all continues this weekend at Ballymore Oval, and Sampson knows how crucial it will be for the Vikings to keep their standards up. There mightn’t be many bigger danger games in the NRC than coming up against a team still stinging from losing the Queensland derby.
“Oh yeah, without a doubt,” Sampson agrees.
“It’s tough getting teams on the rebound. I know Mick Heenan wouldn’t be too happy about the loss, and he’ll certainly have had the whip out this week to make sure they don’t put on another performance like that.”
The Canberra Vikings take on Brisbane City on Sunday September 17, kicking off at 1pm AEST, STREAMED LIVE on foxsports.com.au.