Just when it seemed the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship top four was starting to sort itself out, Round 6 results last weekend proved that there are still a few surprises left in store yet in season 2015.
Perth Spirit look to be hoisting the same wet sail that propelled them all the Final last season, while Queensland Country’s hard-fought win in terrible conditions in Newcastle last Thursday night put them firmly in the group of teams eyeing off fourth spot on the table.
Melbourne Rising in fourth, Perth, Queensland Country, and NSW Country in seventh are only separated by three competition points heading into Round 7.
Queensland Country will have to sit back and watch all the action unfold, however, with their bye coming this weekend. Head coach Jason Gilmore told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week, that while the timing of the bye could perhaps be a little better, it’s come at a good time for the players.
“Yeah, it’s definitely needed. We were talking through the week, and we’ve used something like 37 players in the competition just through injury already. So based on that, we’ve got a lot of bodies that we can bring back in the next couple of weeks.
“I mean, ideally, the bye would’ve been great probably a week or two earlier, but it will definitely help us [this week] rather than hinder us.”
If we think back to the 2014 season, Perth Spirit used a mammoth 42 players across their NRC campaign, but that was with a very deliberate player management plan that meant the Western Force contracted players largely didn’t travel. 37 players over six games equates to at least two changes to your matchday 23 every week. It’s a massive number, and all injury-forced.
“Yeah, it is,” Gilmore agreed. “The good thing about the boys, though, is they’ve never used the injuries as an excuse, and they’ve kept fronting up to training, and the guys that have come in have taken their opportunity really well.”
“That win on Thursday night against a pretty good NSW Country side, I thought showed plenty of grit and resilience within our squad, which was really good.”
While the win brings obvious relief, and more importantly, competition points, it also represented something of a turning point for the Queenslanders, who across their four losses had really only been blown away in a game by Perth the week before up in Rockhampton. Two of their three other losses had been by just eight and ten points, and they ran with Brisbane City for 70 minutes of their brutal derby match in Toowoomba.
As much as the win dulled the pain of the heavy loss to Perth, Gilmore says it was just nice to get the bounce of the ball for a change.
“Yeah, I’d definitely agree with that. And I think you get that when you get on the front foot a little bit, you kind of earn that luck.
“Probably the only passage this season where we’ve been disappointed was probably the middle half an hour against Perth, where we really let ourselves down. We kind of fought our way back, toward the back end of the game, but we’d just give up too much of a lead.
“Most of the games we’ve lost we’ve been right in it up until the death, so it was definitely nice to have the bounce go our way on Thursday night.”
The win over NSW Country also came on the back of an impressive scrum set piece, and if there has been a consistency about Queensland Country since the outset of the Buildcorp NRC, it’s been that they have had - and still have - one of, if not the best scrum in the competition. I wondered if the scrum is a major focus for his side, or whether Gilmore has just been blessed with some wonderful scrummaging talent.
“Oh, probably a bit of both. With the short preparation leading into the NRC, you definitely don’t get to spend massive amounts of time on any particularly area.
“We have been lucky in that we have experience campaigners in Haydn Hirsimaki and Sef Fa’agase in the front row. Saia Fainga’a has really been leading the young fellows well, too. And even on Thursday night, if you look at our locks and backrow, they’re not massive men, and in the front row we had two 19-year-olds in Alex Mafi and Taniela Tupou start, and they did well. And then AJ Campbell off the bench in the second half on the loosehead side did a really good job.
“To a man, all those boys in the pack take pride in their scrummaging, and it’s definitely been a real weapon for us this year.”
Gilmore was particularly pleased with the development of Tupou, who in two bench appearances and now a start, has shown there is much more to his game than just the YouTube highlights. “In tough conditions, and for a young kid, he scrummed the house down. He knows he’s got a lot of work to do, and that older guys will come at him, but he definitely showed he’s got some substance to his game,” Gilmore said.
The Queensland Country players had a little bit of time off after the win in Newcastle, and will slowly get back into things later this week leading into their match against the North Harbour Rays in Sydney on October 10. With the University of Canberra Vikings to follow in the final round, Gilmore knows it’s going to be a tricky little run home to the finals, if his side is good enough.
“It will be, and watching the Rays play this year, they’ve been really unlucky. They’ve had a couple of players leave to go overseas, and they’ve had other players injured. Their roster isn’t stacked with Super Rugby players by any stretch, but the one thing about the Rays is that they always put their hand up.
“Even against Canberra on the weekend, they were really close until the last twenty minutes when it did blow out a little bit. But they’re that type of team that really play the eighty minutes; they really pushed Melbourne and were probably unlucky not to beat them. They’re going to be a really tough team to play.
“But if the boys are good enough, and if we can pick up a win against the Rays and then see how results fall across the other games, I think we’ll still be in with a crack.”