With their impressive, but hard-fought 32-29 win over Perth Spirit in the west on Sunday, the chances of the NSW Country Eagles repeating their 2014 finals appearance remain alive and well.
Three of the four matches in what looms as a cracking Buildcorp National Rugby Championship Round 8 can have some degree of effect on the semi-finals, and Country’s win in Perth puts them firmly in the hunt for a playoffs berth.
Sitting in fourth place on the NRC table after seven rounds, Country must simply win both of the remaining games, against Melbourne tomorrow night and North Harbour next week, to remain in the top four. A bonus point or two would solidify their cause, and it’s even possible that they could finish as high as third place, should other results go their way.
“It’s a funny one, you try not to think of the implications too much,” Eagles Head Coach, Darren Coleman told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week, as his team prepared to leave Perth on route to Simonds Stadium in Geelong, where they’ll take on a Rising side doing similar kinds of maths.
“The loser is still alive, just. But we’re direct competitors with them at the moment for that fourth spot. That said, the Sydney Stars aren’t uncatchable. Conceivably, we could do it with six points, if we fell short this week but picked up a bonus point, and then a big win at the end against the Rays. We could catch the Stars that way, or draw level with them and rely on for and against if they didn’t pick up a point from here. There’s a few ‘what ifs’.
“We control our own destiny, though. If we win the two remaining games, then we’re definitely in.”
In that respect, the win in Perth was massive for the Eagles. Had they dropped that game, it may well have been their season done. Nine points from just two wins with only two games to play would’ve left Country in that ‘mathematically they can still make it’ category that very rarely ends well.
“Yeah, it was a good win,” Coleman said. “We played some good footy in the first half, but probably didn’t play as well as we hoped in the second.”
“Their red card came just before halftime, and to their credit, the boys ran a wide backline play straight away that which found them short and saw Jerome Mackenzie score in the corner. As much as I’d like to take credit for that, the players had the tactical awareness to take that advantage.”
Mackenzie was very good in the Perth win, easily playing his best game in an Eagles jersey after what has been a tough 2015 for the former Penrith flyer, coming off a horrific lower leg and ankle break suffered while playing for the Greater Sydney Rams last season. Fullback Andrew Kellaway probably played his best game since last season’s NRC, too.
“’Kell’ was great; he threw the last pass for three tries and scored the other one himself,” Coleman agreed.
And while Kellaway and impressive flyhalf Jono Lance have been receiving the plaudits, Coleman was quick to single out Randwick midfielder Dave Horwitz as an unheralded player who has been crucial in his side’s late-season resurgence.
“Yeah, it’s good for Dave, and he took a little while to come to grips with it. He’d come off a Shute Shield season where he’d been the star pretty much every week, and was the first receiver making plenty of line breaks and kicking all the goals, and getting all the accolades.
“To play that second fiddle role, it’s about getting him to understand that he is doing a good job and that sometimes he doesn’t have to be the standout player to do his job. We always knew he had good distribution skills, and it’s so handy to have a ball-playing 12 like him. He puts great width on our game, and he threw a couple of passes to Kellaway on the weekend that set him free.
“But his best aspect, I think, and one that I think is really going to help him going into Super Rugby next season is his physicality. He’s been tough; he’s a tough kid. He’s been bumping blokes out of the way, and he been whacking in defence. His cleanouts are really accurate and aggressive; he’s really stepped it up in the physicality stakes.”
Only one competition point ahead of Melbourne Rising, going into this crucial game for both sides, Country will still more than likely find themselves as the underdogs, and will be tested by a Rising side determined to put last week’s fade out at the hands of the University of Canberra Vikings quickly behind them. Arguably, it’s the Eagles’ biggest test to date in the Buildcorp NRC.
“It’s very clichéd, but it’s all going to be up front. I notice they’ve got a couple of big ‘ins’ from last week; Colby Fainga’a and Lopeti Timani are both back,” Coleman said.
“I’d like to think our scrum will get parity. They’re not like a Brisbane, Canberra, or Queensland Country, or even Perth to a lesser extent, who have been dominating opponents with their scrum, whereas the Melbourne scrum hasn’t been as strong. So if we can get parity there, I’d like our backline against most backlines in the comp; we just need to give them some quality ball.
And if his side can get the win, the Coleman admits he’ll be heading back to the abacus, just to make sure all his finals calculations are correct. Though he’ll do his best to shield the players from such worrying.
“I think as a coach, you’re born to be a worrier,” he laughs. “As much as I say to the boys, ‘Let’s not worry about the ladder’, I still sit up all night doing all the possible scenarios!”
“But for the lads, they’ve just got to focus on playing footy. It’s all those clichés; if we just take it one game at a time, it will all fall where it does at the end.”
TONIGHT: Watch Melbourne Rising play NSW Country Eagles LIVE at Simonds Stadium in Geelong, from 7:30pm AEDT LIVE on FOX SPORTS 2. Tickets available at www.melbournerising.com.au and at the gate.