NRC: Profile: Perth Spirit sharp shooter Ian Prior

by staff

I mentioned the importance of nailing three-point conversions in the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship and how it’s hurt teams, in yesterday’s profile with Greater Sydney Rams skipper, Jed Holloway.

The Rams currently have the worst goal-kicking record in the competition, and twice this season have lost games by just one point despite scoring more tries than their opposition.

At the other end of the scale, the leading goal-kicker in the competition is Perth Spirit scrumhalf, Ian Prior, who has nailed 15 from 16 across five games in 2015, including 12 straight from his last three games. When the competition average sits at 71%, Prior’s 94% success rate is a clear standout among kickers with a minimum of ten shots at goal.

Restored the Spirit starting side this week to face NSW Country on Sunday afternoon at the picturesque University of Western Australia Sports Park, Prior spoke to this week.

Prior’s always been a good kicker. When Jake White first arrived the Brumbies back in the day, he spoke with great pride of how when one of his young halfbacks would head off for kicking practice, the other one wouldn’t be too far behind him. Partly, it was because they did enjoy working together, but it was just as much about Prior not wanting to give Nic White a break.

“Yeah, we’re pretty competitive blokes,” laughs Prior, of never letting his former teammate out of his sight.

“I’ve been working on it for a fair while, and it’s something that I’ve done since juniors off and on. I really enjoyed goal-kicking at University of Queensland, when I was playing there with the Reds. I got to play a bit of flyhalf, and I kicked then and enjoyed it so just kept ticking along with it.

“I’ve just been fortunate that I’ve worked with a few good kicking coaches, and I’ve just picked up bits and pieces from everyone. I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, particularly over the last three or four years, just waiting for that opportunity to arrive, and obviously, I didn’t play that much with the Force this year, but hopefully I can push my case forward for next year.”

Though goal-kicking has been a bit of a general problem within the Australian professional ranks and even for the Wallabies over the last few seasons, it remains a surprise to me that so many three-point conversions in the NRC continue to be missed. Heading into Round 7 this weekend, nearly 100 conversions have been missed from more than 240 attempts.

If anything, teams should be putting more emphasis on conversions; we’ve seen teams scoring tries in quick succession in 2015, and if you can turn those into eight points, a handy lead builds pretty quickly. Realistically, with three point conversions and an average of ten tries per NRC game, goal-kicking should be even more important than it was before the points value change.

“Yeah, exactly,” Prior agrees. “You can really chalk up a score if you score three or four tries and you can convert them, it’s almost like another couple of tries in the bag.

“I think on the whole, the goal-kickers do seem to be improving this year. Last year, there were a lot of quality young guys, and they were probably just wide-eyed in terms of the whole experience of playing in the NRC. But with a bit more experience being a bit more comfortable in the environment, that seems to be leading to some better kicking.

“You see guys like [Queensland Country flyhalf] Sam Greene and [Brisbane City flyhalf] Jakey McIntyre, and [NSW Country flyhalf] Jono Lance all kicking well, and improving year on year. It’s a great sign for Australian rugby that we’ve got some quality kickers coming through the ranks.”

One of the Law Variations in play for the Buildcorp NRC is that conversions must be taken within 60 seconds from the try being awarded, down from 90 seconds under Law 9.B.1e. Prior says that while he hasn’t had too much trouble with the time limit himself, he can definitely see it affecting other players, and even some teammates.

“I’ve naturally had a pretty quick set-up all along, because I’ve found that the longer you stand there, the more you let other things enter your mind before each kick. So I’ve always had a pretty short run up; more a case of the simpler, the better.

“But there have been a few guys that I’ve spoken to that have struggled with it, where they’re standing there with the pressure of the kick, and they’re having the ref tell them they’ve only got ten seconds or five seconds. When you’re trying to go through your routine, it can be a bit off-putting.

“It’s a good adjustment, because realistically, if you come off the bench in a Super Rugby game, you might not have an ample amount of time to prepare, or someone might be down injured, so it’s a good preparation tool as I see it, to put a bit of pressure on yourself. And that’s what goal-kicking is; it about being able to repeat your process under pressure.

“A few guys have struggled, and I see a few guys have made adjustments. I see Christian [Lealiifano, Uni of Canberra no.10] has changed his run up a little bit; he generally took a little bit longer. And [Perth teammate] Luke Burton as well, we’ve had to adjust his kicking style a little bit. And that might have been part of the issue last year, too, that everyone was being hurried when they were used to having a bit longer.

“The guys scoring the tries are being a bit more helpful, too; instead of throwing the ball into the crowd, they’re actually running it back and giving it to you straight away. It’s all well and good to score a scintillating try, but if you throw the ball away and we can’t take the kick, it’s not much good!”

Perth appear to be launching that same late-season wet sail that took them all the way to the 2014 Final, and face a similarly desperate NSW Country side in front the UWA hill on Sunday afternoon.

“They’ve been playing some good footy,” Prior says of the Eagles. “I thought last week it was a bit hard to tell against Queensland Country, because of the conditions in Newcastle. But watching all their other games, they’re quite an exciting team who like to throw the ball around, and they’ve obviously got a good backline there, led by Jono Lance (who will join Prior at the Western Force at the completion of the NRC), and their forwards seem to be a good, hard-working pack.

“I think it’ll be an entertaining game. I think it’ll be a hard game, but that’s what the NRC is about, to play an entertaining brand of footy and to get the crowd out there and involved, and I think it’ll be a really good game. Hopefully we’ll get a really big crowd on the hill in the sunshine; it’s a great place to play and always has a really good atmosphere.”

SUNDAY: Perth Spirit v NSW Country Eagles at the University of Western Australia in Perth, from 3:00pm local time (6:00pm AEST). Streamed on, and with tickets available at the gate at McGillivray Oval, UWA.