This time last season, all the talk from the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship semi-finals was around how well Brisbane City had timed their run. After an up-and-down start, City won four of their last five games to storm into the finals, and then swamped NSW Country to win through to the inaugural decider.
When Perth Spirit pulled off the upset of the season to oust the previously undefeated Melbourne Rising, suddenly Brisbane City were hosting the most unlikely of home Finals.
Come this Saturday, City are pushing for their 14th straight win, and are once again hosting the NRC Final, this time against a very formidable University of Canberra Vikings side who have lost just one game in 2014; the Round 8 blockbuster between the two sides.
For Brisbane City coach Nick Stiles, the Final will be the culmination of a two-year campaign that has been incredibly satisfying to date.
“Yeah, I’m really stoked,” Stiles told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week. “We were so happy with how the NRC went for us last year, winning the competition, but particularly for the benefits it gave the Queensland Rugby Union moving into the Reds season of 2015.
“Now to be able to back that up, and with the playing group pushing themselves to the max, and to have gone through undefeated earning the right for a home Grand Final this year, it’s something that we’re all very pleased with.”
I’ve mentioned in various different pieces this season of the high player turnover within the 2015 NRC season, and how most clubs have had to use upwards of 38-40 players this season. The Sydney Stars, with 44, was the largest number I am aware of, and when you consider they only played nine games, it represents a constant state of change within a playing group.
Stiles has had a double benefit with Brisbane City. As well as the lowest number of players used - 34, as I understand it, and with six of those 34 playing just one game - Stiles has also been able to keep a large portion of his 2014 title-winning side together.
“We’ve kept the core group of players together, yeah. I’ve forgotten the total turnover from last season - I think it might be 19 people who were there last year, but they’re key players in key positions for us. We’ve got Liam Gill in the backrow, Nick Frisby, Jake McIntyre, Samu Kerevi... we’ve kept those combinations together, and it’s crucial.
“You look at any at any team that wins any competition around the world, and if you’ve got your 9 and 10 playing the bulk of games and bulk minutes, and they’re good footballers, you win comps.
“And we have used fewer players this season, but it’s not luck. If you have a look at the way I’ve selected the team week to week, the Super Rugby guys are at such an advantage and are physically in a much better position to withstand the speed and increased ball-in-play of the NRC than club players are.
“So we’ve been able to keep the Super Rugby guys together, and then we’ve rotated the club guys [through the bench] consistently each week, because I just feel that it’s a massive step up for a club footballer to come in, and to expect him to play a full season at this level. We’ve also made sure we haven’t over-trained them through the week for those same reasons.
“So we have been blessed with injuries, but it’s been through good management, I believe.”
Brisbane City took the spoils over the Vikings side in their match this season, though despite the fact that game was a little over three weeks ago, it really feels like months have passed since the match that was widely regarded the a dress rehearsal for the Final.
“The quality and the intensity in that game was, by far, the best in the NRC over the two year, I think,” Stiles said.
“Games like that, with that intensity, make Australian rugby players so much better and we’ve got try and replicate that intensity more than just every so often.”
There’s no secret about the structured nature of the Vikings’ game, and while City aren’t exactly unstructured themselves, Stiles believes the ability and particularly the pace with which his side can transition from defence into attack can certainly work to their advantage.
“We’re definitely a very dangerous team on turnover. It’s probably an area that we’ve even improved on since last year. The ball handling of our players in transition is superb - we scored a try in Canberra, I think it was Ben Hyne in the far corner, where the ball actually went through 14 of the 15 players’ hands. And the only person to miss out was Cadeyrn Neville when the ball went across him!” (laughs)
“It’s a definite strength for us, and you saw the contrast in the semi-final, where in the first half we were pushing passes and trying to create too much, and we turned the ball over too much as a result. We didn’t build pressure on that turnover, whereas in the second half, we were much better in that space and cored some beautiful tries off some neat handling.”
Obviously, beating Canberra is not going to quite that simple come the Final on Saturday afternoon.
“That Canberra side is such a well drilled side,” Stiles says, with a cautious tone that you can easily image him repeating to his team this week.
“It’s the Brumbies program coming back down [to NRC level]. You look at how many of the starting players are fully contracted in the Brumbies system, and they understand that style of play so well.”
And what comes next is something that could easily apply to the Wallabies coming up against the All Blacks this weekend, in that ‘other’ game that will complete a big 24 hours of rugby over the weekend.
“The thing is, you know what’s coming at you; they don’t change it up that much. But you’ve just got to be good enough to stop them. That’s why the Brumbies have had the success they have over the last few years, by implementing that game and everyone knowing their job.
“Christian Leali’ifano is playing so well directing them around, but the real challenge will be not stopping one individual, but stopping their forward pack providing that front foot ball.
“Like any of the top sides in the NRC, you win games by bullying the opposition with your set piece strength, and that’s why this game between City and Canberra is so intriguing. You’ve two forward packs who are equally adept, and it brings it into a genuine contest all game.”
Click here to buy tickets for Saturday's 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship Grand Final between Brisbane City and UC Vikings at Ballymore Stadium