NRC: Melbourne Rising's Zane Hilton: Our growth as a group is really pleasing

by Rugby Australia

This time last year, Melbourne Rising looked unbeatable and with one hand on the freshly-minted Buildcorp National Rugby Championship trophy. In 2015, the Rising haven’t quite started as fast as they did in 2014, but Head Coach Zane Hilton says he’s really happy with how his team are tracking.

“I’m really excited with the growth that we’ve shown in certain areas of our game,” Hilton told this week. “Certainly, the resolve to finish games off when things haven’t gone the way we’ve wanted them to, and when things haven’t gone to plan.”

“Certainly disappointed in other areas of our game, however. We know that we need to be better to be successful in the later stages of this competition. But certainly happy with the growth in one, a number of players, and then secondly, the resolve to get results when we haven’t been playing well.

“Guys like Jack Debreczini and Ben Meehan; I’ve been really impressed with the growth in those players, ad likewise, I’ve certainly been impressed with the uncontracted players we’ve used in our back three in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been extremely impressed with the growth they’ve shown at this level.”

If there has been one slight concern of the 2015 Rising side, however, it has been a slight tendency to drift in games. At halftime last Thursday night at Manly Oval, Melbourne seemingly had the North Harbour Rays on the ropes, leading 40-16 at halftime. 

Three converted tries in ten minutes after the break had the score level again, and the pressure was right back on the young Rising side. It’s a tendency the coach is well aware of.

“Absolutely, and it’s probably our greatest frustration, that we as a team are going to have to play a full eighty minutes, and play the way we want to for eighty minutes. We’re continually talking about how we can control a game, because credit to the teams we’ve played in the opening three rounds, when we haven’t controlled possession, they’ve made the most of those opportunities and really hurt us,” Hilton says.

“Likewise, from a discipline perspective, we’re going to need to be better with our discipline, otherwise that will hurt us in this competition, too. Three lots of yellow cards in three games, and a total of four or five tries in those periods. It’s just not a competition you can be undisciplined in, unfortunately.”

“And credit to North Harbour, too. They played a really smart style of football just after halftime, and Geoff Townsend, their coach, and guys like [fullback] Reece Hodge certainly controlled the game very, very well in that period. [Rays lock] Cam Treloar, too, is a very experience player in that space as well.”

The Rays’ impressive comeback last Thursday night was further proof that the nine teams are a lot closer in 2015 than might have been the case last season. It’s also clear that all teams have worked hard on their defensive systems, and even their core fitness levels to service the need to defend for longer in games, where the ‘ball in play’ time has already pushed beyond forty minutes in games this season.

And teams are certainly defending better. ‘Blowout’ scorelines are quite as commonplace, and while three of the games in Round 3 saw Bonus Points for the winning team scoring three more tries than the opposition, in two of those games, the bonus point try came in or beyond the 80th minute.

Hilton confirmed that defence was a major focus for the Rising coming into the NRC competition in 2015.

“Defence is very much what our game is built on,” he says. “Whilst the scorelines sometimes don’t show it, to gain bonus points in this competition, you need to defend well.”

“So systems need to be right; individual tackle technique needs to be spot on across the whole group. You can’t just wait for one Super Rugby player, for example, to do something well and play off the back of that, it’s a collective effort. 

“We spent a lot of time with our Extended Player Squad - that is, our squad minus our Super Rugby players - working on tackle technique, working on defensive systems, and that’s where we’re pleased with the growth of where we’re at. I know the competition’s only three weeks old now, but we really only came together as a full squad two weeks before that, so we’re starting to see huge improvements and trust in those systems.”

Melbourne have the bye now in Round 4 this weekend coming, and Hilton says it’s come at a really good time for the Rising. But don’t expect the Rising to take this time to recalibrate.

“There’s a couple of ways to approach it. We could relax and rest up, but we’re going to ramp it up a bit. Because it is such a quick competition, the bye week is a great opportunity to put new systems in place; any new systems or anything you want to add to your game in the following five weeks.

“And then likewise, it’s a great opportunity for us to continue to build that trust amongst the group, both from an attack and defensive system’s perspective. So we’ll ramp things up a bit, because we feel we to, and it’s probably at the players’ request.”

“There’s an extremely strong will to be successful in the program,” Hilton explains, of the players driving the need to step it up a gear. “From their perspective, they look at it and go, ‘We’re in the competition now, we’re in a good space, but we going to need to be better’, and that again is that growth that I’m talking about.”

So with two wins to their name already, and five games to run into the semi-finals, it’s interesting to hear Hilton say the Rising won’t worry about locking down two or three immediate wins, and attempt to confirm a playoff spot sooner rather than later.

“To be honest, we’re probably not looking any further forward than the Rams game [in Round 5, in Morwell, in eastern Victoria]. It’s a good point you bring up where things sit with the ladder, but we’re just focussed on continuing to get the process right. Play the way we want to play against the Rams, and hopefully pick up the result, but not really looking much beyond that.

“There is actually a tough couple of weeks travel after that Rams game - Perth and Canberra, both away - so for us, it’s important to get through that, and play the way we want to.”

While the playoff spot is certainly there if Melbourne is ready to take it as a team, it’s been the performance of the Rising’s uncontracted players that has perhaps pleased Hilton the most. Just as the NRC launched the career of ‘Super’ Sefanaia Naivalu last season, the coach can see that it will be the local Dewar Shield players that drive his team’s success in 2015.

“It’s been such an impressive step up from a lot of those guys. The great thing about the NRC is that it gives both players and competitions a real recognition of where they sit in terms of standard, and there’s no doubt that the players we’ve got currently playing for us are capable of playing regularly in the Premier competitions in the northern states.

“I think guys like Stacey Ili, and Justin Marsters, and Filipe Vilitati could all play higher honours, and it’s been really pleasing for us to see them play well. It’s tough, because you don’t know where [your competition] is at really, because the competitions don’t play each other. So you look at them, and you think they are good footballers, and then to see them thriving in another environment at a higher level has been very rewarding.

“I know there’s been a bit of press, and a bit of talk in the coverage about us having 14 contracted players; the reality is that over the last two games, particularly, we’ve only had eight professional players in the [matchday] group, and then only seven last Thursday. The majority of the team has been made up with the Dewar Shield players, and that’s why we’re looking forward to ramping it up over the next couple of weeks, because we know that more time together is only going to, one, make them better players, but two, make us better as a group better players as well.”