NRC: Clear messages the key for Melbourne to rise

by Brett McKay

When your side's down 32-16 at the break, just a week after execution badly let down a dominant forwards performance, you’d be excused for launching into a full-blooded, proper old-fashioned half time spray, right?

Not so, says Melbourne Rising coach Zane Hilton, who last week found his team in exactly that situation against Queensland Country, and who resisted the urge the strip the paint from the walls of the change room walls at Harlequin Oval, in southeast Melbourne.

In fact, Hilton told this week, those days are pretty much gone.

Now in his second season as the Rising’s head coach, Hilton laughed when asked if he’d bottled whatever he gave his team in the sheds last weekend, after they eventually ran out 46-32 winners, because the reality these days is a senior coach isn’t going to get very far with the fire and brimstone approach to sending any kind of half time message.

So in that situation, when things are going awry, what can you actually say to the guys to refocus their decision-making and execution?

“Yeah, it’s a really interesting,” Hilton told

Zane Hilton with Pat Leafa after their comeback win over Queensland Country. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley“I’m certainly not going to say that everything I do is correct, but purely through my own experiences, what I’ve found with the younger generation of player is that if we stand there and tell them they can’t do something, or if we scald them for getting something wrong, then that doesn’t actually help you.

"All that does is puts inhibiting factors around them, and applies pressure to the wrong part of the game.

“What we do as a coaching staff, and we’ve approached things differently through the NRC block, is to take the shackles off them a little bit and continue to ask them to express themselves, but get them to make good decisions around that and back themselves, and have the confidence to throw the pass or play the offload, and continue to build the support structures around them to keep doing that.

“So one, it’s probably the confidence to be able to do it, and two, rather than scald them, be able to talk to them about why they’ve done it, and the three, have them talking about the players around them; are they communicating, or are they in a good position to support or to aid the ball carrier.”

And that is a really interesting approach, because passes that went to ground in Perth in Round 1 were suddenly sticking in the second half last week. asked Hilton whether that was a result of something he said, something he worked on with the squad last week, or if it’s just something that happened on the day?

“The easy thing at halftime is to come in and blow up, and be quite aggressive about it, but the reality is the only person that helps is me and again, what I’ve experienced in the past is that that can add more pressure to the situation and the players will probably go into their shell a bit more,” he said.

Hilton congratulates players after their first win of the season. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley“Something I’ve certainly learned from Tony (McGahan - Melbourne Rebels head coach) along the way is around the timing of doing that.

"At times, yes, there needs to be a really direct message, but if they’re making what I call ‘passionate mistakes’ – that is, they’re trying things and you can see the reasons behind them doing it – and it’s not flippant, then they don’t need scalding, they need direction.

“So what we spoke about last week was about our game, and about how we were going to play, and what was really pleasing was that at halftime, the leaders spoke extremely well about what it was we needed to do to get ourselves back in the game.

"We didn’t need to change anything, we just needed to persist and show patience with what we were doing, and then I just reinforced that fact, that ‘boys, this is how we are going to do it’, and we thought that message was really, really clear coming out in the second half.”

It speaks volumes for the modern player, and the advent of the leadership group. It’s not the coaching staff holding players accountable these days, but the players themselves. So at 32-16 down last weekend, there were no rockets; it was all the senior players who worked out and said what needed to be said.

“There was no Shakespearean sermons from me at all, no paint stripping, none of that,” Hilton said.

“We had been down in [Queensland Country’s] half three times in the first half and scored twice, so that, to me, was a really simple statistic: if we play down in their half, we’re going to score.”

“That showed up really well in the first ten minutes; we went down into their half, we executed and we scored points.

"The reality of the NRC is that if a yellow card occurs, it becomes a different game, it’s going to cost you points, and a yellow card in the first half cost us two tries.”

The Rising scored 30 unanswered points in a remarkable second half comeback to take the win, which places them with a win and a loss heading into Round three, the same record as the other heavily favoured teams for the 2016 NRC title; Canberra, Brisbane City, and Perth.

And their reward for that second half comeback? A date with the form team over the opening two rounds of the Buildcorp NRC: the NSW Country Eagles, playing their first game of 2016 in regional NSW.

“They’ve been very impressive in their first two games, haven’t they,” Hilton said, acknowledging the size of the task for his side this weekend.

“It’s a credit to Darren Coleman and his coaching staff, and obviously Pete Playford’s there adding and enabling that free-flowing and relaxed nature about the way they do things.

“Everything they tried against the Vikings stuck, and they were the quality team last weekend.”

Of course, being down by 16 at halftime is one thing, but what would Hilton say if he found his team down by 30, as the hapless University of Canberra Vikings found themselves at halftime last Sunday, a margin that doubled twenty minutes later?

“In that situation, it’s about looking forward and not backward, and within the game we talk about the next three actions being important.

“There’s not a lot we can do as coaches to change the tempo of the game, really all we can do is maybe to make a substitution at that time to slow it down.

"Only the players can really do something to change the pace of the game and get them off their rhythm, and the really good players have the understanding that the tempo of the game must change or otherwise they’ll just stay on their roll.

“And sometimes, things just stick for them.

“We’re certainly hoping that’s not the case in Tamworth this weekend!”