NRC: Two-time champions in unfamiliar territory

by Brett McKay

One of the big questions coming out of last weekend centred around Brisbane City, and how last season’s Buildcorp NRC powerhouse suddenly looks anything but in 2016.

And of course there’s good reason for it, but convincing players otherwise can be a tricky business.

After they first picked up the Horan-Little Shield in Round 2, 2015, City compiled six further defences to maintain a stranglehold on the Shield for more than a year. And even down by just two at halftime last weekend against the University of Canberra Vikings, you still expected defence number seven would be hard-fought.

When the Vikings pushed the lead out to ten points soon after halftime, the momentum shift was clear, and when flanker Jarrad Butler charged over in the 67th minute to extend the margin to 16, City’s hold on the Shield was barely by the fingertips. Two late Vikings tries confirmed the challenge trophy was heading to the Nation’s Capital.

So what’s happened to Brisbane City? Change of personnel is almost certainly the biggest factor.

Jake McIntyre will be hoping he can help turn Brisbane City's form around in the second half of the competition.  Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyFrom the 2015 Championship side, City have lost locks Ben Hyne and Cadeyrn Neville to the Brumbies and injury respectively, Liam Gill to France, Junior Laloifi and Karmichael Hunt to injury, and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies. That’s not even all the losses, just the standouts from the side that went undefeated last season.

Gill and Kerevi are by far the biggest losses, and if you’ve watched City’s three games to date, breakdown pressure and midfield impact are the two areas they’re most lacking in 2016. Seib agrees that it’s a fair assessment.

“Yeah it is, and when you talk about that kind of star quality, you just can’t replace that,” he told this week.

“It’s that little bit of magic. ‘Gilly’ was fantastic on the ball, but it just the amount he did around the park, the amount of line breaks he would create. His awareness around the park is fantastic.

“Yeah, the last couple of years, and particularly last year when we’ve had Gill, Samu, and having Junior Laloifi out there too, those sort of guys who can just spark something out of nothing; that’s really difficult to replace.

“When perhaps you don’t have that kind of player who can create something out of nothing, you just got to make sure from an attacking perspective that your shape is really good, and everyone understands their role and that there’s that real urgency off the ball. We’ve really been focusing on the little things off the ball and trying to set ourselves up, and put ourselves in position.”

City's task will only get harder, Leroy Houston has gone back to England to play for Bath on a short term contract. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyThe former Sunnybank coach first got into coaching while on a playing stint at Aberdeen, in the north of Scotland, more than a decade ago. A PE Teacher by trade – Seib is the Director of Sport at Saint Stephen's College on the Gold Coast – he finds himself in the situation where he is having to convince his playing group that they are still as good as the title-winning Brisbane City sides of the past two NRC seasons.

“We still have a nucleus of players there who have used the NRC and Brisbane City as that pathway; our captain Sam Talakai, the vice-captain Nick Frisby, Andrew Ready, and Jake McIntyre were four blokes who really had got a lot of opportunity at Reds level – and higher, in Frisby’s case – as a result of playing with Brisbane City,” Seib said.

“The big theme of Brisbane City over the last couple of years has been opportunity, and making the most of every opportunity that comes by. The likes of Chris Kuridrani, Alex Gibbon, and Michael Gunn are already leaders within the group; it might not be in an official role, but they’re certainly helping the other guys who have come in from club rugby.

“I really do expect those sort of guys to be stepping up, and these are the sort of challenges we face over the next few weeks,” Seib said.

A major issue that has been plaguing City this season has been conceding the next try in a game rather than scoring again and building further momentum and scoreboard pressure. Of their eleven tries across the first three rounds, eight of them were followed by opposition tries, effectively putting them back at square one.

“Yeah, you’re spot on there,” Seib agrees. “That’s one really important message that we’ve been trying to instill as coaches, that we can’t just have the attitude of doing just enough. When you’ve got momentum going your way, you’ve really got to put your foot down and take every opportunity you can get.

“And my big point as attack coach is that the clear message in the NRC is the team with the most possession will score tries, and so from my perspective, I was little disappointed on the weekend that we didn’t treasure possession as much as we should have. We kicked away too much ball, and when we did get ourselves in a few decent positions there would be handling errors that cost us, so we’ve really got to make sure as a playing group that we understand the importance of possession in this game.

Lukhan Tui has done his 2017 Super Rugby aspirations no harm so far in the NRC. Photo: Getty Images.“In Super Rugby, I would say that territory is probably more important, but in the NRC, possession is more important. And you’ll tend to find that because the ball in play so much more, whoever can put phases together is going to score points.”

Seib’s job doesn’t get any easier this weekend, facing a Melbourne Rising team who sit just above them on the table, but with the same one win, one loss record. And like City, the Rising’s execution at times has been one of their major downfalls this season. So how does a coach ready his team for a match in which the opposition will quite likely identify the same weakness in them as they’ll identify in the opposition?

“Yeah, I certainly don’t worry about their mindset. We’ll certainly pick out some strengths and weaknesses within their side, but in terms of the psychological side of the game, it will be all about us.

“At the start of the season, looking at all teams on paper, I would’ve suggested that the two teams that we’ve lost to (NSW Country and Canberra) would’ve been there or thereabouts at Finals time, and whilst it was incredibly disappointing to lose those two games – and I still believe, and the belief in the playing group is that we let both games slip – we know that Melbourne aren’t bunnies and will be there at the business end.

“The real strength of the competition this year is that there are no weak games. Last year, with the quality we had in the side, and the momentum we were playing with, there were some games where we knew that we just had to maintain a bit of ball for a period of time and be scoring tries with no problems. This year, it doesn’t matter who we play, we know we’re going to be in for a hard fight.”