NRC: Vikings coach keen to put the brakes on their rollercoaster season

by Brett McKay

With just two rounds to go in the Buildcorp NRC, University of Canberra Vikings coach Wayne Southwell knows his team can’t afford any more slip-ups. And he’s flagged a change of approach for the final two games. 

The Vikings’ 60-44 loss to the Melbourne Rising last Sunday didn’t just cost the Canberra side the Horan-Little Shield they’d only just taken from Brisbane City two weeks prior, they also dropped from second on the table to fourth.

Another loss this weekend could see the Vikings drop out of the four completely, yet a win over the Sydney Rays at Pittwater on the northern beaches could see them climb back as the ladder as high as second.

It mirrors Canberra’s season to date, where a 38-point win was followed by a 32-point loss, a 32-point win, a six-point win, and last weekend’s loss by 16. Southwell concedes there’s no middle ground with his side at the moment.

“No, there’s not,” Southwell laughed, when recounted the margins to him this week. “It feels very roller-coaster as well. Emotionally it’s been a bit strange, and talking to the guys at training, they’re feeling the same effects.”

“It’s probably our defence (letting us down) more than our attack at the moment, and probably more than anything, just a lack of possession. We are getting the ball, but at the wrong end of the field, or just not enough of it.

“We can attack when we have opportunities, but we’ve just had limited opportunities in those couple of games. 

The Vikings could only defend the Horan-Little Shield once after stealing it from Brisbane City in Round 3. Photo: Getty Images“And it means that we’ll probably go into these last couple of games with a focus more on the defensive side of things, so that will be a bit of a change of tactics.

And with their participation in the NRC Finals on the line, it makes some sense that last season’s beaten Finalists would be looking to play more pragmatically. When you haven’t got the ball to attack with, the biggest focus has to be getting the ball back.

The Vikings’ tough run home starts with the Rays this weekend, followed by Perth Spirit in Canberra next weekend in Round 7.

“It’s two big games to finish,” Southwell says. “Perth, like the Rays are a very strong attacking side, and the Rising was in a pretty similar vein last weekend; they all like to throw the ball around.”

“That’s probably the thing we’ve noticed most, that the teams who like to have a crack and throw the ball are probably the most dangerous at the moment, so there’s probably some lessons to be learned there, and it’s a style I kind of prefer anyway.

“I’m really happy with the set piece at the moment, we just need to establish a better platform defensively and then try to build off the back of that.”

Southwell took the Vikings’ NRC job this season off the back of a long and decorated coaching career in the ACT, winning Premierships with the Queanbeyan Whites, and famously ending the Canberra Royals’ 24-year title drought in 2015.

“I’ve long looked forward to the opportunity. I’m excited to now be in that position, and I’m excited with that group of players. The contracted players, and the guys coming in from the clubs have combined well, and I’m really enjoying my time,” Southwell said.

“I’m hoping we can get some good results (laughs), because it’s something I’d quite like to do again.”

Southwell admitted that the hammering at the hands of NSW Country in Round 2 “was a wake-up call”, and says he has no doubt opposition teams will be looking to start fast in every game they play. Melbourne had similar success starting hot just last weekend.

Joe Powell has struggled to find consistency and personifies the Vikings season so far. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Vikings coach is more worried about getting his team playing the way he’d like them to.

“There’s some things I’d like to be doing, and we’re moving towards that at the moment. We’re finally getting some cohesion in the group, in terms of where they’ve all come from,” Southwell explains.

“There’s an obvious Brumbies style and a Brumbies influence, and you don’t have a lot of time to develop your own style. The obvious thing is to prepare along the lines of the majority of the group, and that’s fine. It’s been a learning curve that I’ve really enjoyed.”

Part of that learning curve has included Southwell tweaking his own instincts. At the start of the NRC season, Southwell told media in Canberra that he really wanted to back the natural instincts of the playing group, but two weeks from the end, and with their season in the balance, he’s come to admit that those ambitions do sometimes need to be reined in.

“Certainly, and it’s a matter of who you’re playing as well. You’re playing sides with a different style pretty much each week, and you’re playing with a different group each week, too.

“There’s a really strong squad there, but some (Super Rugby-contracted) guys do have to be rested, so there’s that continuity factor and there are players stepping up to the mark and doing particularly well. You’re trying to balance game time for all your players, and that’s important, but it’s a tough competition, too.”

One thing that Southwell is grateful he’s inherited from the Brumbies program is a very good set piece, and as we saw last weekend against Melbourne, it means even when the Vikings have very little ball, they can still play to their strengths and find points. The Vikings’ lineout drive was the difference between going to halftime down 20-0, or 20-12 as they managed through two Josh Mann-Rea tries.

The Vikings’ renewed focus on defence gets no better test than the Rays at Pittwater this weekend.

“They really do move the ball quite well. They’re strong at 12 coming through the centre corridor, and they’ll be looking to move the ball around,” Southwell says.

“We want to play that open style, too, and we’ll be backing our set piece to provide the platform. We do travel well, though, and if we can start well, anything is possible with this group.