NRC: Figg's Sevens road to XVs success

by Brett McKay

He’s been one of the form players of the 2016 National Rugby Championship, and has recent experience with the Australian Sevens side as well. But NSW Country Eagles backrower Sam Figg still doesn’t have a contract anywhere for 2017 yet.

He certainly hasn’t hurt his chances of changing that situation, turning out a man-of-the-match performance to steer Country to their maiden NRC final this weekend. Figg picked up the Eagles’ award for at least the second time this season, adding another impressive black Akubra hat to his collection of headwear.

But for all that, and though he’s aware that he is effectively playing in a shop window for 2017, Figg says he’s not being driven by a conscious thought that if he plays well, he’ll earn himself a contract.

“No, to be honest, that’s not what’s driving me,” he explained to this week.

“If I’m honest, I’m just trying to control the controllables; that’s probably the best way of explaining it. What I keep telling myself is that if I keep going out there and play rugby well, it’ll sort itself out in some way; it always does.

Figg in action for the Country Eagles during the NRC semi-final. Photo: Getty Images“The reason why I’m playing so well at the moment is that I’m just comfortable. The guys around me, it’s such a good culture, and mate, I just want to play footy for them, you know?

“And when you’re in a team where you don’t mind getting up off the deck when you’re feeling as horrible as you often do on a footy field, it’s just fun to play, and when you’re comfortable in an environment, that’s when you start playing good footy.”

‘Good footy’ is probably the understatement of the year, because Figg’s form for the Eagles has been excellent and getting better every week, culminating in the weekend’s performance in the first semi-final, where he led their fightback against the Melbourne Rising’s fast start.

Playing in front of the Melbourne Rebels assistant coach doesn’t hurt his case, either, and nor does playing well in front any potential future employer.

“Absolutely, that’s the crux of it,” he says. “I’m not only marketing myself here, I’m marketing myself to Japan, Europe; anyone that’s watching, really. If there’s a saving grace here [to putting himself in the shop window], it’s that the Eagles have made the Final and on a personal note, I’m going to be able to play on the world stage.” 

“And that’s the same for anyone, too, whether they’re pushing for more time with the ‘Tahs like Jake Gordon and Dave Horwitz are, or whether they’re just pushing to make that next level.”

Figg will do a Super Rugby pre-season with the Western Force, which he’s very much looking forward to, but he also knows that no guarantees come with the offer.

“Dave Wessels has been really honest with me, even though he hasn’t promised me anything. I won’t be the only guy going over there to do pre-season for free though; I don’t by any means think they owe me anything.”

“They haven’t offered me a contract (yet), and so that’s why I have to keep pronouncing that I don’t have one.”

After playing really well for NSW Country in 2015, Figg returned to the Sevens scene this year for a crack at making the Rio Olympics. But he never saw Sevens as his end game, rather using the seven-a-side game to become the player he always wanted to be and nail a XVs contract. He ultimately would walk away Sevens before the Rio squad was even considered.

“I won’t lie, for a few years I’d been a bit a frustrated [leading in to the Sevens return]. I’d felt like I was on the fringe of something for a while, and I kind of stepped back and looked at what my game of rugby was. 

“For too long, I was trying to be a rugby player that I wasn’t, and what I mean by that is I’d always had this pressure, ‘Figgy, we need you to be bigger, we need you to be stronger; we need you to do this and this’.

“And it never sat right with me, because I’m not going to be a 112kg Wycliff Palu running at people; that’s just not my game. So I took a conscious decision of going back into the Sevens framework to work on the skills that would allow me to have a point of difference.

“I became faster, I became fitter, my ball skills are a hell of a lot better, and now my ability over the ball on the fringe… well, that’s where I’m getting most of my turnovers at the moment. You cobble all that together, and I just feel like a much more confident player when I step onto the pitch now, and that’s why I’m playing good footy, I think.”

Figg representing Australia at the 2016 Singapore Sevens. Photo: Getty ImagesFigg thinks his Sevens days are behind him now, but goes out of his way to thank to Australian Sevens coach Andy Friend for allowing him to get back on his true path.

“From the get-go I was pretty transparent with ‘Friendy’ that my goal was XVs and that Sevens was an opportunity to hone my skills,” he says.

And Figg says he now has a lot of sympathy for ex-Sevens players looking to do the same thing post-Rio, to find a home in the XVs game, saying he’s found that there seems to be “a stigma attached to Sevens players”, that they’ll need a season or two to find his feet. The NRC form of Tom Cusack, Con Foley and himself is all the proof Figg needs to show people this isn’t the case.

Having played in the NRC for several seasons now, Figg is well placed to speak of the competition seemingly taking a step up in 2016. There’s no doubt in his mind that it has gone to new levels.

“It’s completely different to last year, that’s for sure. The games are tougher, they’re faster; there was a breakdown on the weekend where (Melbourne backrower) Colby Fainga’a and I were on the ground, and he just looked at me and said, ‘mate, this ball-in-play is too long,’ which we had a bit of a laugh about.

“The whole competition has gone to a new level, and I hope it keeps going, because it can only do good things for rugby. There’s been a lot of talk about defence and how 70-point games aren’t good for the game, and I disagree with that.

“Guys are happy to try new things in the NRC domain. Look at us this season; how many tries from grubbers are we getting, how many tries from cross-field kicks are we scoring? It’s just exciting footy, and when you give guys a free pass to show their talents and extend their hand, it can only be good for not only Super Rugby, but the Wallabies too in the long run.”

Figg mentions the high-scoring nature of the NRC, yet the teams who best execute the fundamentals of the game are the ones who remain the most successful. There may be no better example than Perth Spirit, who Figg and his Country teammates will face this Saturday night in Tamworth, and who beat the Sydney Rays in the second semi-final through good, old fashioned set piece and breakdown domination.

“We looked at that pretty closely,” Figg says, of the Spirit’s progression through to the Final. “I thought the Rays were a little unlucky, their rate of attrition was unbelievable.”

“Perth were clinical in how they approached the game, and their set piece was unbelievable. And they’ve got a really strong backrow, too, so I’m really looking forward to that challenge.”

“The breakdown was something we looked at pretty hard against the Rising, though, and we kept Colby and Jordy Reid pretty quiet. If we can take that same aggression at the breakdown and physicality that we showed against the Rising, I think we can stem Perth’s go-forward."

Catch the Buildcorp NRC grand final LIVE and exclusive on FOX SPORTS 2 at 7:45pm AEDT following the Bledisloe.