Heenan, City making strides with every start

by Brett McKay

A bye in round four of the National Rugby Championship means the Brisbane City squad and coach Mick Heenan have this weekend off.

They do so having returned to knocking on the door of the top four, after their entertaining, but hard-fought win over Canberra last Sunday.

After a heavy loss to Queensland Country in round two, City really needed a good performance to maintain touch with the top handful of teams.

The big difference in the City performance was the return of Quade Cooper at flyhalf, after the Reds and Wallabies star missed the Andy Purcell Cup derby clash.

But it wasn’t just as simple of slotting Cooper back in.

“No, it’s wasn’t,” Heenan said, speaking with RUGBY.com.au this week.

“We had a pretty direct review on the Monday (after the Queensland Country loss) and the players took a lead role in that.

“The performance was a long way off.

"I need to be careful, because I really respect the way Country play.

"They played very well, putting us under a lot of pressure, but I was just disappointed.

"Not by the lack of effort, just the attitude around some of the off-the-ball efforts.

"We weren’t very smart by the way we played, and yes, sure, we had a few disruptions through the week, but mentally we weren’t in the game.

"So the review was pretty blunt.”

Against the Vikings, City started precisely the way they needed to - with a bang.Quade Cooper has steered City to two wins in his two starts this season. Photo: Getty ImagesDespite conceding the first try of the game, City hit back superbly, scoring three converted tries in ten minutes to effectively blow the first half open.

The 'Quade effect' was obvious in the way the City side played with width.

“It just gives the other guys a bit of confidence, because he is such a confident bloke himself,” Heenan said.

“He is willing to try things and most of the time they come off.

"He spends a lot of time with the young guys around him at training, just explaining what he is seeing, and what he needs from them.

"Getting those combinations flowing has been really important for us.

“I thought Chris Kuridrani was huge for us at 13, too.

"He really became a focal point for us - that is on the back of him shifting from wing to 12 late in the game against Country and showing us a bit there too.Taking down the Vikings was crucial for City's morale heading into the bye. Photo: Getty ImagesThe win shot City up to fifth on the NRC table, where they find themselves in the middle of a block of seven teams separated by just one bonus point win.“

It’s very even this year,” Heenan said.

“I was talking to the guys about this after the game on Sunday - it’s such an even competition.

“If you look at the teams that we have coming up - Perth are the team to beat, they’re the pace setters - but there’s just no easy games.

“That’s a different challenge for a coach.

"In club footy you could look at games a few weeks out and think, ‘OK, we should win that one, or this one, and that one is going to be tough’.

"But in the NRC, it’s a challenge every week.”

Heenan has been in charge of a very successful University of Queensland side since 2009, guiding the Red Heavies to the finals every year since 2010 and picking up three Premier Grade titles on the way.

Prior to that, he coached at the GPS club for more than a decade across multiple grades.Heenan has been the mastermind behind UQ's dominant decade. Photo: QRU Media/Meggie WhitchurchThe challenge of stepping up a level has been enjoyable, Heenan said, but not without its testing times.

“In club rugby, you have the guys together from November to September and you have all the usual frustrations with waiting for Reds availabilities, the normal club footy frustrations that you get from guys leaving half way through the season to go overseas.

"In our case at Uni, it’s exams and all the rest of it, too.

“The NRC - you have them for two weeks before the comp starts.

"It’s almost like club footy writ large in a lot of cases, because we have had the same sort of issues.

"The first few weeks we had guys leaving to go to France, guys potentially leaving but then staying and then leaving again.

"We had managers ringing, asking ‘are they going to get a run?’ and all this sort of stuff.

“It’s similar, but we are just dealing with a better standard of footy and better players.”

Part of that challenge includes dealing with players that he had previously only had to worry about while analysing the opposition.Taking the reigns at City is the next step in Heenan's development, having dominated club land. Photo: QRU MediaBut Heenan said he has enjoyed taking what he knows about the game to a new level.

“When you have been coaching at the one club for so long, the guys know what I want and I don’t need to spend time explaining how I want things to run,” he said.

“You almost fall into a sort of short hand for talking to them, and so you have to reassess how you communicate with players when you are dealing with guys that you don’t know - and they don’t know you.

"You could be introducing concepts that might be a little bit foreign to them.

“Not that rugby is rocket science, but the things that Elwee (Prinsloo, City assistant coach) and I are doing in attack and defence are slightly different to what the Reds are doing, or what their own clubs might be doing.

"You do have to spend a bit of time challenging yourself about how you communicate to players how you do that.”

The other delicate task is balancing the crucial development of younger players alongside established contracted players, while also building the combinations required to win a national competition.

In 11 weeks.

It means the hard work really begins after the bye, with five games leading into the NRC semi-finals.

“That is actually a bit of a challenge,” Heenan conceded.

“You have the established Reds guys that are going to be the core of your team but you also have to give opportunities to the club guys, particularly if they are really putting in at training and exhibiting the right attitude and impressing their team.

“Usually in Super Rugby or club footy you get two or three trials.

"So, we have had our three trials now and given as many people as we can a run in those first three games.

"I half expected that we wouldn’t be at our best in every game, but now we have to start really focusing in on combinations.

"Sometimes you get injuries and this naturally gives people an opportunity.

“We are conscious of trying to give as many people in the squad as we can a run.

"They are things we are conscious of but at the same time it’s that balance keeping the squad fresh and interested and building cohesion.

“But, as I said, it’s not a club footy season.

"The NRC is a sprint, so we have to start building cohesion and combinations from the start.”