Hilton hopes Rising have turned corner

by Brett McKay

The Melbourne Rising side in this year’s NRC is so young, that the ‘veterans’ of the side, 25-year-old Steve Cummins and 26-year-old Nic Stirzaker, might as well be running onto the field with the colour-coded golden oldies shorts.

“I know, it’s crazy,” Rising coach Zane Hilton laughs, when I raise this slightly ridiculous notion with him this week.

“The big one for us is that Lloyd (Johansson, still only aged 32) brings the average age up, but take him out and it plummets!

“I can’t take my hat off enough to Nic and Steve though, just in the way in which they have led by example.

"They have been great in allowing these guys to be who they are and helping them out with everything they need.”Nic Stirzaker, at the age of 26, is an experienced head in this Rising side. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThe biggest change around the Melbourne squad this year has certainly been the average age.

Where in NRC seasons past the Rising have been able to build teams around names like Hanson, Reid, Fuglistaller, Faingaa, Debreczeni, and English, it’s a very different experience level involved in 2017.

But Hilton explains that it wasn’t actually a deliberate ploy to head down the ‘youth’ path.

“We are young, but it hasn’t been a conscious decision,” Hilton said.

“We have picked the best team we have available to us at the moment.

"Just purely with the way things have happened around one team in Super Rugby closing, the number of injuries we’ve had, and likewise the performances the local players in the in the Dewar Shield, it just happens to be that the majority of the key performers in the Dewar Shield are younger players.

"A lot of them have come through our U20s program with Craig McGrath and Pom Simona, my other assistant coach.

“It just made sense for us, with the limited preparation, to utilise the continuity those guys had through the U20s program.

"We had key injuries to our older players and more experienced players, and we had to pick the best team we had. It just ended up that they were young.

“There are some huge pluses. Whilst there is inexperience, the one thing it does bring is energy and a real mood into the group.

"We can’t fault the effort at all - they’ve been outstanding, and we are learning some lessons along the way.

"We are all really enjoying the time together as a group, coaching group included.”

That inexperience has probably been costly at times in games, but it’s something the playing group at least are aware of, and therefore are conscious of wanting to improve their decision-making under pressure.

Harrison Goddard is one of several Rising young guns making their mark. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyWe saw evidence of those lessons learned last week against Greater Sydney in the second half, where the Rising were able to not just hold on as the Rams came at them, but actually regroup and kick away to win.

That sort of thing must be really satisfying for the coaching group, I put to Hilton.

“We are really pleased with the reward that the guys got on the weekend, off the back of some really good lessons in the first three weeks," he said.

"We had played some good rugby but just haven’t got the reward for it.

“The biggest thing around our group at the moment is that we are making defence lapses when we make mistakes in attack.

"So, mistakes in attack are putting pressure on us, and that’s the nature of this competition, with turnovers.

"We are putting pressure on ourselves by not being to hold the ball in crucial periods of time.The Rising have struggled to contain opposition counterattacks. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley“It’s not as much a defensive frailty, it’s around us understanding our attacking mistakes are actually hurting us defensively.

"Credit to Craig McGrath, our defensive coach, he has done a great job with the boys emotionally, getting them up to understand how important it is both in attack and defence how important turnovers and mistakes can be.”

I was lucky enough to work in commentary on Super Under-20s games this season, including seeing the young Melbourne Rebels side.

As a rugby fan, it’s great to see the likes of Jack McGregor and Harrison Goddard playing together, and Semisi Tupou and Kiti Ratu on the wings not just getting a start but really excelling at this level.

“It certainly it is,” Hilton agreed.

“Credit to Craig again, because the environment in the back line they have created, and the combinations they have created (in the U20s program) are really standing out at the moment.

"They are learning a lot around their processes about how they prepare for games and how they play.

“The one thing that has been great is that they’ve grown in how they express themselves, and whilst at times that may hurt us from a team perspective, we want to be mindful not to stop that growth.

“The flip side to that is whilst those getting recognition are in the backline, we have a number of guys in the forwards going well too.

"Rob Leota did well on the weekend, Mahe Vailanu was in the 20s program, both locks - 'Manny' Meafou and Esei Ha'angana - are both U20s.

"Out of our full squad we have twelve out of the 33 who are U20s players."

This same time last year, Zane and I had the same conversation about the NRC being the closest season yet, but even just a month into the 2017 campaign, it feels like we’re going better again.

“Oh, I know,” Hilton said.

“I think there are six points between second and ninth.

“That tells us how close this competition is at the halfway mark, but I think more so, the quality of game show us how close the competition is.

Jack McGregor has led the team well at flyhalf. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"At any given moment, there’s been no real runaway wins, apart from a couple of blowouts when teams have travelled.

“There have been opportunities for both teams in all games to win the game.

"That means it’s hats off to the coaches, as they are allowing their teams to play, and everyone is still trying to play in a really positive way.”

The Rising take on Queensland Country this Saturday at Bond University, and they might be the perfect example of the tightness of the competition.

Their bonus point win over the Sydney Rays last weekend shot them fifth or sixth on the table to second, and Hilton knows all about the challenge Country present defensively - especially through their scrum set piece.

“That scrum helped, certainly, with Taniela Tupou obviously, and Sef Fa’agase and Alex Mafi as well.

"They are a very well put together team and very well-balanced team.

"Traditionally, they have been good in one area of the game but now they are a hard nut to crack across the park and they will be a real challenge for us up there.

“They’re led well with Brad [Thorn] and Paul Carozza, so we are expecting a real challenge.

"They have a young team too, so it will be quite energetic game, no doubt about it.”

The Rising take on Queensland Country at Bond University on Saturday afternoon, kicking off at 3pm AEST, broadcast LIVE on FOX SPORTS.