This time last year, Darren Coleman and his NSW Country Eagles were sitting pretty on top of the NRC, truly established as the team to beat in 2016.
Fast-forward 12 months, and the Eagles are in a really delicate place. Two wins and three losses have Country sitting alongside Greater Sydney on nine points, just off the edge of the top four.
The Eagles' gutsy, defence-led 26-17 win over the Sydney Rays in Goulburn, followed by the near-miracle comeback against Queensland Country on the Gold Coast has Coleman convinced that they can still feature in the playoffs.
“In the top four there is a gap there now, but three of that four are only now having the bye,” Coleman told RUGBY.com.au.
“I have always said, and I still think at this point that five wins out of eight games will get you in no matter what, and four wins with a good spread of bonus points could get you in, too.
“If you use that, we are two and three, so we just need to win our last three games to get to five wins.”
Six wins has traditionally been the minimum to qualify in past seasons, but with any team capable of beating anyone in 2017, Coleman’s five-wins theory does appear to stack up.
The biggest challenge for him over the remaining three rounds is ensure the Eagles get those three wins after a stop-start first six rounds of the competition.
“There is still an air of frustration around our performances at the moment. It’s tricky,” he said.
“There is plenty of spirit in that team, they defend well. I’m just trying how to unlock a bit of that attacking flare that we are missing.”
NSW Country currently have the leanest attacking record in the NRC this season, nearly two full tries less than the competition average after six rounds.
And that’s curious, because with the likes of Andrew Kellaway, Alex Newsome, and last year’s Player of the Year Jake Gordon, there’s no shortage of try-scorers in the Eagles’ side.
Indeed, many of the same players were tearing the NRC apart this time last season.
So, from where will Coleman find the spark to ignite this misfiring attack?
“Good question. If you had the answer I would kindly take it. It’s similar personnel in many positions from last year, and for some of the ones we don’t have, we have replaced with equally quality players,” Coleman ponders.
“We were just finishing our line breaks better last year. Dave Horwitz and Kyle Godwin, feeding Kellaway and [Reece] Robinson, Newsome… it was generally ending in tries, but this year it’s not quite there.
“Kyle, you’d like to think is still a bit off his best, with his speed and agility to break tackles. Jake Gordon, still hasn’t quite got the same zip coming back from a reasonable ankle injury. Kellaway is on the up, no doubting that; Newsome has made a really good fist of 13; Tommy Hill has a lot of punch when we bring him on at centre, and Seb Wileman, he was the form 13 of the Shute Shield as well.
“It’s not fire power; it’s trying to unlock it, and that is why that victory over the Rays [in Round 5] didn’t feel like a great one because I am generally puzzled and worried how we unlock it.”
The flip side to the Eagles' attack is that their pack is more than holding their own; the forwards are probably they reason they’ve produced the two wins they have. The Country scrum is in good shape, the lineout is solid but a work in progress, and their ball carrying and interplay is good too. But there’s always room for improvement.
“We have to look at our speed to the break down,” Coleman begins.
“Once our breakdown gives us more consistent ball, our guys will find the spaces out on the edges. Like any coaching, you keep rewarding the things we are doing well, and keep working on the things we aren’t.
“We’ll just keep chipping away, and I’m hoping it will come.”
Looking back on the last 12 months – something Coleman says he hope to find time to do some time soon – it’s been an incredibly testing season for the last remaining foundation coach of the NRC.
Coleman switched from Eastern Suburbs to Warringah for the 2017 Shute Shield season, enduring an emotional roller-coaster bookended by the tragic loss of Lachie Ward, younger brother of Warringah and NSW Country no.8 Sam, and the Rats’ first Shute Shield Premiership in 12 seasons.
“That’s the problem with our seasons at the moment. I just thought it was really unfair, we played on dust bowl at TG Milliner six days later [NRC Round 1], when I would have like to have savoured that victory with the Rats boys,” Coleman says, matter-of-factly.
“We were celebrating the grand final win that Saturday afternoon and all the emotion involved with that, and I was training with a new team on the Monday and worrying about winning again. And was equal last on the ladder again pretty quickly.
“But the year was awesome. The unusual and tragic event of Lachie was something that… well, actually, I had encountered it a little bit, because I’d done my apprenticeship around that with Andy Friend and the Brumbies when they lost Shawn Mackay.
“I had seen how he handled it and took a lot of good lessons out of that, and spoke to him a fair bit. I speak to ‘Frendo’ every week, he’s one of my good mates.
“The (Warringah) season sort of just gathered momentum. We went into the Shute Shield playoffs where you’re pretty much out no matter where you finish on the ladder, but I never went into any training on Monday, or Tuesday video review sessions thinking ‘this is our last review, we won’t be here next week’.
“I know that is cliché and they all say that in hindsight, but I genuinely always thought there was a deeper power involved in that season.
“It was a nice feeling. Man for man, you could probably say those (opposition) teams were potentially better players, and maybe better structured and coached, but they weren’t going to try harder than us in those finals.”
Going from all that emotion and momentum that Warringah had through the finals into a new competition with no turnaround was always going to difficult, but there was one additional thing Coleman was going to face in this year’s NRC.
Thhe weight of expectation on the Eagles was and still is very apparent, and it’s something Coleman is very conscious of.
“It’s definitely been the most challenging thing I have done as a coach, and I said to the boys after the win in Goulburn that I have to take a bit of blame for our start to the NRC,” he says.
“I have definitely taken some short cuts and I don’t feel that I’m as emotionally invested as I should be.”
“I don’t know if that is a hangover or if I have nothing left to give on that front (laughs), I don’t know. I always look at myself first and a few of those things we have done wrong are definitely on the back of some poor coaching that I take responsibility for, and I will really look at them and try and improve.”
“We need it to come now. We have had five games now where we haven’t quite clicked, and you can’t go through a whole season and expect to be there at the end without clicking.
“So, it’ll have to click from this week for us.”
The NSW Country Eagles take on the Perth Spirit on Saturday Octobr 14, kicking off at 3pm AEDT LIVE on FOX SPORTS.