NRC 2017: Cusack's year coming to an end

by Brett McKay

Canberra Vikings captain Tom Cusack has had a pretty productive year.

His first full season back in the XVs game, after four years with the Aussie Sevens, has produced a Super Rugby debut, a John I Dent Cup premiership with Canberra club Royals, and come Saturday night, he’s hoping to become the fourth captain to hold the National Rugby Championship trophy aloft. 

It would be a fitting end to a busy 2017, and Cusack says he’s ready to give it everything for one last set of eighty minutes.

“It has been a big year, and a taxing year more than anything,”he said.

“You start preseason with the Brumbies in November and you go all the way through. You play a lot of club footy, and club footy extends past the Super Rugby season, and then you have two weeks off, and you get thrown into the NRC season.

“The body is really screaming for a break, but it is still enjoyable, and I have enjoyed the footy that I’ve played.”

Finding that success would help vindicate Cusack's move from sevens.  

“I am honoured to be down here, and to take that risk to come down here and to enjoy my footy like I have, it has made it very worthwhile.

"If I came down here and I wasn’t playing good footy, and I wasn’t enjoying it, obviously you’d question the move. But I don’t regret anything.”

Cusack concedes it wasn’t an easy decision, though after being on a circuit took him all over the world, to World Cups, Commonwealth and the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he led Australia's try-scoring tally.

“Obviously, it is a hard choice to go away from representing your country, and you have the carrots of the Commonwealth Games and Olympics and all that,” he says.

“I was very content with what I had achieved there.

"That doesn’t mean that I won’t go back come 2020, or three or four years down the track where maybe I might miss a bit of travel and the whole circuit. I’m by no means ruling that out.

:I am always one to take experiences as they come, and I can’t really regret anything.”

ACT, born-and-bred, Cusack was an Australian Schoolboys rep out of the famed Marist College rugby nursery before graduating to the Australian U20s, and the Brumbies were always on his radar.

“Definitely, especially being a Canberra boy,” he says. “

They always showed interest in that period as well, they said ‘we absolutely want to get you home’, and that was a comforting thing that when I did actually make the switch it was going to be the right switch, and the right time, and they were going to be supportive however long it took.

“The rugby community down in Canberra is one of the better ones in Australian rugby, and you want to be a part of that when you are growing up. It was a comforting thing knowing I was coming back home.”

2018 represents yet another changing of guard for the Brumbies, simillarly to 2017, where they farewelled the likes of Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua, David Pocock, and Christian Lealiifano.

Pocock and Lealiifano will be back in 2018, but just from the backrow alone the Brumbies will be without Scott Fardy, Jordan Smiler, and Jarrad Butler.

There’s a huge opportunity there for any of the young backrowers in the Brumbies squad, prompting the very much expected “wherever the coach wants me to play” answer to whether Cusack sees himself as a blindside or openside flanker. He’s been playing as a no.7 in the NRC, but has spent plenty of side at 6 this year and even no.8, too.

“You just have to adapt whether the coach wants you nice and tight on the ball, or if he wants you out wide. I see my strength as running in those wider channels, which ‘Sambo’ [Vikings coach Tim Sampson] enjoys, and it appeals to Dan [McKellar, Brumbies coach in 2018] as well.

“Dan (Brumbiies coach Dan McKellar) sees it as more of a northern hemisphere 7 with more ball running, than just the really hard ball player. He still wants the ability to get on the ball, which I enjoy, getting a few turnovers. There are components in my game that I enjoy but it doesn’t change at all what position I play.  It’s really where the coach wants to put me (laughs).”

Cusack speaks of the benefit of the Sevens game to his backrow role in XVs, and although there’s a different type of physical conditioning required to be ready for the increased close-contact collision - “I’d still rather tackle Tommy Banks than have Scotty Sio and Allan Alaalatoa running at me”, he laughs – the Sevens background has definitely helped his approach to the traditional game this year.

“It’s the ability to somewhat read the game and anticipate where the ball is going, you have to do that in Sevens,” he said. “There is so much space, and based on your defensive strategy you need to anticipate where the ball will be, and you have to react off that.”

“In Sevens, you are making a lot of long range efforts. You’re accelerating a lot harder. Your back to back efforts at peak velocity have to be up to scratch otherwise there’s a lot more running.

“Here, you are getting up off the deck, and that is what drains you in XVs.  You make the tackle, you get up off the deck and into position and then you make another tackle. If you make three or four tackles in a row, you can be absolutely cooked, and then you have to turn around and chase someone.”

Along with Vikings teammate Rob Valetini and Brumbies 2018 recruit Isi Naisarani from Perth Spirit, Cusack was included in a formidable – but relatively easily selected – backrow in the NRC Team of the Year.

It bodes well for the Brumbies nest season; a backrow unit Cusack wants to be part of.

“The goal in 2018 is just to make a name for myself in the 23, and my versatility helps.  It helps me on the bench if Dan wants a reserve who can play 6, 7 or 8, or obviously if I’m starting. You always want to start, but you put the team first and play wherever is going to be the best balance for the team,” he says.

“I do love playing for Royals, and if the opportunity does arise to play for them, I will take that, but my main goal is to make the Brumbies’ 23 and just keep tracking along that.

“I got on the bench into the 23 this year, I did that twice and that is all I could ask for [after switching from Sevens]. Coming into this season, there were moments when I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this, but now I’ve got through this whole year with a good NRC season and good Royals season and a couple of Super Rugby caps.

“I now have that belief that if I get on the bench or I start I know that I am going to add value.”

Adding value is something he’s done extraordinarily well this NRC season, and not just in the way he’s played. His excellent captaincy has so quickly been taken for granted that it barely rates a mention, yet it would be hard to picture the Vikings in the Final without Cusack’s on-field leadership.

And he’s been a leader all year, helping steer Royals to the second ACT Rugby Premiership in three seasons in August. An NRC title with the Vikings looms as the icing on an already tasty cake in 2017.

“It really will top it off,” he says, with the determination to do it evident in his voice. “It would be the biggest waste, if we don’t.”

“I said that to the boys on the weekend, when we were in at half time. It was 21-all, everyone was a bit blown, bodies were sore. Fa’alelei (Sione) hurt his shoulder and had been subbed, and a few players were really aching.

“I just said ‘it means nothing now, if you can’t pull it together. It just means nothing. You can walk away finishing third or fourth, or you can finish first. What would you rather?’

“Everyone chose the finishing first option, and I think that’s the way to finish it off this weekend.”

Canberra hosts the NRC final on Saturday november 11 t Viking Park kicking offf at 7:30pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS.