Rebels still alive after Highlanders firefight
Photo: SPA Images
Southern Districts have kept their finals chances alive with a hard fought 43-35 victory over a defiant Gordon at Chatswood Oval. The eleven-try thriller was a case of the Highlanders forward power meeting the gusto of the Rebels backline, with all five of the home sides scorers coming from their impressive pack, while five of the visitor’s six tries came from their dazzling princesses.
Wallaby centre Rob Horne made a solid if unspectacular return from long-term injury.* But it was Junior Waratah Brackin Karauria-Henry who took the plaudits, with his hat-trick helping Souths eventually see off a Gordon side that can take much heart from their performance against their Super Rugby laden opponents.
Even though the game produced 78pts, it actually took a while for the score keepers to be called into action as a bruising opening quarter saw both sides flex their forward muscle but fail to make a breakthrough. Ita Vaea and Lopeti Timani were human wrecking balls for the Rebels, but every breach of the Gordon line was met with scrambling defence, their only failure to hold firm seeing a try from former Stag Rome Nifo called back for a forward pass.
With Dan Palmer and John Ulugia in the front row, the Rebels looked to apply the blowtorch at scrum time. But the Highlanders refused to take a backward step, and their task was eased somewhat when Ulugia went off with a torn calf, which may end his season.
However, with the array of talent at their disposal in the backs, it was only a matter of time before something gave. A promising looking counter attack from Gordon’s Dion Berryman was quelled on halfway, and when the Highlanders failed to throw enough bodies in to the ruck, Karauria-Henry was on hand to pilfer and spin away for a solo run to the posts.
The tone for the see-saw nature of the rest of the match was set when the hosts hit back within minutes. A succession of pick and drives got them within striking distance, and when a penalty gave them the put-in from five metres out, they kept it up their jumpers to eventually drive lock Lex Fairley over for their first.
Souths showed that they too had the ability from in close when Palmer profited from an effective rolling maul to restore their lead, but back came Gordon on the half hour to level. A half-break from Rebel Sean Doyle left him isolated from his team mates, and the inevitable turnover saw flanker Aisea Namoa break through the traffic and show a clean pair of heels for the corner.
The game was end-to-end now, with both sides looking likely in the opposing 22, yet vulnerable in their own, and a further try apiece in the five minutes before the break was not a surprise. Souths led the way, using the flanks this time as a two-man break down the right wing saw Nick Cummins glide over, before a tap and go near the line gave Fairley a double for the home side.
Flyhalves Jordan McGregor and Dave Harvey were locked in their own personal kicking duel, and with neither missing a beat, the half-time score after an entertaining 40 minutes was 21-all. Gordon head coach John Briggs was pleasantly surprised by the parity achieved by his side.
“On paper they’re a very good side with a lot of Super Rugby players, but I knew that we were in the game because they weren’t hurting us,” he said. “We just had to keep doing what we were doing and trust our play and keep rolling up the sleeves.”
His counterpart Steve Talbot paid tribute to Gordon’s efforts, but admitted to a continuing frustration with the inconsistency of a Rebels side he only inherited six weeks ago.
“Their pick and drive was very good, they do it really well and we couldn’t counter that, we couldn’t stop them,” he said. “Restarts are a problem as well. We score tries and then the kick-off isn’t clean and we don’t get field position, and I think it’s that continuity thing, the urgency to support and to retain possession so that we can build something. We’re sort of all stop and start, and I suppose the scoreline and the way the points were scored back and forwards meant that we didn’t really consolidate.”
Both sides made enforced changes for the second stanza, with Dan Palmer having limped off before the break with a persistent ankle injury, while Gordon were dealt a hammer blow with the loss of the influential Dion Berryman. The versatile back had been having another outstanding game with ball in hand, and was consistently brave and efficient under the high ball.
The try-for-try pattern was finally broken when McGregor slotted over a penalty in the 44th minute. And when captain Tetera Faulkner belied the number on his back with a terrific 20-metre line break followed by an expertly wrapped pass around an outstretched arm for Karauria-Henry’s second, it looked like the Highlanders were facing an uphill task.
But this Gordon outfit has fostered plenty of team spirit and rarely knows when it’s beaten, and true to form, back they came. Reverting to their strengths they plundered two quick tries through rolling mauls, both finished off by prop James Atwill, and Harvey’s precision sent them into the lead for the first time at 35-29 with less than a quarter of the match remaining.
Souths season was now on the line and to their credit, they stepped up to the plate when challenged. But stoic defence and no small amount of heart from Gordon made them work hard for their victory, and it took a bit of fortune and a moment of magic to get them home.
With eleven minutes left, a misguided clearance from Harvey was partially blocked, and when the ball found Cummins, he put in a lovely step to earn a clear run to the posts. And five minutes later man of the moment Karauria-Henry picked up possession on halfway, put up a lovely chip down the line, regathered, put in a fend, and streaked home for his hat-trick, and a vital win to keep the Rebels season alive.
SOUTHERN DISTRICTS 43 (Brackin Karauria-Henry 3, Nick Cummins 2, Dan Palmer tries; Jordan McGregor 3 cons, pen, Dewet Roos 2 cons) defeated GORDON 35 (Lex Fairley 2, James Atwill 2, Aisea Namoa tries; Dave Harvey 5 cons) at Chatswood Oval HT 21-21
Southern Districts head coach Steve Talbot:
“There are not many fingernails left. It was like a game of basketball going backwards and forwards and thankfully, it went our way at the end. I’m sure as a neutral it would have been good to watch. We couldn’t hold onto the ball. We weathered the storm a few times and got possession and then gave it away again, so there was no relaxing going on and even at the end of the game, the scoreboard attendant was pretty slow to put the three up instead of the two and that was when we knew we had it, with two minutes to go.
“We definitely didn’t break their spirit, and we would have liked to have rolled on with it after half-time but it just wasn’t to be. Our urgency to defend isn’t enough, so if teams have got into our twenty-two in the last few weeks, they’ve been scoring tries or points of some description. But you’d have to say we did win, we didn’t get away with it. We ground it out at the end and hopefully, we can keep that going. A bonus point win is a box ticked so that’s good, that’s what we wanted. All we can do is try to keep winning.
“I think we’re lacking some leadership in the group, there probably isn’t that dominant figure you need in either the forwards or the backs at the moment. We’ve got some really good young players and some players who have Super Rugby experience that aren’t leaders, but when they come back that’s what we’re asking them to be. They’re learning and they’re getting better each week but you either have those qualities or you don’t.
“The big challenge next week against Uni is that it’s acceptable to lose to them. Everyone thinks you’re going to lose, so if you go out and play hard and get beaten by 10pts that’s pretty acceptable. It’s a mental hurdle to stand up in front of them and say ‘Right, we want to beat you’ so that’ll hopefully be our plan. The boys are scrappers, they don’t mind getting in amongst it so I think we’ll give them a good show. I’m looking forward to it, it’s a good opportunity for our young guys to play against some really experienced fellas so we’ll have to see. But if their line-up is anything like today’s, it’ll be a big test.”
Gordon head coach John Briggs:
“We still got 40pts put on us to lose the game but there was certainly a genuine effort there from a bunch of guys that had a real go today. We could have had the ball pop up and we score and go out to an 8pt lead and win the game, and that’s where it was won and lost. We also had another opportunity and we got a little bit of white line fever and maybe got a bit impatient. That’ll come with maturity and a bit of trust.
When things aren’t going well in other areas and we go sideways in attack at times and things aren’t happening wider, you can’t run against massive defence. When they’re not committing too many blokes at the breakdown, you’ve got to get them out of the line and the only way you can do that is with a driving maul or a pick and go. You want to get them back and around and back and around again and then go, and we’re way better at that than we were in Round One against Manly, so there’s been improvement and it’s just around the corner.
We can always score a try when we apply a bit of pressure, we’ve just got to stop them at the other end. Again, that’s a trust thing and it’s about believing in the bloke inside and outside of you. Forty points is forty points and you don’t like that but you’ve got to take into account that they had six or seven Super Rugby players and we had none. We’re getting there, we were certainly in that game for a long way and in some ways unlucky to lose it. But when you’re an emerging team or a team that’s going through a rebuilding process, that’s what happens. The big thing is that they got to come off today with their heads up.”
Southern Districts centre Rob Horne:
“That first bit of contact is the one you’re looking for and once you get that, everything else sort of looks after itself. But I just wanted to get a few touches today. The elbow stood up pretty well, the lungs were struggling a bit but it was good to play eighty, that’s what I wanted out of it and I got that.
“There were a lot of points scored but it was a bit of a stop/start game as well, and it was pretty tough to get into any rhythm. It was just good to play for Southern Districts again. I love playing for them, I was a junior here and it’s a good feeling pulling on the colours again. We knew we had to win today to keep it alive, we’ve got a few hard games coming up with Uni, Randwick and Manly so each week is going to be a challenge for us.”
*For a further look at Rob Horne’s comeback, please check out ‘Welcome back Rob! Wallaby centre makes his return’
Gordon: 1. James Atwill; 2. Tobias Gukibau (c); 3. Travis Church; 4. Lex Fairley; 5. David Tome; 6. Aisea Namoa; 7. Mitch Greenway; 8. Mark Johnson; 9. Terry Preston; 10. Dave Harvey; 11. Conrad Gillingham; 12. Tom Hill; 13. Tom Matthews; 14. Sai Vakarau; 15. Dion Berryman – Coaches: Briggs/Grier
Southern Districts: 1. Tetera Faulkner; 2. John Ulugia; 3. Dan Palmer; 4. Rome Nifo; 5. Kane Douglas; 6. Andrew Rossiter; 7. Sean Doyle; 8. Ita Vaea; 9. Grayson Hart; 10. Jordan McGregor; 11. Denan Kemp; 12. Brackin Karauria-Henry; 13. Rob Horne; 14. Nick Cummins; 15. Graydon Staniforth – Coaches: Talbot/Blades/Barr
Original version published by clubrugby.com.au on August 1st, 2011