Bonus point Beasties off the mark against Norths

Photo: SPA Images

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Eastern Suburbs have turned the form book on its head to claim their first win of the season – and with a bonus point, after a 24-14 victory over Northern Suburbs on Anzac Day at North Sydney Oval.

Coming into the game on the back of a four-match losing streak to start the season, the Beasties weren’t exactly favoured to get over a Shoremen side looking to bag their third win on the trot. But after Norths struck early, dominated the first quarter and looked very much in control, the visitors hit back with a five-pointer of their own to go to the sheds all square at 7-all.

And they came out firing after the break to blow their hosts away with another three tries before withstanding a late Norths onslaught, despite having a man in the bin, and conceding only a late, late consolation. Easts head coach Campbell Aitken cut a relieved but proud figure at the final whistle, and he was happy to praise the attacking efforts of his youthful side.

“A lot of people are going to focus on the last 10 minutes and say we played really well,” he said. “But we scored four really good tries to get into a position where we had something to defend. And it was good to see the young kids play pretty well.”

His captain Anton La Vin was also happy to see points flowing at the right end at last. “It’s been very unfamiliar for Eastern Suburbs to be sitting on the bottom of the table with zero points,” he conceded. “To have the worst ‘for’ tally in the competition is unheard of for Easts, we’ve always been a team that has a lot of points in us. So it’s really good to go out and put some points on, and we probably had another two or three in us if we’d finished off a few other plays. It could have been in the 40’s or 50’s but it was a good result for us.”

However, it had been a sea of Red and Black from the opening whistle. Norths were quicker to every ruck, sharper with ball in hand, and playing with the swagger of a team that knew they were on home turf against the bottom side in the competition.

Indeed, Easts had barely touched the ball before they conceded the opening try after only five minutes. A superb scrum from the Shoremen marched the Beasties off their own ball and almost across their own goal line, before a succession of pick and drives ended with loosehead Kevin McNamara going over.

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Norths flyhalf Jack Grant added another 9pts to his burgeoning season tally – Photo: SPA Images

Prolific flyhalf Jack Grant added the extras, and a familiar tale appeared to be unravelling at North Sydney Oval as the Shoremen took control. They almost added another in the 8th minute, winger Tom Redden darting through to find the line but cleaning out referee Richard Goswell in the process. The score was chalked off for an accidental offside on the part of Goswell, who felt he had impeded Easts in their attempts to prevent Redden’s surge. But it was a decision that didn’t sit well with Norths skipper Nick Lah afterwards.

“It just changed the momentum a little bit,” he said. “Easts came back and we could never get into the game again after that. I thought he should have awarded the try because he didn’t really obstruct anything. But he makes the calls and you can’t do anything about that.”

Momentum is a wonderful thing, and we’ll never know how different a complexion a potential 14pt advantage for Norths at that stage may have painted. But Easts’ chances took a further blow when burly no.8 Keliti Vaingolo departed with an ankle injury, forcing a reshuffle of resources.

On came Billy Johnston at hooker, with Seilala Lam, who had been moonlighting up to that point in the no.2 jersey, moving back to his more accustomed role as the fetcher. That shifted Waratahs recruit Tala Gray – enjoying his first outing for the Beasties in two years – to the back of the pack.

Kurt Penney looked like he was away for Norths’ second on 15 minutes, only for a toenail in touch to call play back for a lineout. And the Shoremen missed another chance to extend their lead a couple of minutes later, when the usually reliable Grant pushed a penalty from in front, just shy of the posts.

The home side’s profligacy began to fuel some much-needed confidence in the visitor’s ranks. And off the back of an increasingly sterling effort from Gray, who was executing steals at the breakdown, getting over the advantage line with almost every ball carry, and galloping into open field at every opportunity, they slowly grew into the game.

Their foothold in the contest was confirmed when they levelled the scores in the 31st minute with virtually their first visit to the opposition 22. Halfback Luke Irwin cleared from the ruck and put a rampaging Richard Stanford through the disjointed Norths line. The deceptively quick loose forward raced over halfway and just inside the red zone before popping a pass up over his head in the tackle, and the offer was gratefully accepted by winger Will Paterson, who ran under the unattended posts.

Henry Hudson converted, and with a touch over five minutes until the half-time break it was 7-apiece and momentum had visibly shifted the way of the Beasts.

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Waratah recruit Tala Gray was simply sensational for the Beasts – Photo: SPA Images

There was still time for both sides to go close before oranges. Norths fullback Mitch Walton was halted by Paterson within sight of the line and forced into touch, before a terrific hit from Easts prop Michael Fakava – backed up by a nice pass out of the back of the hand – set the ubiquitous Gray off on a charge down the touchline, only for Norths hooker Will Weeks to execute the perfect ankle tap as he looked to stretch away.

But if Easts had gone to the sheds considering themselves a touch fortunate to have survived that early onslaught and be level pegging at the halfway stage, they returned for the second stanza determined not to let the opportunity afforded them go to waste.

Setting off at a cracking pace they should have scored four minutes in when Irwin made a dart down the blindside off a scrum in their own half. The no.9 was ankle-tapped but popped the pass up to Gray, who looked all set for the corner before the covering Walton took him to ground. However, with a support runner off his right shoulder, the pass inside appeared to have been the better option.

Two minutes later, they did finish the job. Stanford dabbed down a Beasties lineout to hooker Johnston, who spread infield for Irwin and onto Will Fay. The inside centre brushed past a soft tackle to race through the open field in behind Norths’ line, and dot down near the posts to leave an easy conversion for Hudson.

With their lineout maul going well, Easts started to turn up the heat on Norths’ defence. Camping out on the edge of the Shoremen’s 22, their pressure began to milk a few penalties and forced a final warning from ref Goswell. And credit where credit is due, considering Easts came into the game winless, the decision to take any points on offer and keep the scoreboard ticking over would have been perfectly understandable. But instead they backed themselves and went for the jugular, and their belief paid off on the hour.

Lam, Seilala catching 180414D-0508.jpg

The talented Seilala Lam started at hooker before shifting to openside – Photo: SPA Images

A lineout five metres out was initially thwarted, and while Norths were ranging out for a full-fronted pick and drive assault, a wily Paterson snuck up like a thief in the night on the outside to take a neat pass from Johnston and go in for try number three.

With only 13 minutes to go, the visitors struck what appeared to be the final blow. Going two passes off a ruck Seilala Lam put on a burst, palmed off a couple of Shoremen, and found the predatory Paterson on his outside for the young winger’s hat-trick, and the unexpected heights of a four-try bonus point. Hudson pushed both conversions wide but with the clock running down, Easts had a healthy 17pt lead to protect.

And protect it they needed to.

That last try finally awoke Norths from their second half slumber, and they set about forging a late attacking onslaught. In what was only their second real foray of the half into enemy territory, the concession of two spoiling penalties by Easts saw Tala Gray’s participation in the match come to an end with a yellow card for repeat infringements. Considering the number of warnings the Red and Blacks had received earlier in the half with no similar punishment, it seemed a tad harsh.

No matter, the final eight minutes played out as if on a loop, with the Norths pack edging their way forward, trying to find the weakness that Easts’ numerical disadvantage would surely yield. Meanwhile, the Beasties dug themselves in, determined not to throw away their precious chance of victory.

Time and again the home side got within metres of the chalk, but time and again the Beasties scramble defence was up to the task – Phil Mathers and Henry Hudson in particular putting their bodies on the line for the cause. By the time they did force an opening, Jack Grant spinning and fending his way over, it was the final act of the match, and Easts could begin their long awaited victory celebrations.

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EASTERN SUBURBS 24 (Will Paterson 3, Will Fay tries; Henry Hudson 2 cons) defeated NORTHERN SUBURBS 14 (Kevin McNamara, Jack Grant tries; Jack Grant 2 cons)

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FINAL THOUGHTS:

Eastern Suburbs head coach Campbell Aitken:

“The first 20 minutes felt like the first 20 minutes of every game we’ve played this year, where we’ve defended and it’s energy sapping and also confidence sapping. The fact that we restricted them to seven points and then went down the other end of the field gave us a bit of confidence, and there were a couple of particular incidences that we felt changed the momentum. Just before half-time, one of our props put in a big hit, stripped the ball and then Tala ran down the wing and it was a huge confidence booster for us. Then the kick-off for the second half, we got it and interchanged a few passes and got a bit of confidence from that. 

“At half-time we felt that they’d probably thrown everything they could at us and we’d absorbed it while we hadn’t really fired any bullets, we were more hanging in there than playing any rugby. We just said to go out there and start actually playing and attacking them, and the guys got a bit of confidence with each try. Rather than telling them exactly what they have to do or where they have to run, we changed philosophy a little bit and just left it up to them to play and encouraged them to express themselves as often as they can.

“We’ve struggled fitness-wise, and we have put in a hell of a lot of work in the last three weeks from a fitness point of view. We played better last week than we did the week before, and then we made progress again this week, and I think that extra fitness showed in terms of guys getting back up off the floor to keep making tackles. It was pleasing from a team spirit point of view as well to hold Norths out, especially when we were down to 14 men. 

“I thought Tala was sensational, he really gave us that go forward and his work rate and fitness were a huge stand out. He got our Man of the Match and all the plaudits afterwards so he made a huge difference. I was just hoping Michael Cheika didn’t see the game!

“I think the fixture list has been particularly hard on us but ideally, that game was a line in the sand. It’s now a case of looking for that consistency of performance next week and the week after, because I think we have let ourselves down previously by getting ahead of ourselves after one big win.”

Northern Suburbs captain Nick Lah:

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Norths skipper Nick Lah was left frustrated by his side’s capitulation – Photo: JTActiveMgmt

“We started really well and I think we thought, ‘These guys are bottom of the table, we’ll cruise through here’. We had them under pressure, got the early try, and then had a second try disallowed because we ran into the referee, which just changed the momentum a little bit. They got a try around that 20 minute mark and that changed the complexion of the game. They came back and we could never get into the game again after that.

“I think we still knew at half-time that we were the better side, but we just couldn’t execute exactly what we wanted, and going into the second half we started to get a little bit frustrated with ourselves. We knew that we could beat them but we just couldn’t get over the line, and when they put a couple of easy tries on us that really hurt. They picked their pace up and we just didn’t come out for the second half and gave them a sniff of victory that could turn their season around, and they took their opportunity.

“We were pushing hard and only cracked them in the last minute, which is great credit to Easts. They’d only scored four tries all season and then they scored four tries against us, and we just couldn’t bend them there at the end. They were more desperate in that last half an hour to finish off the game at the end than we were, we just couldn’t get through them. We’ll find out next week against Sydney University where we really stand. We’ll look at what went wrong, work back to our structures again and we’ll be there or thereabouts on Saturday. You always want to lift against those big sides.”

Eastern Suburbs captain Anton La Vin:

“Week in, week-out it’s that bad start for us. We let them in and they got that try, and we basically piggy-backed them down the field with penalties and they took points out of it. That was disappointing, but it was really good that we were able to bounce back and finally, for the first time this season, get some momentum.

“To be honest, we didn’t even look at the score at half-time. There were a lot of things we needed to improve on and the biggest thing, which was killing us, was our ball place, which was woeful and the worst it’s been all year. Once we sorted that out we were able to get a roll on, and it changed the momentum of the game for us and we scored a lot of tries off the back of it.

“With about a minute to go, I said to the boys that that was the standard that’s going to take us forward for the rest of the season. We had a man in the bin but they were just getting up off the ground and belting blokes time and time again, scrambling and working their backsides off. That five or 10 minutes we were on our line, for me, was the game-changer or the season-changer for us, because I now know that we can do it, and that puts a big smile on my face going forward.

“We’ve been behind the eight-ball fitness wise, and I think we’re probably the only club on a Thursday night before a Friday game out doing two hour sessions, full contact, belting each other and working our butts off. We are playing tired because we know that we need to do it when it comes to the back half of the season but what was really promising was that last 20 minutes of the game where generally we’ve just been dying off, we actually lifted so I’m really happy with where we’re at, at the moment.”

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Northern Suburbs: 1. Kevin McNamara; 2. Will Weeks; 3. Nick Lah (c); 4. Matt White; 5. Michael O’Hea; 6. James Cunningham; 7. Hugh Sinclair; 8. Michael Wells; 9. Liam Walker; 10. Jack Grant; 11. Kurt Penney; 12. Jackson Selby; 13. Jac Cameron; 14. Tom Redden; 15. Mitch Walton

Eastern Suburbs: 1. Cooper Chapman; 2. Seilala Lam; 3. Michael Fakava; 4. Gab Passmore; 5. Phil Mathers; 6. Richard Stanford; 7. Tala Gray; 8. Keliti Vaingolo; 9. Luke Irwin; 10. Henry Hudson; 11. Damon Anderson; 12. Will Fay; 13. Anton La Vin (c); 14. Will Patterson; 15. Daniel Gallagher

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Original version published by Rugby News on April 27th, 2014

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