NRC: Rays’ ‘veteran’ Alcock, a teacher who still wants to learn

Photo: Karen Watson

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It’s not often that you find yourself the most experienced player in your team when you only celebrated your 28th birthday a few months ago. But with the Sydney Rays boasting an average age of just over 24-years-old, across a squad with only five other Super Rugby representatives, that’s exactly the position de facto ‘veteran’ Chris Alcock finds himself in as he looks to help the Rays into a maiden grand final tomorrow afternoon.

Only Fijian lock James Brown (29) pulls rank on Alcock age-wise. But with 55 caps to his name for the NSW Waratahs and Western Force, the combative flanker is out on his own when it comes to experience at the next level of the game – a valuable commodity amongst a bevy of young talent hoping to follow his path to Super Rugby and possibly beyond.

It makes you wonder how the relatively greenhorn Rays would have fared if they hadn’t been able to call upon his services as we reach the business end of the 2016 Buildcorp NRC season, particularly given the tragic abundance of talent that has been stripped from their arsenal across the last seven weeks of the regular season through injury.

For a guy whose only intention when he hooked up with the squad was keeping himself fit ahead of his upcoming gig with the ACT Brumbies, he’s suddenly assumed a rather important role in a potentially title-winning side.

“Chris came in just as a trainer,” explains Rays head coach Simon Cron. “He had a fractured cheekbone and wanted to train with us, and I told him there wasn’t a lot of opportunity but he was happy with that. He just wanted to get in and start training with the boys.

“But having lost a large chunk of my backrow stocks through injury, it was great to have someone like him ready to step up. He’s trained with us since round two so he’s got to know the guys pretty well now and culturally, we’re a pretty tight team and he’s fitted in really well. He’s a great human and he’s been a really good asset.”

Having come to the end of a four-year stint across the Nullarbor with the Western Force, Alcock was heading back to hometown Sydney for some enforced R&R and to prepare for his 12 month contract as David Pocock’s ‘hiatus’ replacement down in the nation’s capital. The fact that he ended up at the Rays in the first place was a happy case of logistics.

“I approached the Rays because while I’m back in Sydney I’m staying up in Collaroy, and they were pretty close by in terms of training, so they were the most logical team to go to,” Alcock told Rugby News this week. “I had an agreement with them that if there were any injuries or an opportunity arose I’d get stuck in. But if not, I was more than happy just to carry on training with them before heading to Canberra.”

Michael Wells_Sydney Rays v Vikings_2016_KW

The unfortunate Michael Wells has joined a host of team mates on the Rays treatment table Photo: Karen Watson

And injuries there unfortunately were. A squad rejuvenated for the most part in 2016 by the introduction of a swathe of buoyant, hungry, Premiership winning Northern Suburbs tyros, has subsequently seen a large chunk of that red and black heart torn away with successive season ending injuries to Shoremen Hugh Sinclair, Will Miller, Nick Palmer and Michael Wells.

But as is often the case in this brutal but enthralling sport, one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain, and Alcock suddenly found himself thrust into the fray as an indispensible openside cog in the Rays machine.

“Will Miller actually played against Queensland Country with a tendon missing off his toe – he’s torn it off – so that had to force him out for the rest of the year,” says coach Cron. “But what that did is open the door for Chris and Michael Smith to get game time, and Chris came on for 20 minutes against Brisbane City in week five and put his hand up when he turned the ball over three times and was very strong in contact.

“He’s so strong over the ball, he’s intelligent with a good rugby brain, and is a very strong ball carrier,” Cron enthuses. “He’s got great tackle technique and he scored a try against Brisbane because he just keeps running and guys can’t put him down. Those things are all positives for us and he’s another piece in the puzzle.”

A week after that impressive cameo against the reigning Premiers, Alcock made his run-on debut for the Rays against the UC Vikings, ironically coming face-to-face with a bunch of players he’ll be calling team mates in the not-to-distant future. The 58-14 demolition that day of a team containing eight Brumbies, was a benchmark for a side that finished second on the ladder but are ominously still to put an 80 minute effort together in both attack and defence.

“It was a very good performance,” agrees Alcock. “We’d shown patches of what we can do in previous games, and while we still worked in some patches against the Vikings, we managed to extend those patches for longer periods. When we do that, I think we are a pretty dominant team that can run over most people.

“You always want to win every game. But I guess playing against guys who you will be playing alongside in a few months, you want to show them that you’re going to be an asset to their team and not just someone who’s coming in to make up the numbers. Hopefully I did that.”

Having kicked-off the inaugural season of the Buildcorp NRC in the colours of the Western Sydney Rams (then the Greater Sydney Rams), before turning out – albeit briefly – for Perth Spirit last year, his time with the Rays means he has now competed for three different teams in the first three years of this fledgling competition – a feat that I believe is only matched by Tom Hill (Rams, Rays & Eagles).

Chris Alcock_Spirit v Rays_2015_JS

A rare outing for Perth Spirit against the Rays last year – Photo: Johan Schmidt Photography

Alcock believes the Rays compare rather favourably to those previous experiences, and has been particularly impressed by the no-nonsense, tactically astute game smarts of a coach who is aiming for what would be an unheralded double triumph.

“All the teams I’ve played for, the guys I’ve played with have been great, no matter what situation they were in. But coming into this group and seeing how well they work together is really nice to see, especially considering they are a semi-professional team. ‘Cronny’ has created a great atmosphere.

“I’ve spent a lot of time just catching up on my own role knowledge and making sure I can help the team as much as possible, and they’ve gone very well. I rate ‘Cronny’ as a coach and he’s brought a lot of structure and understanding to this team. He has a very good understanding of the game and his whole focus is on improving our rugby brains and our understanding of how to play the game. If we can do that, we’ll be able to play a better and more entertaining style of rugby.”

I first encountered Alcock back in 2009, where he was being noticed in a no-name Gordon side that went on to within a game of a Shute Shield grand final two years in a row. Back then his workrate, dogged ability over the ball, and blatant disregard for his own body at the breakdown, marked him out as one for the future, and with my New South Wales hat on, I was excited to see him pull on the Cambridge Blue jersey for three years under both Chris Hickey and Michael Foley.

By contrast, I was equally disappointed when he was allowed to head West by incoming head coach Michael Cheika in 2013. But he really came to the fore for a Western Force side in dire need of some tangible results, if they were to remain a worthy relevance on the competitive Perth sporting landscape.

When they won a club record nine games in 2014 to finish just outside the finals in 8th, under his former Tahs overseer Michael Foley, it seemed like a corner had been turned and the Force were on an upward trajectory. But, certainly not helped by the injury-enforced absence of Alcock for the whole of 2015, they dropped back amongst the also-rans of the competition in the following two seasons, and the Foley-led revival was brought to an abrupt end with three games still to play earlier this year.

That the Force were unable to kick on from their 2014 efforts to become a genuine contender still sticks in Alcock’s craw, and that fact, alongside a frustrating list of debilitating injuries on a personal level, combine to cast a hint of shadow on an experience that will still sit on the positive side of the memory banks for years to come.

“I’m disappointed for the guys that we didn’t kick on in 2015,” he reflects. “They had created a fantastic foundation for us to work off, but the thing about Super Rugby is that teams are constantly changing their style of play to adapt to new rules, or to what the opposition were doing, and we didn’t adapt quickly enough.

“I loved Perth, and it was a hard decision to leave and go to the Brumbies. I had established myself there with friends outside of rugby and the lifestyle suited me very well. I had spent four years day-in, day-out with 30 mates, so leaving them was the hardest part.”

Chris Alcock_Brumbies Promo 2016

Alcock heads to Canberra for the 2017 Super Rugby season

But with Wallaby lynchpin David Pocock announcing a six month break from the game in Australia, a chance to go to a side with realistically genuine title ambitions – even if the initial offer was only short-term – was simply too good to turn down.

“My manager approached me and said the Brumbies were looking for a short-term number seven to fill the absence of Poey’s sabbatical,” Alcock reveals. “We were looking overseas at opportunities, but getting injured and missing a fair bit of the Super Rugby season didn’t help, and this offer just coincided at the right time for both parties. We both said we wanted a one-year deal and we’ll go from there.”

Having endured three major injuries over the last four years with a shoulder recon taking him out of action for most of 2014, an ankle problem ruling him out of the majority of the 2015 NRC, and a posterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in the opening round of this year’s Super Rugby that kept him out for eight weeks, the South African born flanker is just enjoying getting some competitive footy under his belt again.

When I first spoke with a then 21-year-old Alcock back in 2010, his obvious ambition was to somehow cement a starting Super Rugby spot. As he now prepares for his eighth successive season in the competition, with his third Australian side, I wondered what he had learned from his time in the professional environment, and what he thought his future held beyond the Brumbies.

“I have definitely grown as a player,” he reflected. “When I first turned up at the Waratahs I had never seen the inside of a gym or really took training too seriously. Now my diet has significantly improved and I’m looking after my body – the stuff outside of rugby – so the ice baths, stretching and making sure I get enough sleep. I never realised how much actually went into making you a better player.

“I’m just enjoying playing at this level. The goal is to obviously be a part of a team that wins the competition but I will reassess things after next season. Playing with the Rays is giving me an opportunity to get back out there and show what I can do, and I’m just happy to be playing.”

Next up is the small matter of an NRC semi-final, and the draw has pitched Alcock against a number of those team mates he left behind in WA, with Perth Spirit travelling to Pittwater Rugby Park. It is an opportunity he is clearly relishing, but firmly toeing the company line as laid down by his coach, tomorrow is all about what the Rays can do, rather than anything the opposition may bring to the table.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against the Spirit,” he smiled. “I haven’t actually played against a lot of those players so it will be a bit different for me. But we are just focused on ourselves so we haven’t spoken about them at all. We just want to keep working on the style of rugby we want to play.

“Every week so far we’ve just played one game at a time, and we will go out to win this week just like we’ve gone out to win every other game. ‘Cronny’ will have done his research and he will guide us as to how he wants us to play, but I think we’ve just got to keep doing what we normally do. If we get our processes right, the game will take care of itself.”

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SYDNEY RAYS v PERTH SPIRIT
Pittwater Rugby Park
3pm, Sunday 16th October

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First published by Rugby News on: October 15th, 2016

 

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