NRC Round 2: Rams late surge downs wasteful Rays

Photo: Serge Gonzalez

The Greater Sydney Rams are the surprise leaders of the 2017 NRC after registering their second win in a row to start the new season, a 41-26 dispatching of the Sydney Rays at Macquarie University on Sunday.

In keeping with NRC tradition, it was another try-fest with 10 five-pointers between both sides. The Rays held the upper hand with some incisive attacking play early on but couldn’t make their ascendancy pay, and when the Rams hit the lead on 25 minutes, the hosts were left to play catch-up on the scoreboard for the rest of the game, and a late surge in the final quarter off the back of some set-piece dominance, saw the Rams home.

Playing their first match of the competition after having the bye in round one, the Rays looked anything but rusty from the kick-off, and they thought they were over in just the second minute. Skipper Damien Fitzpatrick pounced on a loose throw from his fellow Waratahs hooker Hugh Roach to slide home, only for referee Will Houston to correctly chalk it off for illegal encroachment.

They were frustrated again just a minute later, fullback Josh Turner putting on a dazzling turn of pace to carve a path to the corner, only for a desperate lunge from Rams halfback Matt Gonzalez to knock the ball out of his hands, as he went for what would have been a spectacular one-handed put down.

The Rams were seemingly still in the sheds, another slow start cruelling any hopes of possession and territory as the Rays continued to ask all the questions, and six minutes in, they got their reward. A lovely pop pass from Sam Lane put his inside centre Rohan Saifoloi through a hole, and his long, looping effort found the speedy Turner, who fixed his man perfectly and found winger Latu Latunipulu, who still had some work to do to before crossing in the corner.

They should have had another a few minutes later, a couple of turnovers pinning the Rams back on their own line and putting the home side in prime position. But after a couple of surges from no.8 Hugh Sinclair and fellow Northern Suburbs’ forward Connor Vest were thwarted by some desperate defence, the decision to kick across field for an aerial duel between the elusive but diminutive frame of Paula Balekana, and 1.94cm Wallaby Taqele Naiyaravoro, was perhaps not the wisest on reflection.

Jed Holloway_Rams v Rays_NRC 2017_KW

Jed Holloway led the Rams in true captain’s style – Photo: Red Bandana / Karen Watson

Flyhalf Sam Lane, curtailed by injury in the 2016 NRC, was clearly enjoying himself in his starting role and the chance to shine at the next level. And it was his dummy and line break on 13 minutes that should have brought another score for the Rays, only for his final pass to fly a touch high for Turner on his outside, and his Manly team mate duly dropped the pill and another opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, such profligacy can only go unpunished for so long in this attack-biased tournament, and from their first visit into the opposition half, the Rams duly bagged their first of the day. Skipper Jed Holloway had already been his usual combative and industrious self in defence, but he showed his prowess at the other end of the field when he scooped up off the back of a ruck to stride through the Rays line and feed Gonzalez off his shoulder, and a great clean-out from openside David Hickey opened the door for two more passes wide and Naiyaravoro to touch down with ease.

Suddenly awoken from their slumber, the Rams started to find their rhythm, and off the back of a scrum penalty – a portent for their later success – began to offload at will. But just as they looked likely to carve out another scoring opportunity, one loose pass was all it took for the ever-alert Josh Turner to say ‘thankyou-very-much’ and run a full 80 metres for a well-deserved score.

A rampaging Naiyaravoro soon had the visitors back in the hunt, a lack of support runners on that occasion delaying the seemingly inevitable. But Holloway continued his fine first half with another damaging carry from the Rays 10 metre line in the 25th minute, and with just Turner and Balekana between him and the line, the Waratahs no.8 backed his size and power to smash over for his 10th NRC try in just over three seasons in Rams colours.

And when Albert Tuisue claimed the short kick-off from Lane, and showed an electric turn of speed for a loose forward to carry to the edge off the Rays 22, and put Dennis Pili-Gaitau away for the Rams’ third, that failure to make hay while the sun shone in the opening quarter was beginning to come back to haunt the hosts.

Who knows what head coach Julian Huxley was thinking not long after then, when a blistering counter from Balekana was recycled wide for Apo Latunipulu, only for the Souths centre to spill the ball as he attempted the same one-handed put down that tarnished Turner’s efforts some half an hour earlier. Going to the sheds 19-12 down, the half-time Rays chat presumably focused on the fact that they didn’t seem to have any problems creating opportunities, it was the taking of them that needed some work-on’s for the second stanza. That and the small matter of 25 missed tackles.

Hugh Sinclair_Rays v Rams_NRC 2017_KW

Rays no.8 Hugh Sinclair takes on the Rams defence – Photo: Red Bandana / Karen Watson

What they didn’t want to do was concede the next try, but that was exactly the case when a delicate little chip in behind from Mack Mason caught Latu Latunipulu unawares, and John Grant stole in to snatch the ball from his grasp, juggle momentarily, and find the line.

The Rays caught a break when an over-zealous David Hickey left his mark on Sam Lane after the ball had gone and was sent to the naughty chair, and they took advantage with immediate effect. A lineout on the Rams 22 was fed infield by scrumhalf Nick Duffy to the recovered Lane, who used a dummy run from Saifoloi to put Paula Balekana through a gap, and the leading try-scorer in this year’s Shute Shield certainly know his way to the posts from there.

A late hit on Stu Dunbar, with the Rays claiming he’d just knocked-on before his clearing kick, was punished by three points from the reliable boot of Mason and the Rams had eked out a 10pt lead as the game ticked towards the final quarter. But the Rays hit back straight away, opting to take the scrum when offered a gift 3pts from in front, and being rewarded for their positivity when Duffy peeled off and put Latu Latunipulu away for his second.

That naturally meant another score at the other end soon after, and with the Rams starting to turn the screws at the set-piece, and Hugh Roach coming to the fore as a menace at the breakdown, it was no surprise when it was the forwards who did the damage to finally take the game away from the home side.

A Roach turnover from the restart allowed Jai Ayoub – a welcome return from long-term injury – to kick them within range. And after coughing up possession from the initial lineout, they soon won it back with a Holloway steal, and a couple of pick and go’s later, Kevin Fuavao was shrugging off his club colleague James Hilterbrand to dive home.

As the saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and two minutes later Ayoub put it into the corner again. This time, the piggies didn’t need the help of the princesses as they rumbled the lineout drive forward for Roach to add his name to the scoresheet, and cement a second win in a row for the Rams – the first time they’ve achieved that in their short NRC history.

They came into this year’s competition as a bit of an unknown given the coaching and ownership changes, but they won’t be able to hide under the radar for much longer if they continue in this vein.

GREATER SYDNEY RAMS 41 (Taqele Naiyaravoro, Jed Holloway, Dennis Pili-Gaitau, John Grant, Kevin Fuavao, Hugh Roach tries; Mack Mason 4 cons, pen) defeated SYDNEY RAYS 26 (Latu Latunipulu 2, Josh Turner, Paula Balekana tries; Rohan Saifoloi 3 cons) HT 19-12

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