NRC Round 5: Eagles win again but yet to fully take flight

Photo: AJF Photography

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With both sides going into this clash with one win and two losses to their name, another defeat would leave an uphill path to the finals. But on what was a beautiful day down in Goulburn in the Southern Highlands, it was NSW Country Eagles who eventually downed the Sydney Rays 26-17, in an unconvincing but much-needed victory.

Despite a fairly dominant 1st half display from the ‘home’ side for a 19-7 lead, the Eagles left more than a few out on the field, and their inability to sufficiently gap their opponents opened the door for a potential comeback. Indeed, if a late charge from Rays replacement Robaleibau Buaserau had found the line instead of falling a metre short, we would have been in for a grandstand finish to decide matters.

However, you don’t win anything in round five, and with four games to go and three of those against sides in the top four, the boys from the bush have it in their own hands to match, if not better, last year’s achievements. The Rays meanwhile, as happened in 2016, are in danger of running out of bodies, with the early departures of playmaker Angus Sinclair and try-machine Latu Latunipulu, adding to an increasingly debilitating injury toll.

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The Eagles set their stall out early, a couple of pinpoint kicks from flyhalf Tayler Adams pinning the Rays inside their own half, and a couple of trademark jinking runs from Andrew Kellaway forcing their defence to scramble. And when the forwards softened up the opposing line with some pick and go’s off a five metre lineout, Jake Gordon was on hand to fire it out wide for Adams and then Kellaway to put Alex Gibbon over in the corner.

Having enjoyed just 16% possession in the first seven minutes, the Rays soon opened up when they did finally get their hands on the ball, skipper Damien Fitzpatrick leading the way with some direct thrusts and Angus Sinclair directing the traffic well with his crisp passing.

It was Sinclair who was heavily involved in their first opportunity, linking well with halves partner Nick Duffy to stretch the Eagles line before brother Hugh straightened up and played the role of battering ram. The Northern Suburbs ensemble was almost complete when a cut-out ball from Duffy put the returning Irae Simone away, and his fend on Kellaway and acrobatic dive for the corner post looked to have earned a leveller, only for the TMO to rule the ball had been lost forward in the act of scoring.

Alex Newsome_Eagles v Rays_AJF

Alex Newsome was a constant running threat for the Eagles – Photo: AJF Photography

The Rays kept the pressure on with a charge-down from James Brown on a Kyle Godwin kick earning a five metre scrum, and around three minutes after Simone’s near miss, they worked a very similar play from coast-to-coast for fullback Harry Burey to feed Josh Turner, who got the ball down at the second attempt after a desperate lunge from Gibbon.

A second scrum penalty of the afternoon for the Eagles had them back in prime position just before the end of the first quarter. Sensing their ascendancy, captain Paddy Ryan was happy to pack down again, and when the ball was shifted to the right and shut down by the Rays, they switched flanks for Kellaway to stroll over untouched. However, AR Will Houston called the last pass to the Waratahs utility back as forward.

The Eagles had the put-in again, and worked it wide once more for Kyle Godwin to go over, only for the hardworking TMO to confirm he had been held up. But they wouldn’t relent, and by the time they did make their persistent pressure count in the 26th minute, the four scrum penalties they had accumulated must have had the Rays in serious danger of losing someone to the bin. As it was, yet another dominant shove was finally rewarded when no.8 Sam Ward marched the ball forward from the back, and scooped up to dive over from a metre.

Adams’ conversion made it 12-7, which became 19-7 shortly after the restart when the Eagles mercilessly punished a handling error from prop Wayne Borsak. The replacement tighthead had only just come onto the field for Alex Westgarth, presumably to try and change the ‘picture’ at scrum time for referee Jordan Way. But a dropped pass on halfway was soon shifted across-field by the alert Alex Newsome, and a half break from Kyle Godwin found Jake Gordon off his shoulder with no-one home, and you don’t catch the leading tryscorer in NRC history from there.

Jake Gordon_Eagles v Rays_2017 NRC_AJF

Jake Gordon streaks away for his 17th NRC try – Photo: AJF Photography

They should have gone further ahead on 34 minutes after the Rays were pinged for not rolling away, but the normally reliable Adams pulled his penalty attempt wide. And when the opening stanza ended with Kellaway over-running an inside ball from Godwin with clean air ahead, you got the feeling that head coach Darren Coleman wouldn’t be overly rejoicing his side’s two-score advantage in his half-time team talk.

The Eagles continued to ask questions after the restart, the pace and ruck speed generated by a Gordon-Adams combination clearly revelling in the platform offered up by their forwards, was finding holes, and the Rays were forced to scramble on numerous occasions just to stay in touch with their state rivals. Conversely, the Rays were struggling to get over the gain line, until a terrific team try on 53 minutes had them very much back in a game that had looked to be slipping away from them.

A lineout midway inside their own half was taken by Dave McDuling and shifted across the park and back again – including a terrific one-handed offload from Angus Sinclair. After travelling through eight different pairs of hands, the ball eventually reached Latu Latunipulu, who showcased his growing confidence at this level by skirting around Tayler Adams and somehow finding the line for his 6th of the season, despite the attentions of both Kellaway and Henry Clunies-Ross.

Latu Latunipulu_Rays v Eagles_2017 NRC_CC

Rays winger Latu Latunipulu bags his 6th of the 2017 NRC – Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS

Rohan Saifoloi couldn’t add the extras from out wide, but the Rays hopes of assuming a dominant role in proceedings lasted little more than a minute. Faced with a fractured defensive line from the restart, Alex Newsome didn’t need a second invitation to try his luck, and a big ‘don’t argue’ on Saifoloi, a swivel of the hips, and his trademark turn of pace had him through and away to the posts to make it 26-12.

The Rays took a further hit when Latunipulu was then forced off with hamstring trouble, but staring down the barrel at a third defeat they decided to chance their arm, and we soon had a third try in five minutes as a result. Stretching the Eagles with their first real period of play inside the red zone, it was a carry and neat offload from the impressive Hugh Sinclair that opened the door, his handling skills only bettered by a cheeky through-the-legs pass from Tom Connor to Angus Sinclair, who rolled Kyle Godwin to find the chalk.

What the Rays didn’t need was to then see Sinclair the elder carried from the field with a nasty looking ankle injury. Caught in the crossfire as he tried to open up the Eagles defence with a pop pass, his intended recipient Harry Burey was smashed by Sam Ward before he’d even got the ball, and as several bodies fell to the floor, his ankle was pinned and twisted into an unnatural position.

But while Sinclair was carried off the field, Ward was forced to leave of his own accord after his over-eager challenge received a yellow card. That offered a lifeline for the Rays, however it was the Eagles who continued to carry the fight and had more of the play while their burly no.8 was off the park.

Indeed, only a terrific last-ditch tackle from the industrious Tom Connor stopped Alex Gibbon from running in his second to seal the deal. But it was the Rays who had the last chance with a couple of minutes remaining, the pacy Buaserau tearing down the left flank, only for a trio of Eagles to shepherd him into touch to ensure a second successive win, and keep them in range of the top four in the process.

NSW COUNTRY EAGLES 26 (Alex Gibbon, Sam Ward, Jake Gordon, Alex Newsome tries; Tayler Adams 3 cons) defeated SYDNEY RAYS 17 (Josh Turner, Latu Latunipulu, Angus Sinclair tries; Rohan Saifoloi con) HT 19-7

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