What they said… NSW Country Eagles v Sydney Rays
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
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, and it was last year’s runners-up NSW Country Eagles, who eventually downed the Sydney Rays 26-17 in an unconvincing but much-needed victory in Goulburn. 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. But while the Rays won the second half two tries-to one, they couldn’t muster enough points to claw back the deficit, and they certainly weren’t helped by the addition of a couple more significant injuries to their over-worked treatment table. Behind the Ruck made the trek to the Southern Highlands to get the post-match views of both head coaches, Darren Coleman and Julian Huxley. As it turned out, neither walked away with too much to cheer…
Darren Coleman (NSW Country Eagles head coach):
“We definitely needed the win. We were coming here looking for a little more in the way of performance, and hopefully for a bonus point if we played to our potential. But we’ll take the win and get on with our next game in five days.
“That first half particularly, we had a lot of field position and possession, and if we’d have kicked that penalty goal before half-time, I think 22-7 would have been a reasonable reflection. Sometimes when you go for those scrum tries, you exert a lot of dominance but you chew up a lot of the clock as well, but we got it in the end. The second half was a bit more end-to-end and as the game loosened up, they definitely came into it. Their offload game and their attack out of their own end of the field was quite strong, and we made a few breaks and didn’t quite finish them off, so I thought the second half was pretty even.
“I don’t think they troubled us too much in the first fifty or sixty minutes but they’ve got a lot of good players – James Brown, [Damien] Fitzpatrick, [Dave] Lolohea, Hugh Sinclair – they have all that little interplay between their forwards, and then you’ve got high quality players like [Irae] Simone and Angus Sinclair, so they’re going to break you at some time.
“The breakdown killed us today too. We knew they were going to be hard over the ball with Tommy Connor, Fitzpatrick, Connor Vest and Hugh Sinclair – they’re all great jackallers. But our chase into the ruck was terrible, and every time we did get front-foot ball, they slowed it up and stole it, and the referee was playing a lot of jackal ball today and that killed a lot of our continuity.
“The big difference between us this year and last year, is that those breaks we’re making we were scoring from last year, but we’re not finishing them at the moment. That’s probably the positive thread we’ll cling too, that I don’t think we’re playing great yet but we’re winning. We’ve had plenty of ball, more than 50% in every game, so there’s some positives around that. But I think if you look at the stats, you sometimes don’t need the ball to win games of footy.
“I think it’s who turns up on the day a little bit in this comp, and it seems to be that home ground advantage is quite significant too. Our biggest test is that we’ve got a five day turnaround before we play Queensland Country, who are the form team at the moment. They’ve had two big wins in a row, they’re coming in off a seven day turnaround, and they’re sitting up there waiting for us, so there’s no doubt that this will be up there with the Fijian game as far as the biggest challenge we’ve had.
“That win puts us up to 6th on eight points, but we’re seven points shy of the top four who are all on 15. However, three of the top four haven’t had their bye yet so we’ve got a game in hand on them. I still believe that if you go four and four with a good spread of bonus points you’ll make it, and if you go five and three you should get in. We haven’t been getting any bonus points, not as a loser and not when we win, so we’re going to need to go at least five and three.
“We can definitely make the finals. Last year we realised our potential really early in the piece. In round one against Brisbane we were scratchy but then we put 60 on Canberra and then everyone believed – “This is what we can do!” This year, we’ve started a little slower. We know it’s there, it’s in the back of our minds, but we haven’t executed well enough to bring it to the front of our minds yet. We’ll be there and we’ll be there swinging, regardless of whether we drop any more games or not. We’ll always be competing and we’ve got nothing short of making the top four in our sights.”
Julian Huxley (Sydney Rays head coach):
“We hung in there really well today, and it was a credit to the boys to still be sort of in touch at half-time after the way the first half had gone. There were some really, really pleasing things about how the boys battled at times during that game, they really stuck in there. And to see them fight under that pressure for as long as they did in that first half was bloody brilliant. Of course, you can pick apart some of the things you’re not happy with, and there were reasons why they were under pressure. But geez, they hung in there well, and that’s something you always love as a coach when your team is doing that sort of thing.
“We definitely haven’t been dealt the best hand in terms of injuries. We had to pull Irae [Simone] off after 55 minutes because he’s coming back from injury, and then Latu’s done his hammy. He has come in and scored five tries for us, but now he’s tweaked his hammy and we’re not in a position to rest him. Ideally, we wouldn’t have played him this weekend if we’d had a few more in the squad. Props is another area of concern. We’ve lost Cody Walker, Ezra Luxton, Lawrance Hunting, Alain Miriallakis, Sio Tatola and Sonny Satuala
“But it is what it is and we lost that game on our bat, regardless of the injuries we had. Part of the reason that we were under that pressure in the first half, and why we didn’t finish off some opportunities in the second half, was just pushing the pass and giving them the ball back. We’ve missed half a dozen tries from dropped balls and this and that, and then given up a couple of soft ones for them. That’s disappointing because it’s not an injury thing and there’s no excuses for it. All the guys out there are better than that so unfortunately, we left a bit out there.
“We’ve given it to them rather than them really outplay us. So we’ve got to be hard on ourselves and brutally honest and fix a couple of those things up, because we’re a threat, we’re troubling sides and we can still win games. We’ve really run a few Super Rugby sides around and made some breaks and I take my hat off to these boys, they’re really good footballers. We’ve got a good young halfback in Nick Duffy; Angus Sinclair and Sam Lane have been playing well at 10; and Rohan Saifoloi and Apo Latunipulu have been playing out of their skins at 12 and 13. If they were given the chance to train full-time would they be even better? For sure they would.
“A bit of luck would be nice but you earn your luck and we’re not going to give up are we? That’s why you do all the team building and identify what you stand for at the start of the year. There’s a lot of mettle in the club and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to foot it with the best sides in the comp. We’re not going anywhere and there’s no option to pack it in.”