What they said… Sydney University v Manly (Qualifying Final)

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 47 (Harry Johnson-Holmes 2, Ben Hughes, Rohan O’Regan, Tom Horton, Harry Potter, Guy Porter tries; James Kane 5 cons, Ben Hughes con) defeated MANLY 31 (Penalty Try, Michael Adams 2, Alex Dalzell tries; Beaudein Waaka 3 cons, pen) at University Oval No.2. HT 21-28

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Week one of the 2019 finals saw a rematch of last year’s semi-finals, with Manly visiting Camperdown to take on reigning Premiers Sydney University. But while the Marlins went down with barely a whimper last time out, they arrived with a clear mission not to die wondering on this occasion, and were also buoyed by the victory they achieved over the Students on the same ground back in round 11.

And after throwing the kitchen sink at their hosts in the opening half to lead 28-14, and with Uni having a man in the bin, the upset was very much on the cards. But Uni’s renowned pack stepped up in the second stanza to outmuscle their opponents, wrestle back control of the match, and come home with a wet sail as the visitor’s eventually wilted under the onslaught to go down 47-31. Behind the Ruck headed to the sheds for some post-match reaction from both camps…

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Robert Taylor (Sydney University head coach):

Shute Shield season launch

Photo: Stu Walmsley

“We played this 1 v 6 game last year, and it’s the hardest game because you already know you’re in again the next week, and this year we already knew we were at North Sydney Oval next week no matter what. That makes it feel like a good training run, because if you win you play ‘them’, and if you lose you play ‘them’, and we don’t really care who we play because it’s not at home anyway. The whole incentive is usually to get that home advantage for a semi-final and avoid going to TG Millner or Pittwater Park, so mentally today that was a challenge.

“We tried a few things in defence that didn’t work. But there’s a big picture at play there for the following week, and Manly have arguably some of the best individual backs in the comp, who were playing for their season. On paper they are a pretty handy side across the board, and then they’re bringing Kotoni Ale and Denis Pili-Gaitau off the bench, so they are a real threat, and they can score tries from anywhere.  

“Clearly they were trying everything, and a lot of it was coming off, and when you’re playing a desperate team and you go behind by two tries with someone in the bin, that’s a challenge. So we can take a lot from that, and I’d put that up there as a really good victory for us from a character point of view. To come back into the wind in the second half and win with a buffer was really pleasing.

“We were scoring points in the first half but we were letting them in, and obviously, the backs let the forwards down with the first four tries really. But we were very calm at half-time, and we just said that we had to solve it and get our forwards back in the game, and they did the job in the second half. We had that intent to hit in the first half but we were getting it wrong and missing players. But in the second half they were a bit more tired, the targets were a bit easier, and it’s a big lift for everybody when Guy Porter steps up and makes hits like he does.

“It’s always harder to go back-to-back. It’s the excitement of the unknown first time around, now there’s more of a calm confidence in themselves because they’ve been there and done it, and today just adds to that. It’s not so much ‘Let’s get to the big dance!’, it feels like business, and we’re hitting our straps at the right time. There were a few little mistakes but again, I know we’ll raise our game even more so next week.”

Brian Melrose (Manly head coach):

Shute Shield season launch

Photo: Stu Walmsley

“Am I frustrated about the game? No, but possibly about the year because it’s been an adverse one. We came here today with what is closer to our full squad, and they had a different team to the one we had last time we beat them here, so I knew it would be harder. But I think it showed today that with that squad across the year, maybe we would have finished in a bit of a better spot, and that today’s performance would probably have stressed a few other teams a bit, But credit to Uni, they’re just that bit stronger aren’t they? Physically, and in the scrum, which obviously, just destroys you in the end.

“The results last week were what they were. I went to watch Easts against Eastwood, but I just had a feeling that Souths would beat Warringah, and you need that bit of luck. So if I’m frustrated about anything, it’s that we’re playing here today, and not someone else in week one of the finals. There’s probably five teams in the finals that feel quite even, and out of the six, you probably didn’t want to draw Uni in the first week. But we got past that, put ourselves together a little plan to give it a good crack that we knew would entail playing on the edge a bit, and it was going well. But then we got worn down in that second half and couldn’t get any ball, and they just suffocated us.

“I thought the try before half-time hurt us. If we could have come in 28-14 ahead, who knows? The difference in the first half was that in the first 20-25 minutes we had a little bit more ball, so the way we were playing we were gathering a few of their defenders and then hitting them on the break quickly. But in the second half, from pretty much the first play, we needed to go deep to the left corner and we missed it, got turned over, and then Uni dominated possession for a long time.

“I reckon in the first 20 minutes after half-time they would have had around 75% possession, but also 75%-plus of field position, and that’s where the game was won and lost. We needed to be able to get position, keep them nervous, and possibly keep that scoreboard pressure going. But once they got that confidence they really lifted, and their physicality became a real issue, and we tended to get little ball and try to stretch them, instead of going back to what had been working. That can happen when you’re chasing, and when you’re a team that can’t do it through power, you tend to overplay.

“We just didn’t have the power to do some of those simple functional things that take you a long way in the game, and get you easy metres and easy points. It’s not through a lack of trying, it’s just physics. We tried very, very hard, but our game had to be based on speed and movement, against bludgeoning power.

“Functionally, every time you make a mistake it’s the scrum that destroys you, and they can scrum for penalties, and often that penalty takes you to the corner, and then it’s just like a tug of war. If someone is stronger it’s hard to keep them out. Against most teams in the comp, if you look at the way they score against us, the majority tend to be those sort of tries from five metres out, not so much from structurally falling apart. They scored seven tries in the end, and most of them came from physical power. Without being disrespectful, it’s not an incredible rugby style. But it’s incredibly functionally successful, and if you had the tools to do it, you’d do it because it’s the simplest way to the try line.

“Today, I don’t really care what people say, I know that that’s a performance from a Manly team that can play in a grand final. We didn’t win the game and people can say what they like, but we didn’t crack under pressure, we cracked under immense physical strain – there’s a difference. They produced 80 minutes of power and we weren’t able to cope with it. That’s footy, and credit to the other team for that. We need to put our hands up and say that we couldn’t quite cope with it across the match. But at the same time, they couldn’t quite cope with what we were able to deliver for a fair while, and I’m pretty proud of how we played. We gave it a red hot crack.”

Guy Porter (Sydney University captain):

Shute Shield season launch

Photo: Stu Walmsley

“We’d only played them once this year and we went down at home, so I guess the approach today was to make up for that. We definitely weren’t under-estimating them, they’re a quality side with a lot of experience, and we knew we were in for a finals game for sure. We certainly knew when we were 28-14 down that were in for a big challenge, and it was do-or-die really. We were either going to rise to it, or we weren’t going to wrestle the game back our way.

“It was an odd game given the conditions. The wind turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing, and I felt like a bit of an idiot for running with it in the first half because it didn’t turn out too well for us. It didn’t advantage anyone scoreboard-wise, having lost the first half with it and won the second running into it. But it made the game a bit tighter with a lot of stuff close to the ruck, and it was more challenging to swing the ball wide. But we knew we had to hold onto the ball, and we were able to do that in the second half effectively. The first thing was to bring that deficit down, and then being able to build a lead.

“The reality, and we probably knew it, was that at any stage in these conditions it’s hard to chase a game, because even with the wind it’s still more challenging to try and take that space out wide. Or you can be tricked into using a kicking game that you may not otherwise do, so the fact that it probably tightened up a bit probably played into our hands as well. The tight stuff, the contact, and the chance for turnovers, had our guys licking their lips a bit.

“Obviously, our set-piece is a big focus for us, and the guys take a lot of pride in being effective there and actually being able to affect the game with it rather than just going through the motions, and that was pretty evident today I think.

“It’s a pretty similar squad to last year, but a new year, a new script I guess. Today was about ticking off our home season because we don’t get to come back here again. We’ve obviously got some good memories of North Sydney Oval from last year. But whether it’s a neutral ground or we play Norths on their own turf, we’re just excited about being part of a good day.”

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