From the sheds… Preliminary Final – Norths v Sydney University
NORTHERN SUBURBS 24 (Reece Mau’u, Heinrich Brendel, Hugh Sinclair tries; Angus Sinclair 3 cons, pen) defeated SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 22 (Penalty Try, Josh Kemeny, Rohan O’Regan tries; Stu Dunbar 3 cons) HT 7-15 at Pittwater Rugby Park
The clash between these two sides just a fortnight earlier had indicated that it would be another long day at scrum time for Norths as they took on an-all Super Rugby front-row. That match had ended with a 34-15 win for Sydney Uni, and they headed into this game as favourites to repeat the same dose of forward-oriented medicine. But the Shoremen had left a few points out there in that game and also received three yellow cards, and they arrived at Rat Park with a quiet confidence that they could turn things around.
When they were 22-10 down just before the hour as Uni took their chances up front, they may have had cause to question that inner belief. But it was exactly that faith in their structures and the knowledge that they would eventually pay off that kept them clear-headed and focused, and having trailed all match they ramped up the pressure to go in twice and hit the lead through Hugh Sinclair with six minutes remaining. A stunned Uni tried their best to find a riposte in the closing stages but it wasn’t to be, and the ramifications of the 24-22 defeat were writ large 24hrs later, as Eastwood’s win over Easts ended the reigning two-time Premiers’ season unusually early.
Behind the Ruck headed to the sheds for some post-match reaction from both camps…
Zak Beer (Northern Suburbs assistant coach):
“There’s nothing that we focus on other than the game itself, so any talk around scrums didn’t play into any of our prep. We focused on ourselves and we focused on how we could potentially capitalise on areas of weakness that Uni had. The work that Sape Misa and Simon Johnson have been doing with our forward pack and set-piece has been invaluable, they’re improving every week, and while it’s always going to be difficult coming up against a Super Rugby front row, with a fourteen day turnaround I think the boys did quite well from a set-piece perspective all things considered.
“Last time we played Uni we didn’t actually get a chance to get into any of our attacking flow, we had a couple of yellow cards and there were a lot of penalties in that first game. But we were able to get into our shape today and everyone was crystal clear on what their role is, and you could see that almost from that first line break where Dewald Dekker poked his nose through and passed to Max Burey, who grubbered ahead. There were a number of those opportunities with which we could have kicked ahead on the scoreboard, and whilst it may have been good to watch from an attacking perspective, we feel like we still left a handful of tries out there.
“The first-phase try we did score is a shape that we run but we had identified that their centres split, so some creativity over a coffee with the backs gave us a bit of preview going in, and tactically we said that from a left side scrum that was something that we were going to try and it came off. It doesn’t always come off but when it does it’s enjoyable to watch.
“The try right on half time for them didn’t change the conversation at the break. We knew that if we could get our share of position and possession in terms of where the game is being played and who’s holding the ball, that we’d be able to convert that ball in hand into points, which we did in the second half. Essentially our twenty-two metre line had to be like our try line, so we couldn’t let them cross into our twenty-two and get their game on, which was scrum and pick and go. The boys were calm and cool-headed at half time, and we knew what we needed to do to get the result, which was really pleasing. We didn’t have to say too much to be fair.
“Uni’s third try was like a perfect storm. Gus [Angus Sinclair] thought he’d heard that we had an advantage to us, the pass from Nick Duffy was a bit high and the wind got hold of it, and they applied good pressure onto him. It was obviously disappointing to give them the opportunity to do what they do well and convert it into a try, but I’m proud of how we bounced straight back to score. In that passage of play the boys didn’t go into their shell. The one thing we said against Uni a couple of weeks ago is that we went away from our attacking mindset. So we really want to be looking to play our brand of footy, and in the pressure moments that is the most important time to stick to what you know and what works for you, and that’s what the boys did.
“I was surprised Uni didn’t take the points in front of the posts. However, I can see their logic because this year and in past years they have got so much pay from their rolling maul. From their perspective you can see why they did it but either way it didn’t really bother us, we just had to react to whatever scenario we were dealt with. The defensive system that Earl [Va’a] put in place is one that everyone believes in, and everyone is clear on what their role is. That helps build that cohesion and understanding and trust in those key moments, whether team’s are kicking against us or playing wide expansive footy.
“We were prepared and probably expecting them to throw the ball around a little bit more than they did. With Max Burey, Kepu Lokotui and Reece Mau’u, we were happy for them to kick ball back to us to let those three boys attack against the broken field defence. You need the ball to score points and we converted those opportunities once they did kick away possession. Once again, whilst we made line breaks off our counter-attack, from a backs perspective we still feel like we left a couple more out there, so that’ll be something which will be looking to improve on next week.
“I think the power game from us at the end to maintain the possession for the most part – except for the last couple of seconds when we turned the ball back over! – was excellent. Our finishers were incredible, Max Ma’a, Gary Bautz and Jayden Lynch all came on in the front row and were incredibly strong, and Leon Akopian as well, so our finishers did their job.
“For us, the whole mindset this year has been around focusing on one week at a time and on the next job. So first and foremost we focus on ourselves and improving the things that we have control over. But we are looking forward to playing this Eastwood team. They’re obviously a power team, their forwards dominate and they are strong at set-piece, while Tane Edmed pulls the strings at 10 and they kick a lot. So we see a few opportunities in terms of attack and defence, and it should be a really good game for everybody to watch.
“I think you need really good awareness around where your strengths are, and how we can capitalise on what might be their perceived strength but how can we best turn that into an area that we can attack. There’s a number of areas in their team that we’ll be looking at on Sunday. We’ve still got a lot of football in us, and that is the focus for the coming week.”
Joe Horn-Smith (Sydney University co-head coach):
“We wanted to continue on from the last game against them and dominate in the set-piece, but we also had a focus on giving the backs some high quality ball to launch off and try and surprise them a bit by attacking them in the wide channels. I think early in the game we played with really good width and looked quite good at times, but as the game wore on we just made a few errors, and I think that knocked our confidence a bit and we narrowed up our attack.
“At half time we felt like we were executing what we went there to do, although you can’t afford to concede tries at first-phase and that is a defensive lapse so we are disappointed at that. But we felt we were largely executing what we had trained for. We then took that third try well and were pretty critical at the set-piece and again, at that point in the game we were feeling pretty comfortable and pretty happy. But Norths just stayed in it, kept fighting and pressured us, and we made errors at key moments.
“I wouldn’t dwell on the penalty. If you look at the grand final last year we had a shot in front of the posts to go one point up and we kicked to the corner and ended up scoring a try to win it. If you look at this game, with three minutes to go Norths had a kick in front of the posts which they didn’t take because they wanted to kill the clock, and they still would have won the game. So I really don’t think that you can look at that one moment as being what cost us the game. We should have scored from the subsequent maul but we ended up losing the ball, so we can’t really point to that one decision and say it was an error and blame someone for making it. We should all just execute our jobs and then it wouldn’t be a conversation.
“There was a lot more parity in the scrums in the second half but there were a lot of them on the floor. It was frustrating because the scrum was on the deck almost every time but we didn’t get any reward, and that really took that competition away. The scrum just wasn’t in the air and you can’t scrum against a team on the floor. I couldn’t say it was deliberate, but I think it should’ve been officiated better and we should have been allowed to have a contest.
“We all knew what we were trying to do we just didn’t execute it in those closing stages. With the wind the way it was with seven minutes to go you’ve still got plenty of time to kick it down there, force an error and get the ball back as we’d done earlier in the game and score. It’s a very low percentage of results for a team to try and run the ball out and attack from under their own posts, so you’ve got to have a process of how you get back down the other end of the field. We all knew what that was we just weren’t able to execute it for one reason or another, but it if the wind’s not there those kicks don’t go dead, and that was seen through every game played there at the weekend.
“We’re feeling very empty and very disappointed. To go out in that fashion, when there wasn’t really any finality in the moment and we had to wait and see, and for it to then go the way it did, was really, really devastating. There’s multiple things that we can look at throughout the year as reasons for why this happened, to pick one would be really hard. The loss at home to Souths, if that doesn’t happen we’re higher up the ladder and that was a game we never should have lost. And throughout the season we just turned the ball over too often, took bad options, and gave the ball away cheaply.
“But it’s been a tough year, and I feel like a lot of players are fairly burnt out. They’ve played a lot of rugby over the last few seasons and the Covid break was very, very long and very, very tiring. I think we’ve had a lot of players move onwards and upwards, and this year there was a lot of inexperience on the field that was getting up-skilled. But I don’t want to take anything away from any other teams, Norths were great at the weekend. They really played well and certain players on their team really stood up.
“With the new ‘norm’ of the Covid world it’s really hard to quantify the season from a personal perspective, because nothing was as enjoyable as it used to be. So I can’t really say how it went unless I get to do it in a ‘proper’ season. It’s too early to say whether we actually need to make changes but it’ll certainly motivate us for next season for sure. There’s positives for the year, we’re in the 3rd Grade grand final and the 2nd Grade semi-final and we’ve still got two colts teams left in, and all those things point towards a good future.”
Angus Sinclair (Northern Suburbs flyhalf):
“They’ve obviously got a great set-piece but when we played them last time we also made so many handling errors – more than we would usually – and we gave away a lot of penalties, and that basically fed their game perfectly. Also, we played the game with three yellow cards so a large period of the game without fifteen men on the field. So the key focus was just to hold onto the ball and cherish it a bit better, and be more disciplined and not give them those chances to just march down field with their set-piece.
“I think we made a line break off the second phase of the game and then we kicked it away, and we probably made four or five in the first half that we didn’t finish off, which was pretty disappointing because we’ve could’ve had two or three tries and it could’ve been a different game going into half-time. Thankfully it didn’t cost us not taking those opportunities, but moving forward, you get less and less chances to score in finals games so we’ve got to take them this weekend.
“We ran the same play for the first-phase try when we played against them two weeks ago and I got jammed by their thirteen, so we thought that if I could set the bait and go early he would follow me and that would open up a space for Reecey [Mau’u]. It was one of those things that worked perfectly. We didn’t wait for the scrum to complete or give them a chance to push back, so Hugh threw it straight to ‘Bizzer’ [Harry Burey] and that was a key of that part as well.
“I don’t really know what Uni was trying to achieve with their kicking game – box kicking from their forty or fifty metre line. I know it’s a finals game and I guess that they were trying to play territory and force mistakes, but I actually think that they have quite a talented back line and they didn’t really use them that much.
“The try on half-time didn’t change the game plan too much, it was just one of those frustrating things where I think we piggy-backed them downfield with a mistake or an error and they capitalised. It’s disappointing to give away seven points in that last minute or so but we didn’t change our focus at half-time, we still wanted to play the same way. Obviously, coming into the wind in the second half we were going to look at keeping the ball in hand and playing more contestable kicks. It wasn’t a swirly wind, it was just straight into the south west corner and made it really hard to get out of that end. Both teams, when they were in the twenty-two, struggled to get out at that end.
“The knock-on in front of the posts wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t a bad pass but I did think we had an advantage so I was just way too casual. That was a poor mistake by me that luckily didn’t cost us in the end, but it was hugely important to hit back straight away. The chat under the posts wasn’t panic, it was about holding onto the ball when we get it and playing our structure, and we were pretty confident after making those line breaks in the first half that we could make more and when we did – finish them.
“Nathan Russell played a big role in that try and he has been awesome this year. This is his third year at the club and he’s played some good footy in patches but he’s had a few injuries and hasn’t been able to string together a large chunk of games. He hasn’t really played thirteen much before this year for Norths but I think it’s his best position. He’s a talented footballer who’s playing well and all those combinations have come together.
“Nick Duffy has been awesome as well this season, I think it’s been his best year in the competition. He’s confident about his game, and having that combination with Harry and myself – I think we’ve played 60 or 70 games together now – that helps enormously because we know what everyone’s role is and can rely on each other on where we’re going to be and at what time etc. We really enjoy that nine, ten, twelve axis.
“Credit to our bench too, the guys that came on made a real impact and that something that’s really important in finals games. It was a pretty fast game in the first half especially, so the tight five start to feel it at the back end and the guys that came on did really well. I thought Gary Bautz was outstanding when he came on at hooker, he’s obviously a pretty strong bugger so he’s hard to move. Another factor against Uni two weeks ago was that we didn’t have our tighthead Dewald [Dekker]. We had Isaac Cavu, who is a great player but was playing his first game back after eight weeks out with a hamstring injury, so facing the best scrum in the comp is probably not an easy task. I didn’t think we were going to dominate in that area but I knew we would be better, and I thought the guys up front did a good job all day.
“I think there was a bit of confusion around how long was left towards the end because I remember when we had that lineout there were still three and half minutes to go on the Rat Park clock. We did really well to hold the ball for three minutes and fifteen seconds of that, but then with one or two rucks to go we turned it over, which could’ve been costly. But thankfully, one of their guys knocked on and we just picked it up and kicked it out. It was a good win.
“The competition this year is wide open more than ever. There’s no real dominant team, and even though Uni are a seasoned finals team they probably haven’t had the best season with a few slip ups along the way. Similarly, Eastwood is a finals team. They are there or thereabouts every year and they’ll be a big challenge this weekend. But I think all season we’ve been really confident in what we’ve been doing as a team and confident in the players we’ve got, and we’re ready to give it a red-hot crack on Sunday. When we played them last time it was 41-38 and I doubt that it is going to be that high-scoring this weekend. They’re a dangerous team with lots of big bodies, so our physicality and defence is going to have to be top-notch to stop them being effective.”