Rather than just hosting a game, Orange turned on an event for the top of the table NRC match between Melbourne Rising and the NSW Country Eagles. The day started at 11am when the NSW Country Under 16s took on the President’s XV and Western Sydney Barbarians teams in abbreviated matches.
This was followed up with the Eagles’ Development squad taking on an Australian Barbarians squad. The Eagles won convincingly, but it gave a number of local boys (on both teams) the opportunity to play in front of a pretty big home crowd.
There was also a coaching clinic for the kids and all the action was set to the backdrop of “Grazing at the Rugby”, a food and wine “experience” with lots to choose from and live music to boot. All-in-all, it was enough to bring in a crowd of 2000 people.
The main game saw Melbourne come in pretty strong favourites with the bookies, but not with the crowd. That favouritism seemed deserved early when Country went on the attack through Malakai Watene-Zelezniak from the kickoff and the associated pressure produced a Country lineout 30m from the Melbourne line. A subsequent penalty to the Eagles got the crowd excited, but it was kicked dead.
The following scrum gave Melbourne a chance to flex their muscle up front and that’s just what they did – winning a penalty at the first scrum of the match. They used the following possession to work into Country’s 22 and put the pressure on.
But the Eagles held on strongly with desperate defence and continually denied the Rising their points. In fact, they won a number of turnovers, but couldn’t gain any field position, so Melbourne were able to keep the ball close to the Eagles line and keep pressure on with their scrum.
Penalty after penalty after reset came and still the Rising kept working until finally, Eagles loosehead Duncan Chubb was yellow carded and replaced with Ben Suisala. Also leaving the field was Ita Vaea. This was a big break for the Melbourne pack and especially for Paul Alo-Emile who showed dominance on his side.
Country managed to hold on, though. They even managed to clear the ball when they turned it over as Lopeti Timani crashed over the line. It was 20 minutes in before Stirzaker found a gap close to the ruck after a strong Luke Jones carry and scored Jack Debreczeni .converted the try to put Melbourne up 8-0.
By this time, the Eagles had absorbed over 16 minutes of attack in their own 22. They looked flat at the kickoff and Telusa Veainu made a break down the right touchline before giving a fantastic ball to Tom English for the try. After Debreczeni added the extras, Melbourne were up 16-0 and things looked ominous for the boys from the bush….. and Randwick….. and Easts.
However, the Eagles didn’t put their heads down. On the back of an up and under from fullback Pat Dellit, they started to put on some pressure of their own – winning two penalties back to back. From the ensuing lineout, Country flyhalf Sam Windsor sold a lovely dummy and beat two defenders to score under the posts. He converted his own try and the game was on at 16-8.
Melbourne then recovered their own kickoff and looked good – especially when Debreczeni gave Mitch Inman an inside ball to break the line. But a subsequent pass went forward and we got back into the scrummaging in Country’s half.
From here, Country took advantage of two back to back scrums and took the ball into the Rising’s half on the back of strong running from Vaea and Tala Gray. Some great back and forth Rugby was played by both teams in the middle of the field. The crowd came alive when a particular piece of excellent handling between halfback Mick Snowden and Gray put Watene-Zelezniak into another gap.
Country were unable to sustain the pressure as Melbourne again used their dominant scrum to win a penalty at their own 5m line and cleared the ball strongly. The Rising then played a lovely move off a lineout deep in Country’s half and Debreczeni put Sean McMahon through untouched and he ran 25m to dot down under the posts. Of course, Debreczeni converted and the visitors went to the half time break up 24-8 – even with Alo-Emile having been binned for repeated infringements just prior.
It seemed as though the late points in the first half had an effect on the Country boys as Melbourne came out firing and were on attack from the start of the second half. It almost came to points when Melbourne winger Joe Kamana made a break to the Eagles’ 5m line. Matters seemed to go from bad to worse when they didn’t make touch on an ensuing scrum penalty and Veainu ran it back.
A pass went to ground and Country turned the ball over – alleviating the pressure. It was at this point that Country brought on Brendan McKibbin for Sam Windsor and Andrew Kellaway to replace Watene-Zelezniak. Kellaway was greeted with a hero’s welcome by the crowd.
Melbourne moved the ball back into the Eagles 22 through a penalty and scored after some strong running from Timani, when Debreczeni found some space Veainu and he scored wide to the left. A missed conversion meant the score was at 29-8.
From here, the Rising kept doing just that – rising. Sustained pressure and back to back penalties put Melbourne back at Country’s 5m line for a lineout. From there, Lopeti Timani made up for his earlier drop over the line by smashing through to score under the posts almost 17 minutes into the half. The try was converted and the score was 37-8.
The Eagles didn’t quit, though. The game went back and forth until Caydern Neville got his marching orders 10 minutes from full time. At this point, the Eagles went on the attack and kept going until they finally gave up a penalty with three minutes to go. But they weren’t done yet. Will Miller earned a turnover and the ball finally got to Kellaway, who ran 45m and beat a couple of defenders to score his customary try. The crowd rose as if the Eagles had won.
The final score on the day was 37-16 and was a strong win to the favourites. Country can hold their heads high, though. For the most part, they matched the Rugby that Melbourne played. They just weren’t able to capitalise when they had their chances.
I thought Telusa Veainu was just about the best on the ground, but you just can’t go past Stirzaker for the way he controls a game. Lopeti Timani was a monster in contact and Luke Jones got through a lot of high impact work. Sean McMahon was immense before he went off with an apparent arm injury. And that’s before you mention the front row. Cruze Ah-Nau, Pat Leafa and Paul Alo-Emile seem to have thrown down the gauntlet to anyone who wants to try their luck.
For the Eagles, Tala Gray was their best. His ball running is well regarded but I was very impressed with his general work rate as well. Speaking of work rate, Will Miller was in everything all day. Cam Treloar had a very solid game, as well. Pat Dellit was reliable at the back and I thought Snowden and Windsor used the ball well.
The Game Changer
Country got stuck right in, but it looked ominous for them when McMahon went in just before half-time. That was the point it started to look too much.
Telusa Veainu was brilliant at the back. He’s quick and has a real sense of where to be and when. An honourary mention to Stirzaker for the control he exerted over the game.
Tala Gray showed why he’s been getting the accolades. Stirzaker showed that he’s going to be hard to budge as the Rebels scrumhalf and Timani is a scary ball carrier. But more than anyone else, I’d be petitioning Ewen McKenzie to get Alo-emile into the Wallaby camp.
Tries: Windsor, Kellaway
Conversions: Windsor 2/2
Tries: Stirzaker, English, McMahon, Veainu, Timani
Conversions: Debreczeni 4/5