Eight tries have seen the Melbourne Rising cruise to a comfortable 55-34 over the North Harbour Rays on debut at AAMI Park this afternoon.
From the opening whistle, with the new laws rendering penalty goals almost worthless, and the weather staying away, both sides showed a willingness to take the ball in hand and have as serious crack. The Rays hung with their more credentials for most of the afternoon, before letting the score slip with three late tries as fresh legs started to tell for the Rising.
The game started in sprightly fashion as a darting run from scrumhalf, and captain, Nick Strirzaker sent winger Telusa Veainu over in the corner for the first of his two tries within five minutes. Converted by flyhalf Jack Debreckzeni, the Rising were up 8-0 and off to a flyer. Within a couple of minutes they’d added another as regular Rebels wing Tom English broke through the Rays defensive line, offloading to local boy Sefa Naivalu.
Naivalu, the outside centre, plays for Box Hill in the Dewar Shield, and didn’t look remotely out of place. He’s a good size, runs nice lines and holds his own in defence – two tries were just reward for his efforts. Don’t be surprised if the Rebels have a look at him sooner rather than later.
The conversion was missed, leaving the score at 13-0 only nine minutes in. Veainu was again in the thick of the action soon after, a thumping tackle out wide from the diminutive wing forcing a knock on and a Rising scrum feed. They couldn’t make anything of this possession however, as the Rays managed to regain the pill and hang onto it. Five minutes of solid pressure and phase-play saw lock Ed Gower, who had been prominent in the build-up, crash over near the sticks.
Loosehead prop, Mitchell Lewis, scrumhalf Mat Lucas, captain Greg Peterson and young inside centre Tom Matthews really put themselves about during that drive. Matthews, in particular, impressed with his leg drive after contact, a not dissimilar player to his Rising opposite Mitch Inman. Lucas, when getting clean ball from his forwards, showed he could run a game. Continuing with the comparisons – he reminds one of Nick Phipps. Not brilliant at any one aspect of the game, but a tough little bastard who gets the team cracking along.
Before long, however, Strirzaker had cruised over the line for the third Rising try. A turnover forced on halfway lead to some nice interplay between the backs, leaving acres of space for Stirzaker off the base of the ruck. By this point Lopeti Timani was starting to dominate. In the passages leading up to Stirzaker’s try, he’d won a turnover off the kickoff – blowing up the two Rays players defending the ruck – and knocked Rays hooker Luke Holmes unconscious on a carry not three phases later. Watching Holmes flail on the ground, trying to get up and repeatedly fall on his face was scary stuff. It sounds grim in this day and age, but the Rising, the Rebels, and Australian rugby in general need more players like Timani. If he can continue to impose himself – he could well end up one of the players of the tournament.
The 21-8 lead after only 23 minutes saw the Rising switch off, and allowed the Rays to come back into the game. Two minutes after Stirzaker’s try had been converted, the Rays had replied with a nice try to fullback David Feltscheer in the left-hand corner. Take nothing away from the Rays, who muscled up in the forwards, but the one-out defence from the Rising was disturbingly reminiscent of the Rebels.
Soon after, more optional defence from the Rising saw excellent Rays scrumhalf Lucas walk over for their third try of the match – leveling the match at 21 all following the conversion from Hamish Angus.
Five minutes later, a brain fade from schoolboy superstar Jonah Placid saw the Rays in again. Placid took a quick throw-in that was intercepted on halfway. Some brilliant cover defence from Naivalu wasn’t enough to stop Lewis crossing again. Angus missed the easy conversion, leaving the Rays leading 26-21 – a lead they would carry to the break.
The Rising scrum had been dominant in the first half – Toby Smith and Paul Alo-Emile causing havoc – and they got reward for the labours early in the second. A massive scrum forced a penalty early, Debreczeni gaining some nice territory, before some slick hands in the backline saw Vaeinu go over for his second try of the match. A more curmudgeonly type than me would suggest he should have passed inside to the waiting Naivalu – but he was good enough to break the tackle and score himself.
The Rays hit back soon after. More sustained pressure seeing them cross in the 52nd minute. When they were able to hold onto the pill, the Rays were giving the Rising defence some serious grief in the forwards, and they made it count – taking the lead once again.
In this game of back and forth, the Rising were the next to strike. Fullback Jonah Placid began to involve himself, carrying strongly from deep. The Rising encamped themselves in the Rays 22, who were lucky not to have a man sent to the bin for repeat cynical infringements. A number of scrums and lineouts later, Jack Debreczeni walked past replacement scrumhalf Josh Holmes off the back of a scrum to take the Rising into the lead once more, his conversion taking it to 37-34.
With fifteen minutes to go, the Rising began turning the screws. Good hands from the halfway line, and a nice little piece of ghosting, saw Naivalu crossing for his second try of the day. While the conversion was missed, some brilliant interplay from Inman, Naivalu and English saw the Endevour Hills openside Reubon Rolleston charge over for his first try in Rising colours. With eight minutes to go, the Rising were suddenly up 50-34 and the game was all but beyond doubt.
They would shortly silence the Rays once and for all. Moorabbin Ram and crowd favourite, Joe Kamana, replaced Naivalu at outside centre and had an immediate impact. Following a big run and a big tackle, he easily broke the Rays line before selflessly offloading to Debreczeni for his second try of the game. Debreczeni failed to convert, leaving things at 55-34, a score that would last to the final whistle. The Rays gave things one last crack but couldn’t quite make it happen, a knock-on ten metres from the Rising line saw the final whistle blown.
An entertaining, if at times sloppy, game somewhat reminiscent of a Super Rugby pre-season encounter. The two-point penalties have rendered taking the points all but irrelevant – I suspect we’ll see a lot of scorelines like this.
The Game Changer
Although it’s tempting to say Timani knocking Holmes out – Naivalu’s second try saw the Rising really take control of the game. From that point on they wouldn’t be challenged.
The G&GR MOTM
While it could have gone to a number of guys, Toby Smith, Lopeti Timani, Telusa Vaeinu, Jack Debreczeni, I’m going to go with Sefa Naivalu. Just had a really solid game for 75 minutes. Ran well, linked well, defended well, took his tries when he had to. A very complete performance from a guy who has never played at this level before.
Players to Watch
Rising – Lopeti Timani. Oooh lawdy. If he can put an 80-minute game together he is going to be special. Genuinely terrifying at times. Has that Jerry Collins/Willem Alberts about him, where you can’t help but turn to the bloke next to you and say holyy shit did you just see that? Needs to get more consistent – but the potential is immense.
Rays – Tom Matthews. Appreciate that I didn’t talk as much about the Rays as I should, but he really impressed with limited opportunities. He’s a solid body, but his ability to make metres after contact with his leg drive is incredibly impressive. Not sure he’s quick enough to make it to the top, certainly worth keeping an eye on though.
Score & Scorers
Tries: Veainu (2), Naivalu (2) Stirzaker, Debreczeni (2), Rolleston.
Conversions: Debreczeni (5)
Penalties: Nil North Harbour Rays: 34
Tries: Gower, Feltscheer, Lucas, Lewis, Porecki.
Conversions: Conversions: Angus (3)