NSW Country coach Darren Coleman is the first to admit the Eagles’ preparation for Saturday’s must-win final round at Orange’s Endeavour Oval hasn’t been ideal, but he’s confident his side can overcome the disruption and seal a National Rugby Championship (NRC) finals berth.
Waratahs flyer Andrew Kellaway has been called up on Barbarians duty and Coleman is still waiting on halfback Jake Gordon’s availability, along with a couple of injury concerns leading into the Eagles’ blockbuster match-up with Brisbane City.
It’s left the Shute Shield-winning mentor no choice but to hold off until the 11th hour before naming his final side.
“It has been a bit of a nightmare to be honest,” Coleman laughed.
“We’ve had a couple of guys released though, but they haven’t trained with us all week. But, we’re not crying poor because Brisbane are in a similar situation, they’ve lost a few key players.
“If it was the first week of the season then you’d probably be a bit more stressed about it, but the guys have trained together and played together a lot so I’m confident we won’t have too many issues.”
Plenty has been made of the fact both the Eagles and City are in the same situation – win and make the finals, lose and miss out.
The Eagles aren’t strangers to that prospect though, Coleman explained.
“We’ve been must-win for the last two weeks so we’ve certainly learned how to play sudden-death rugby,” he said.
“This has become a bit of an unofficial quarter-final for both sides because of that situation, which will make for a pretty good game I think.”
We’re not crying poor because Brisbane's in a similar situation, they’ve lost a few key players.- Eagles coach Darren Coleman, on this week's disruption
Despite having some of the most dangerous attacking weapons in the competition the Eagles have, at times, struggled to score points in 2017 – NSW Country has the worst attacking record of any side.
Coleman doesn’t read into that too much though, his side’s done enough to win more than half of its games and has built that success around its stoic defence.
“Maybe we haven’t scored as many points as we’d have liked, well, no we haven’t,” he said.
“But we have one of the best defensive records in the competition, defence is an attitude thing and I think that shows how much spirit there is in this side.
“We’ve got a lot of exciting attacking players in the squad and, at the start of the year, it was just a high error-rate that stopped us from scoring a lot of points.
“It’s come together enough for us to win our last few games and go mighty close against the top side (Queensland Country) as well, and last week everything just really clicked in the second half and we almost hit the 50 mark.
“So I don’t think it’ll be an issue, I think it’s just a matter of us carrying that over into Saturday’s game which I’m sure we can do.
“We’ll just have to keep an eye on what Brisbane’s doing as well and make sure we keep defending really well.”
Coleman sent somewhat of a call to arms to fans in the region too, saying the parochial Eagles crowds have made a massive difference in the sides other three games in the country.
The Eagles have won all three of those games, over the Canberra Vikings (25-24) at Armidale, the Sydney Rays (26-17) at Goulburn and the Perth Spirit (15-10) at Tamworth.
“We’re pumped, the guys love it. We’ve got a strong link to Orange and the country, and even the city guys love coming and playing in regional centres,” Coleman said.
“Last year the weather wasn’t kind to us in Orange, which was really disappointing so we’re really looking forward to having another chance to play there this year.
“We think it gives us a big advantage too, if we can win [on Saturday] then we’ll be undefeated at home. We’ve won our games at Armidale, Tamworth and Goulburn already this season and getting a win in Orange, to push us into the finals would be a great way to finish (the regular season).
“We’ve had great crowds out at the other regional games so hopefully the fans in Orange can come out in force and help get us over the line too.”
Saturday’s blockbuster final round clash kicks off at 1pm at Endeavour Oval, after a number of curtain-raising junior games.