As a group NSW Country only had two hours to prepare for last weekend’s National Rugby Championship curtain-raiser against Sydney, but judging on the way the Eagles came together at Concord Oval you’d have never picked that.
Boasting six shining stars from Central West Rugby Union’s Westfund Ferguson Cup, the Eagles produced a pulsating performance to come from behind in the dying stages of the clash then hold off the highly-fancied Rays’ final raid, ultimately claiming a thrilling 18-17 victory.
NSW Country was trailing 17-13 with less than two minutes to go but a last-ditch, unconverted five-pointer gave them a crucial, one-point buffer heading into the final play.
They knocked on and were then penalised from the kick-off though, giving the more-experienced Rays one last chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Eagles turned it over though, before Orange Emus’ Em McDonald nudged it into touch to secure the victory, which came before the Fijian Drua’s 34-31 NRC win over Sydney.
“it was definitely a nail-biter,” McDonald said.
It was pretty amazing, we’d only trained together for two hours before the game.NSW Country half Em McDonald
“Everyone did so well, it was pretty amazing, we’d only trained together for two hours before the game so it’s a pretty massive achievement to beat that Sydney side.”
That achievement, considering that lack of preparation, can’t be understated either.
Although any Wallaroos representatives were ruled out of the clash to ensure as much emerging talent was on show as possible and a host of the named Waratahs’ Super W players were on AON Uni 7s duty, the Sydney side still had substantially more time together as a unit in the lead-up.
Incredibly, the Eagles had half a dozen reps who had never even played a 15-a-side game, including McDonald and CSU Bathurst’s Claire Woolmington.
Both, obviously, come from the Westfund Ferguson Cup, which is a 10-a-side competition.
McDonald had admitted to plenty of nerves before the clash, but in hindsight said the step up wasn’t actually as hard as she first thought it might be.
Although, she said that had plenty to do with the help she was given by her teammates, along with coach Mick Burgess – a former Bathurst Bulldogs mentor – and manager Amanda Ferguson, who coaches her for Emus too.
“Being surrounded by players that play the game all year round and some that play in higher representative sides, they guided me and gave me tips to help fit into the 15-a-side game,” McDonald said.
“I thought I went pretty well, [Burgess] said I’ve got good core skills and I just need to improve them so (in the Eagles’ second clash with Sydney on October 7) I just want to improve those simple things like passing off the ground, passing both ways and just my knowledge of the 15-a-side game.”
McDonald also said Burgess made it very clear after the victory that Sydney wouldn’t take the defeat lightly.
“He said in the next game Sydney will be bigger and better, so we have to be too. He said it’s about playing simple rugby and minimising our mistakes,” McDonald said.
Ferguson said she was quite impressed with her young protege too, and with the other five Central West stars too, all of whom played their roles in the victory.
“Em did pretty well considering her lack of experience, she was good. They all were actually, the Central West players,” Ferguson said, with West Wyalong’s Sharnah Stevens and premiership-winning Bathurst Bulldogs Mandy Scott, Marita Shoulders and Mel Waterford also lining up.
“Marita was really strong (at loosehead prop) as always and Mel had a really good game (in the second row) as well. Mandy came off the bench and filled the five-eighth role really well, and Sharnah was great (at No.8).
“It was just a really good win, and really good exposure for a lot of these players.”
The two clashes form a big part of the Waratahs’ selection process for next year’s Super W competition, providing emerging talent the chance to shine on a bigger stage and potentially force their way into NSW’s initial, 40-player squad that will be named later this year.
The Eagles’ second and final clash with the Rays will be played on Sunday, October 7 at Camden, before NSW Country’s NRC clash with Brisbane City.