Such is the format of the National Rugby Championship [NRC], we’re already halfway through the season, yet it feels like we just got started.
The Vikings half-term report card has just one blemish; an opening round loss to Queensland Country, but with the Melbourne Rising coming to Canberra this Saturday night, the Vikings are looking to consolidate their top-four place with a win.
Since their round one defeat to the defending champions, the Vikings have won three on the bounce, and last Sunday’s comeback victory against the Eagles showcased Canberra’s championship credentials -winning when not playing at their very best.
The Rising’s visit represents another chance for the Vikings to build momentum. A win is paramount obviously, but the more this team can gel, the more likely it is that the Vikings can go one better than their runner-up finish last season.
Vikings head coach Nick Scrivener has rung the changes for the Rising clash, with a number of players unavailable. Vunipola Fifita replaces Sione Taula, having earned his first starting jersey after impressive performances off the bench in the Vikings opening four games.
Fifita is joined by Connal McInerney and Tom Ross in the front row. The latter was impressive in his first run-on appearance at this level last week.
Darcy Swain and Blake Enever’s lock partnership continues to be a source of strength for the Vikings. Ben Hyne will skipper the side at number eight, with newcomers B.J Edwards and Brodie Leber either side of him in the back row.
Edwards and Leber were two of the standout players in the Griffin Legal John I Dent Cup last season and both have representative experience in their respective careers.
Leber is one of four Wests club players in the matchday 23, with T.P Luteru, Liam Rasch and Mitch Tye included in the replacements.
The Vikings backline also has a slightly new look to it this week, though the halfback pairing of Joe Powell and Wharenui Hawera remains intact. Chance Peni comes back into the side on the left wing, with in-form flyer Lausii Taliauli on the right. Taliauli has scored four tries so far this season and tops the NRC defenders beaten stats with 20.
Brumbies recruit Irae Simone gets his first start in his more familiar position at inside-centre in place of Jordan Jackson-Hope, who is unavailable due to family reasons. Jackson-Hope has been the Vikings’ top performer in 2018, his match-winner against the Eagles one of many magical moments he has produced this season.
Simone will combine with Len Ikitau, who comes back into the side at 13. Ikitau’s progression has been wonderful to watch, and his classic outside-centre style is something which will blend well with Simone’s physical game.
Andy Muirhead rounds out the selection, switching to fullback for Melbourne’s trip to Viking Park. Along with Jackson-Hope and Taliauli, Muirhead has been one of the Vikings’ key men this year, keeping up the form which saw him star for the Brumbies in the late stages of their Super Rugby campaign.
The replacements feature a number of exciting prospects. One, in particular, Noah Lolesio, who is no stranger to the Viking Park faithful having steered Tuggeranong to John I Dent Cup glory last season. The teenager signed his first pro-contract with the Brumbies last month and could provide some spark if given the chance this Saturday.
A win against the Rising would put the Vikings one step closer to a top-four finish, but Canberra is focused on climbing into the home semi-final positions. Should they conquer Melbourne, the Vikings will travel to Fiji knowing a win over the Drua will launch them into the top-two and another semi-final at Viking Park.
Better still, if results go the Vikings way, we may even be looking at yet another Grand-Final in Canberra. The first job, getting by Melbourne.
NRC ROUND 5
Canberra Vikings vs Melbourne Rising at Viking Park, Saturday 7pm. Entry is free.
Vikings: 1. Vunipola Fifita, 2. Connal McInerney, 3. Tom Ross, 4. Blake Enever, 5. Darcy Swain, 6. BJ Edwards, 7. Brodie Leber, 8. Ben Hyne, 9. Joe Powell, 10. Wharenui Hawera, 11. Chance Peni, 12. Irae Simone, 13. Len Ikitau, 14. Lausii Taliauli, 15. Andy Muirhead. Reserves: 16. TP Luteru, 17. Sione Taula, 18. Max Bode, 19. Liam Rasch, 20. Mitch Tye, 21. Ryan Lonergan, 22. Noah Lolesio, 23. Mack Hansen.