Bulls Put Aside Final Scenario Ahead of Falcons Clash
We needed a calculator to work out the Round 3 permutations that can pitch the Canterbury Bulls into their third straight NZRL National Premiership final, but coach Andrew Auimatagi insists his team has to ignore the for-and-against scenarios if they’re to prevail in Sunday’s daunting home assignment against Akarana Falcons.
“It’s a pretty complicated situation, I guess, and we’ve got to focus on just giving our best performance and getting the win,” Auimatagi says.
“That’s all we need to focus on, doing our bit and whatever happens, happens.
“We’ll concentrate on controlling the ball, creating some opportunities. If we’re working well enough we can get a good result.
“It’s more about the processes and little parts of our performance we need to focus on first.”
Canterbury’s 34-16 win over Wellington last week – combined with Akarana’s 30-24 defeat of Counties Manukau – has left the Bulls in a precarious position with one round-robin match to go.
The Bulls have a for-and-against of +4, while the Stingrays are on +8, and the Falcons have a healthy differential of +40 thanks to a 60-26 win over the Orcas in their first match.
There are three scenarios that can see the Bulls through to the final:
The Bulls beat the Falcons and the Orcas upset the Stingrays, setting up a Canterbury-Akarana final.
The Bulls beat the Falcons by a margin five points greater than the Stingrays beat the Orcas by, setting up a Canterbury-Akarana final.
The Bulls beat the Falcons by a margin of 19 points or more, setting up a Canterbury-Counties Manukau final.
Even the most optimistic red-and-blacks fan would have to admit any of those outcomes are unlikely. But the Bulls showed encouraging signs of improvement against the Orcas after losing 36-22 to the Stingrays in Round 1 – even if the points bonanza they desperately needed didn’t eventuate.
“(We were) pleased to get the win, (but) in terms of the performance we had higher expectations I suppose,” Auimatagi says of the 18-point defeat of Wellington.
“There were some really positive parts of the performance as well. (We’re) taking a lot of learning from that game and we’ve prepared well for this weekend’s games so we’re looking forward to it.
“There were some good moments on attack, but we also did talk about being patient in the [opposition’s 20-metre zone] and probably didn’t execute in that regard to a standard we would have liked.
“Defensively (we were) better, in terms of around the rucks, but (there were) a couple of lapses out a bit wider.”
Backrower Phil Nati crossed for the Bulls inside two minutes in a dream start, but the Bulls subsequently fell into a trap of trying to score off every set instead of building pressure.
“We definitely talked about that and the players identified that as probably the big work-on,” the coach laments.
“I don’t know if it was the points differential issue going on in their heads, but that’s something we’ve talked about at great length, getting to those good areas and being patient.
“Points will come, we’ve got enough talent there, it’s just about being a bit smarter with the ball.”
Nati scored a stunning 50-metre solo try in the dying seconds to finish with a double, while dummy-half duo Alani Kakoi and Isaac Misky each scored a superb four-pointer in the victory. Kakoi was elevated to starting No.9 last week with Misky joining the bench, after veteran Corey Lawrie was the run-on hooker against the Stingrays.
“Alani’s been playing some really good footy, really solid for us in the middle there and he’s always a threat and pretty sound in defence.
“Isaac probably brings something a bit different, a bit of speed when the forwards are fatiguing and I thought he provided some impact there as well.”
Auimatagi has a couple of injury headaches ahead of Sunday’s clash, with wily five-eighth Toi Sepuloni in doubt due to an ankle complaint.
Fullback Nathan Saumalu has also been on light duties at training after leaving the field with a knee issue last weekend but is expected to be right in time to take on the Falcons, while Halswell’s Brad Austin is the likely No.6 replacement if the veteran fails to recover.
On the plus side, captain James Baxendale is certain to start at lock after missing the Bulls’ first two encounters.
Auimatagi has been impressed with what he’s seen from the Falcons so far in 2016 – particularly last week’s come-from-behind defeat of the Stingrays – and knows they’ll be a formidable opponent at AMI Stadium.
“Akarana, the way they finished that game (against Counties Manukau), I suppose they deserve that top spot at the moment,” he says.
“But both of those teams are equally strong, so we’ve got to be at our best this weekend to get over the top of them.”
Canterbury knocked over their archrivals from Auckland during the 2014 and ’15 NZRL Premiership campaigns, but Auimatagi isn’t taking any extra confidence from the Bulls’ impressive recent record against the Falcons, who he believes are stronger than in previous seasons.
“You can’t look too much into (our past wins).
“This year they’ve definitely strengthened their squad – in the past politics in the club scene have affected that team, but this year a lot of Pt Chev and Mt Albert players have made themselves available.
“Then there’s New Zealand Residents jerseys up for grabs so I think that’s lured a few of them back into the mix.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE
NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP ROUND 3 – Canterbury Bulls v Akarana Falcons, 4pm, Sunday, September 25 @ AMI Stadium, Addington
Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke – CMG Sport