An NRC title with the Canberra Vikings would be a new coaching high water mark for Tim Sampson.
Canberra started the 2017 NRC with two wins at home, over Saturday night’s opponents, Queensland Country, and Perth Spirit, but the two wins had similar elements: they got out to leads, the opposition came back, the Vikings managed to hold on.
“I thought we showed a lot of composure against quality opposition in Queensland Country and Perth, to come from behind to win those games," Sampson said.
"I know the players were really pleased with those two games, it’s always a good feeling when you come from behind to win.”
Like most NRC sides, the Vikings only had three full training sessions together once the John I Dent Cup finals were completed, and the first few weeks for most sides are a bit unknown as combinations establish.
“To win those tight games early on was pretty important, when you look back at how tight the race to the finals were. I think it was what got us there,” Sampson said.
The Vikings suffered their only two losses for the season in the next two rounds; a two-point loss to Brisbane City, followed by a one-point loss to NSW Country in Armidale, but Sampson didn't feel there was any reason to panic.
“We played some pretty good footy in both those games. Brisbane City got out to a big lead against us, 21-7, and again we worked really hard to get back into the game and drew level with them," he said.
"We did have the opportunity to score late in that game, but unfortunately didn’t get the win.
“Against NSW Country, we were up by nine points with four minutes to go and certain things didn’t go our way in the final stages of that game.
“We were gutted after that loss, but I think there was belief there, and encouraging signs in the way that we clawed a way back into the early games after we started poorly.”
A month into the competition, the Vikings looked like replicating a stuttering 2016 start in 2017, but they found the right rein to pull against the visiting Fijian Drua, who were thumped 66-5 on the scoreboard and frozen on the field, on a suddenly brisk August night.
“There weren’t any drastic changes that week, and there still was a lot of belief in the squad at that stage,” Sampson said.
“What we did realise was that we couldn’t afford to lose another game at that stage of the season. If you lose three games on the trot in this tournament, then your season is just about done. The players realised that, and responded well.
“After two away games, it was great to play Fiji at home on a Friday night. It wasn’t hard to get up for that game because Fiji were on top of the table and had been playing very good footy.
"The players just went out with the belief that they could put in a really good performance against quality opposition and we certainly did that.”
By this stage, Canberra had won all three home games they had played, and that number could become a perfect six in Saturday's NRC final.
The record win over the Drua was followed with a pretty solid win down in Melbourne, before the Vikings returned home and put 70 points on the Sydney Rays.
“Melbourne was a tough one as we lost a couple of players in the first half, in Andrew Robertson and Lolo Fakaosilea," Sampson said.
>So, it wasn’t a smooth game for us, but in the change rooms there I just discussed how important our first away win was. Again, you tick a little box there and you stay on the front foot with your belief.
“Then moving into the Rays game, we were blessed that week to have a couple of Wallabies come back and play with us and they slotted in nicely. I think it was actually the other blokes there that played some really good footy that day, though.
“We made some early changes in the second half and to put 40 points on in the second half, it just proved to everyone just how deep we go in our squad."
The Vikings have had short-term health on their side, Sampson using just 31 players across the nine games to date in 2017, one of the lowest numbers ever seen in an NRC campaign.
“We have had our fair share of big injuries; Ben Hyne, Andrew Robinson, and Jordan Jackson-Hope - who was originally pencilled in to return half way through the tournament," he said.
"Although we have had those couple of season-ending injuries, we have been fortunate not to have many one or two-week injuries, and that’s allowed us to have continuity with our selections."
Like most coaches, Sampson doesn’t let himself get to far ahead of himself, but he admits that going into their final round clash with the Greater Sydney Rams that the top-two finish was well on their radar.
“Certainly, going into that last round, it was there,” he said.
“We were chuffed about that, we were on the bus coming back from Sydney [having beaten the Rams] and results went our way. We ended up as minor premiers.”
Sampson was ready for a physical semi-final against Perth last week, even if it didn’t open up like he thought it might, with Andrew Muirhead’s 35th-minute try in the corner was really the only one that you would call a classic backline try, but even that one came from lineout first-phase.
“Certainly expected a tight contest against Perth, and a physical contest. I remember saying after that round two game against them that it was the most physical game I have seen in the NRC in four years; it was a belter.
“We discussed through the week that Perth is a team that goes 80-85 minutes, and you have to go deep into the second half to beat them.
"It turned out to be everything we expected, the physicality and the tight contest, and it was great that we held on like we did.
“We call our defence zone our ‘blood zone’, where we give everything for each other to prevent the opposition from getting over the try line, and thankfully the strength of ours all tournament was evident there again late in that second half.”
Canberra have been served very well by their Super Rugby-contracted players, perhaps none better than their superb captain Tom Cusack, but it’s often been the younger players to have caught the eye.
“When we select the squad, these guys are there for a reason and we knew that they could adapt and transition into the NRC, and they have done exactly that," Sampson said.
"Blokes like Ryan Lonergan, Darcy Swain, Len Ikitau, and Rob Valetini, who all played Brumbies Under-20s this year, it bodes well for the future of Brumbies Rugby. That’s what this tournament is what it is all about.
“Then there are club players like Harry Lloyd from Wests, and Ben Johnston and Pedro Rolando (both from ACT premiers, Royals) who were rewarded for outstanding club seasons.
"It is important to get that mix right in your squad, and we saw an opportunity to reward club players for a very good season, and to get these younger players into the squad to test themselves at NRC level.”
Canberra beat Queensland Country in the opening game of the season, but their final rivals loom as a different sort of test for the Vikings this time, after their dominant display against the Drua in Toowoomba in last Sunday’s second semi-final.
“They were dominant, and I think they got on top of Fiji pretty early which was important when you play the Drua," Sampson said.
"I think Fiji struggled to get into the game, and that was through a fairly astute footy from Queensland Country. They played that game tactically very well.
“They have key players up front, backrow, inside backs and they are all very handy. I would like to think we could apply a bit more pressure than what their opposition did last weekend."
A home final is something new for the Canberra Vikings, but with it comes a new level of expectation.
The Vikings made the 2015 final, losing to the undefeated Brisbane City after an excellent season of their own, but there is a different feel about this year’s side, more so now that they’ve secured a decider on their own turf.
“We’ll certainly embrace it, as these opportunities don’t come around too often, so we would be silly not to discuss it and embrace it,” Sampson said.
“As soon as that [round nine] result came through while we were on the bus coming back from Sydney, I think the blokes just sat back and realised that ‘gee whiz, we could potentially play a NRC grand final in Canberra’ and that would be great for ACT rugby and the clubs down here to have such an event on our doorstep.
"It’s just reward for a lot of hard work from a lot of people."