Hunter Wildfires head coach, Scott Coleman, says his team are enjoying flying under the competition radar as they prepare to welcome Shute Shield ladder leaders Manly tomorrow in Newcastle.
The Shute Shield’s newest club has begun positively in 2022, with impressive victories over the Two Blues, West Harbour and Randwick taking the Hunter contingent to sixth on a very congested ladder.
However, the Wildfires are yet to knock off a side sitting above them this season, having lost to three of the five teams which sit above them after six rounds.
Coleman believes an opportunity against the high-flying Marlins on Saturday offers the perfect occasion to alter this record.
“We’re definitely happy where we are at this stage but we aren’t getting carried away,” he said.
“Consistency is a key factor leading into this weekend. We must be consistently performing at our best and we can’t afford to be making mistakes against the best sides.
“There are lots of little things that we could’ve done better so far, but we’ll definitely take our three wins knowing we are a new team and cohesion is always going to be a problem early on.
“Any opposition that travels to face us know it is going to be a challenge, so absolutely we back ourselves.”
The Wildfires will also take confidence in knowing the Marlins are yet to travel to Newcastle for a Shute Shield fixture, nor have the ladders leaders defeated the Hunter side since their introduction in 2020.
Following a thrilling 29-29 draw in 2020, the Wildfires were again the travelling side in Round 10 last season, only to knock off the home side 17-12 in what would eventually become the final game of a shortened season.
However, the Manly side of 2022 are a completely different beast, with the inclusion of Phil Blake and emerging stars like Langi Gleeson, Hunter Ward and Kemu Valetini already achieving drastically improved results this season.
But with only one victory separating fourth and twelfth on the Shute Shield ladder, there is no room for complacency in any fixture this year.
“It’s the tightest Shute Shield I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Talking to the other coaches in the preseason, there was a real sense that this was going to be a close competition.
“There’s no easy week this season, so if you don’t turn up in the right mentality, you will be punished.
“But that’s what we want for the Shute Shield. We want a competition where any club is a chance of victory, rather than the dominance of three of four clubs ahead of the rest. It’s a great sign for rugby in NSW.”
Coleman admits the loss of first choice centres Luke Nadurutalo and Nafi Tuitavake to injury has been a blow to the side, with the pair a stand-out combination over the opening weeks of the season.
The loss of Nadurutalo and Tuitavake has forced a reshuffle of game style in Coleman’s side, a shift which the Wildfires coach believes has made their style very similar to that of the Marlins.
“We have to beat Manly at their own game,” he said.
“We have very similar game styles, so the past week has been focused on owning field possession and matching the toughness within our forward pack.
“I expect both the playmakers to control the game. Connor [Winchester] is having a great year and will steer us around with that trusty left boot of his.”
The Wildfires will welcome Manly tomorrow at Newcastle Sports Ground No. 2 at 3pm.
In the round's other fixtures, Easts welcome the Students, the Pirates travel to T G Millner to face the Woodies, Western Sydney will be looking to make it four in a row against the Rats, the ‘Battle of the North’ will be decided at Chatswood Oval, and both Souths and Randwick will fight it out after disappointing defeats.
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Round Seven fixtures:
Eastern Suburbs v Sydney University – Woollahra Oval 3pm
Eastwood v West Harbour – T G Millner 3pm
Warringah v Two Blues – Pittwater Rugby Park 3pm
Gordon v Norths – Chatswood Oval 3pm
Souths v Randwick – Forshaw Rugby Park 3pm
Hunter Wildfires v Manly – Newcastle Sports Ground No.2 3pm