Newcastle rugby: McCormack trades coach's clipboard for Maitland No.9 jumper in qualifying final

MR FIX-IT: Ryan McCormack will trade the coach's clipboard for the Maitland No.9 jumper in the qualifying semi-final against Merewether. Picture: Marina Neil

MR FIX-IT: Ryan McCormack will trade the coach's clipboard for the Maitland No.9 jumper in the qualifying semi-final against Merewether. Picture: Marina Neil

CO-COACH Ryan McCormack is normally responsible for devising Maitland’s game plan.

On Saturday, he will have the job of executing it when the Blacks take on Merewether in the qualifying semi-final at No.2 Sportsground.

McCormack will start at halfback in place of Max Stafford, who is suspended after receiving his third yellow card for the season in the 40-28 win over Lake Macquarie.

A fly-half for the majority of his career, McCormack has covered in a variety of roles in a handful of cameo appearances this season.

“Chippy (McCormack) has played for us a couple of times at nine when Max has been injured or away,” co-coach Mick Hickling said. “We are very confident that he will get the job done. He is a very different player to Max but his experience and talk will be a benefit.”

Second grade halfback Ben Taylor, who has experience in the top grade, will provide cover on the bench.

“Ben Taylor has played quite a bit in the past and if we need to go that way, it is something we can do,” Hickling said. “A few weeks back, Ben had only just returned from a shoulder injury so we went with Chippy off the bench. He is a natural talker on the field and pushes the boys around. That is his personality.”

Apart from Stafford, the Blacks are at full-strength which is stark contrast to last season in which they lost James Robinson, Travis Brooke, Michael Howell and Jimmy Johnston to injury.

“We are healthy which is a plus,” Hickling said. “We only dropped one game in the second round and that was a narrow loss [to Hamilton]. There is a bit of confidence in the playing group. The vibe at training on Thursday was very good.”

Merewether enter the finals on the back three lopsided wins over bottom sides University (64-17) and Lake Macquarie (70-26) and sixth-placed Southern Beaches (52-17).

The easier run home has allowed the Greens to manage the workload of captain and key man Jay Strachan, who has a long-term knee issue.

“We have been managing Strachanny for six weeks,” co-coach Mick Gill said. “We rested him from the Wanderers game early in the season. We took a big gamble at the time but it has paid off in terms of getting him right. You could tell in his performance when he was troubled by it. He didn’t have that explosive power. The last two starts, he has got his confidence back.”

Both previous encounters have been high-scoring affairs. Merewether won 49-24 at Townson Oval in round four and the Blacks were 40-36 victors at Marcellin Park in round 14.

“It was a high scoring game but their were patches where the defence was really good,” Hickling said. “They have blokes like Strachan and Jarome Wilson, guys who can really play the game. We have a couple of guys like that as well. If you can string some possession together for a period you are a really good chance of scoring points.”