Canberra Vikings playmaker Christian Lealiifano brushes off a Perth Spirit defender. Photo: Jay Cronan
Wallabies playmaker Christian Lealiifano has vowed to work tirelessly to rediscover his goal kicking mojo, admitting his wayward year with the boot is taking its toll after he missed three crucial conversions in the National Rugby Championship opener on Saturday.
Canberra suffered a shock round-one loss to the Perth Spirit 28-23 at Viking Park, despite boasting 10 Brumbies and Lealiifano after he was released from Wallabies camp to get game time.
Canberra and Perth scored four tries each, but in the end it was kicking that made the difference in a revamped NRC points structure.
NRC: Canberra Vikings v Perth Spirit
Canberra Vikings Isaac Thompson breaks through defence. Photo: Jay Cronan
Conversions are worth three points instead of the traditional two, in a move designed to encourage teams to score tries instead of kicking penalty goals.
But Lealiifano got the yips with his kicking and missed three of his four attempts. Had he kicked all four, the Vikings would have beaten the Spirit by three points.
Less than a year ago Lealiifano was regarded as Australia's best sharpshooter and was given the Wallabies' kicking duties.
But after a rough season from the kicking tee, the ACT Brumbies star wants to repay the faith coaches have shown.
"Goal kicking makes a massive difference [in the NRC] and that's what's frustrating me the most to be honest," Lealiifano said.
"It sort of cost the team, I don't know what's going on. I've just got to keep working at it.
"It's starting to get to me a bit now, a lot of people have put faith in me to step up in that area and I just keep letting everyone down. I'll just keep at it and hopefully it will come around soon.
"I've been waiting a long time and it is frustrating, but I'll learn from it and I'll push forward."
Lealiifano was kicking at 83 per cent in Tests and 78 per cent in Super Rugby last year. But in trying to regain his confidence this year, Lealiifano's accuracy has dropped to 51 per cent.
Canberra captain Fotu Auelua backed the star playmaker to rediscover his best form after an off day in the NRC and just one training session with the Vikings.
Lealiifano's game mirrored the Vikings' team performance, dropping regulation passes as Canberra failed to built any momentum.
Canberra was held scoreless in the first half before Robbie Coleman scored a double to put the home team in front with time running out.
The Spirit refused to go away and scored two tries in the last 10 minutes to seal victory, including a 50-metre effort from outside centre Ammon Matuauto in the dying minutes to score the match-winner.
"It's not just one player, Christian has come back from international duties but you need players around him to work so that it sparks," Auelua said.
"We only had ourselves to blame; we weren't clinical in the breakdown and we didn't keep it simple."
Canberra's next game is against the Greater Sydney Rams on Thursday night.
Despite boasting 10 Brumbies, the Canberra side looked like a second-grade club team fumbling their way around the field.
They dropped every attacking chance they had in the opening exchanges and Perth took control of the game.
Canberra had to wait until the 50th minute before they crossed the line with Isaac Thompson slipping through a gap and then hit the front through tries to Coleman and Nigel Ah Wong.
Canberra coach Dan McKellar said his team needed to make amends for a "flat" performance.
"We obviously didn't click, we had a poor start and by half-time we hadn't got through two phases," McKellar said.
"They worked harder than us and wanted it more. We don't have time to drag our chins along the ground, we have to get one back on Thursday night."
AT A GLANCE
PERTH SPIRIT 28 (Zack Holmes, Dillyn Leyds, Heath Tessmann, Ammon Matuauto tries; Zack Holmes, Luke Burton conversion; Luke Burton penalty) bt CANBERRA VIKINGS 23 (Robbie Coleman 2, Isaac Thompson, Nigel Ah Wong tries; Christian Lealiifano conversion) at Viking Park on Saturday.