It’s all starting to get very serious now, with the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship Finals Series on our doorstep. Eight teams started, but only four remain, so let’s take a look at how they made it this far, starting with Saturday’s first semi-final in Newcastle.
NSW Country were expected to be in the running for a top four finish, but it was all going to come down to how they emerged from their first three games: Brisbane City, Uni of Canberra Vikings, and Melbourne Rising; three of the competition heavyweights.
The Eagles jumped out early against Brisbane City in Round 1, and took a 16-6 halftime lead at Sydney University. But three second half yellow cards to the Eagles let City back in the contest, but from there the Country spirit took over and they defended themselves to a standstill and a hard-fought 22-12 win.
Round 2 saw the Eagles head to Canberra and pull out one of the most remark starts to a game in the history of the NRC, when eight unanswered tries saw them leading the Vikings 60-0 after an hour. Canberra hit back with four tries themselves, with Country again in yellow card trouble, but the 60-28 win was one that put the competition on notice.
Country headed to Tamworth in Round 3 for the first of their regional home games, with the entire Eagles travelling squad fed at the home of skipper Paddy Ryan’s family the night before, propelling them to a 32-8 lead at the break. Possession swung right back to the Rising in the second forty, with the visitors very nearly reining them in. A superb defensive effort in the last ten minutes was again the saviour for the Eagles.
Round 4 saw the much anticipated clash between the Eagles and Sydney Rays, both sides unbeaten and atop the NRC table after three games. Country led 14-8 at the break, then Waratahs flyer Reece Robinson notched his first NRC double as they ran away 36-16 winners, and claiming the outright competition lead.
A deluge of rain over the course of ten days meant Country’s Round 5 home game in Orange couldn’t remain in the central-western NSW city, forcing a hasty reshuffle and the creation of the first ever NRC double header at Concord Oval in Sydney.
Another tight first half saw Country take a narrow 24-16 lead over Perth Spirit into the break, but after the break it became the Jake Gordon Show as the Sydney University and Waratahs squad scrumhalf scored three tries himself and had a hand in several others. The Eagles running away 48-24 winners.
With a semi-final spot locked in, attention turned to whether the Eagles could go through the regular season undefeated. That talk quickly evaporated when the Eagles - with upwards of nine changes made as they got game time into some more players – went try-for-try in Toowoomba, but narrowly lost to Queensland Country, which coincidentally was their first win of 2016.
Round 7 saw the Eagles playing for home ground advantage through the finals and some silverware too, with the Horan-Little Shield and the newly-minted Benn Robinson Bell on the line against the Western Sydney Rams at Concord. The lead changed six times in another points shootout, with Paddy Ryan’s 77th minute try sealing the win, top spot on the NRC table, and the side’s first taste of NRC trophies
Melbourne Rising kicked off the NRC for 2016, heading to Perth to face the Spirit and an 11am kick-off time that took everyone back to junior footy days. In one of the lowest-scoring games in the competition’s history, the Rising led 16-12 inside the last twenty, but conceded a late try to go down 20-16.
Round 2 saw the Rising’s first home game of the campaign and it swung violently, with Queensland Country running in three converted tries with Jordy Reid in the sin bin to lead 32-16 at the break. The Rising took the territory and possession advantage themselves after halftime, scoring four tries to run away 46-32 winners.
The Round 3 game against NSW Country was one the Rising wished went for even just a few minutes more, after the second half comeback couldn’t quite go the distance. “After a very slow start in Tamworth we managed to haul them back and fell just short,” Rising scrumhalf Mick Snowden told rugby.com.au this week, on how they’ll take plenty of confidence from that game into this weekend’s semi.
They were back in the winner’s circle in Round 4, with the Rising’s class across the field too good for a Brisbane City side that was quickly found out to be a little way off the dual Championship sides of 2014 and 2015. Rising led 30-14 at halftime and carried on after the break, a Jack Debreczeni double pushing them to a 46-28 win.
Melbourne jumped out to their own fast start against the Vikings in Canberra, before the home side went back to their trusty lineout drive to narrow the score at the break. The Rising remained in control in the second half, doing enough to stay in front, and running away with a 60-44 Horan-Little Shield win that didn’t really reflect how far off the pace Canberra were slipping.
The Rising’s Shield reign didn’t last long, with a shock 68-38 Round 6 thumping at the hands of Western Sydney; the Rams’ first half performance belying the fact they were playing into a howling gale. Two Rising tries after the break got them back into the contest, before yellow cards and three late Rams tries blew them out of it again.
Come the final round, and the Rising’s game within the big Frankston Festival of Rugby in Melbourne’s southeast, the calculators were working hard to work out the finals equations. A win was needed for confidence as much as table position, but the Sydney Rays used the almost cyclonic winds to their advantage to lead 38-16 at the break.
Amid some nice passages of play, the Rising’s execution remained an issue with the wind at their backs, though that wind also meant legal passes regularly floated forward. But the loosing bonus point was enough to secure fourth place for Melbourne, and a third straight Buildcorp NRC Finals Series appearance.