It’s funny how it works. Two teams looked pretty even on paper, yet NSW Country have won through to the 2016 Buildcorp NRC Final through sheer domination, thumping Melbourne Rising 50-24 in Newcastle. Here’s the talking points.
1. A welcome dry track in Newcastle
The last time the NRC train rolled into Newcastle, NSW Country and Queensland Country faced off in weather that even ducks would struggle with. So sunny skies and a fast, dry pitch at No.2 Sportsground was a welcome sight indeed.
The day allowed the wonderful spectacle that the first Semi was.
It was great to see a good crowd on hand, too, with the Hunter region rugby faithful flocking to ground in strong numbers. Queues at the bar and the canteen are always a good sign, and both remained constant throughout the day.
And no, I couldn’t resist the waft of steak sandwiches, either.
2. The early territory game we all expected
Finals footy is always about playing the game in the right areas of the field, and so it wasn’t so surprising that the inevitable territory shoot out eventuated in the first half.
The surprising bit was that three converted tries had already been scored when it started. It was like the opening softening period was just moved to the middle of the first half.
By the end of it though, you could feel the momentum swinging toward the Eagles and more points felt certain. Two minutes and two Reece Robinson tries later, Country had the lead for the first time in the game.
3. Wallabies watch
‘Super’ Sefa Naivalu made his intentions clear within the first few minutes, finding himself in space near halfway and quickly finding himself one-on-one against Country and Waratahs fullback Andrew Kellaway. Naivalu feigned to the outside, but threw the perfect dummy to leave Kellaway stranded, and scored a wonderful try inside the first few minutes.
Tom Robertson enjoyed a strong 60-minute stint and his presence was a major factor in the NSW Country scrum providing a solid platform all day. He even found himself in some open air, the big fella, and he showed some nice touches around the field with ball in hand.
Toby Smith and Tolu Latu both enjoyed strong games for their respective sides, while a couple of guys on the fringes, opposite centres Kyle Godwin and Tom English had an entertaining contest.
Godwin, especially, was excellent for the Eagles, but he has been throughout the competition now. His left boot was often able to find open territory for Country, and he’s in as good form with the ball in hand as in the last few season. Plays surprisingly physically, too, and always looking for the offload.
4. Rising started the way they needed to, but couldn’t sustain it
Melbourne always needed a fast start to be a chance in this game, you thought, and when they posted two converted tries inside the first ten minutes, the parochial Newcastle crowd was quickly silenced.
But Sam Figg’s intercept try got the Eagles going, and from there, they were able to get back into the game, and after winning the territory kicking battle, started putting on points before halftime.
From there, it became circular; the more the Rising tried to make the play, the more they made mistakes, and the more NSW Country punished them.
The Eagles already scored more unstructured tries than any other NRC team in 20176 coming into the game, and hardly needed an invitation to take advantage.
5. Eagles patience rewarded
Once they got into the game through Figg’s first try, Country were able to bring the game back to the way they wanted to play it. So the middle part of the first half became a chess game for territory.
And then, the Eagles pounced through Reece Robinson, twice in two minutes, and immediately, the game had turned.
Once they had some wind in their sails, it became about pressuring the Rising across the park and pouncing on mistakes. Two more tries doing the same thing after halftime put the result beyond doubt.
They’ll take a whole lot of beating next week in Tamworth, the Eagles. They’re playing superbly well for each other, Darren Coleman has them playing a simple game exceptionally well, and there’s no doubt they start favourites in the Final.