NRC: Competition in new territory as finals loom

NRC
by Brett McKay

Round five >of the NRC was one of blowouts and redemption, with the top four teams all trying to balance on the same ladder rung of the ladder, and NSW Country reminding everyone that they’re not finished in 2017.

Vikings set a new high-water mark


An hour or two post-match on Friday night, the conscious thought hit me that Canberra’s 66-5 win over the Fijian Drua had to be right up the list of record scores over the three-and-a-bit seasons of the NRC.

A bit of glance through my records, that cover every game since the NRC's inception, showed that the 61-point win on Friday night just eclipsed Canberra’s previous record, when they beat the now-defunct Sydney Stars 76-16 in 2015. And it certainly topped the next biggest win I could find, when Brisbane City beat the Stars 58-0 only a few weeks later in that same season.

(Might be worth remembering, the Stars still played in the semis in 2015 – this was just a rough patch!)

So it is certainly right up there, but it’s not quite up there on its own, though.

Regardless of whether it stands alone or not, this was a Vikings performance for all time.

Played in front of probably the biggest Canberra NRC crowd in the last two seasons, it was easily the best the Vikings have played in that same time frame.

And, right on cue, it’s just complicated an already complicated NRC season.

Queensland Country ominous in uncharted waters


Queensland Country's s 54-12 belting of the Melbourne Rising is the first time they’ve won three matches in the same season.

With the loss to Canberra in round one, and the bye in round three, Country are actually on a three-match winning streak, too.

But it’s not just the fact that the Queenslanders are winning games that we should take note of, but rather the way in which they’re winning games.

The common element to their wins has absolutely been their defence, and the pressure that defence brings on opposition sides.

That pressure is bearing out on the scoreboard, too.

Their three wins have come with a combined score of 135 to 48. Their three wins have been 31-12 over Brisbane City, 50-24 over the Rays last week, and 54-12 over Melbourne.

But the second halves in the three wins read like this: 19-5 over City, 31-7 over the Rays, and 40-12 on Saturday against the Rising. Combined, their second halves read 90-24.

They’re putting the pressure on early, but they then go on with it; in fact, they’re grinding teams into the ground in the second half to finish off the job.

They’re doubling their own first-half points-scoring after halftime.

Queensland Country are undoubtedly the big improvers in 2017; they are so far removed from the ‘easy beats’ of season’s past, it’s not funny.

Perth overcome Drua loss in the best possible way


Heading to Perth was always going to be a danger game for Brisbane City, for the simple fact that they needed a win to keep in touch with the top sides.

But going to Perth on the back of the Spirit being walloped in Fiji the week before only cranked up the danger ratings further.

The Spirit were back to their impressive best on Sunday, even more so considering they were without Jono Lance, Billy Meakes and Curtis Rona.

They needed a much-improved showing after the 41-5 belting handed to them by the Drua in Suva, and in response, you could argue the Spirit’s 62-28 walloping of City – with Quade Cooper, and Wallabies squad forwards Kane Douglas and Adam Korczyk starting - is probably their best win of the season.

With Canberra and Queensland Country laying down statement wins, Perth needed to respond.

And respond they did. It’s hard to think of a bigger turnaround in the four seasons of the NRC, but what it does do is remove any doubts anyone might have had about the Spirit.

They have the bye in this weekend’s Pasifika Round, but after that it’s not a bad run home at all. And they’ll have some pretty handy players return over the next few weeks, too.

After the year rugby in Western Australia has had, Perth Spirit are well poised for a successful defence of their title. And that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Eagles soar in the highlands


The Southern Highlands made its NRC debut in glorious sunshine on Monday, with the Goulburn Rugby Club – the oldest country rugby club in Australia – playing host to the NSW Country Eagles and Sydney Rams, and turning on bright sunshine and everything that’s glorious about country rugby.

 

Importantly for the Eagles, their defence and sheer determination held strong, and their 26-17 win will help keep them in touch with the top four.

Three of the top four still having the bye to come works in their favour, too.

Country’s start to the season hasn’t been ideal, but the way they were able to hold out on a Rays side that somehow managed to find ways of fighting back in a contest they looked well out of more than a few times was really impressive.

And that’s the sort of character a misfiring team can draw from. NSW Country came into the 2017 NRC with big expectations, after being the dominant side in the comp for all but one day last season.

But they need to find points on their run home. They’re one of few teams yet to register a bonus point this year, and they also have the lowest attacking average – just three tries per game, two tries per game below the season average – in the competition.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that there is plenty of firepower in that Eagles backline, and most of them showed enough in this win to suggest they’re not far off finding top form. Country might be timing their run beautifully.

A hell of a run home

I’m not going to write again how tight the competition is this season; you all know by now how tight it is!

Instead, I’ll just map out the run home for each team, and you can draw your own conclusion on who can and can’t make it.

Queensland Country -15 pts, 3-1

NSW Country (H), Greater Sydney (A), Fiji (A), Perth; maximum 35 points available.

Canberra Vikings - 15 pts, 3-2

Melbourne (A), Sydney (H), BYE, Greater Sydney (A); maximum 30 points available.

Perth Spirit - 15pts, 3-2

BYE, NSW Country (A), Sydney (H), Queensland Country (A); maximum 30 points available.

Fijian Drua 15pts, 3-2

Greater Sydney (A), BYE, Queensland Country (H), Sydney (H); maximum 30 points available.

Greater Sydney Rams - 9pts, 2-2

Fiji (H), Queensland Country (H), Brisbane City (A), Canberra (H); maximum 29 points available.

NSW Country Eagles - 8pts, 2-2

Queensland Country (A), Perth (H), Melbourne (A), Brisbane City (H); maximum 28 points available.

Brisbane City - 8pts, 2-2

Sydney (A), Melbourne (H), Greater Sydney (H), NSW Country (A); maximum 28 points available.

Sydney Rays 5pts, 1-3

Brisbane City (H), Melbourne (H), Perth (A), Fiji (A); maximum 25 points available.

Melbourne Rising (4pts, 1 and 4)

Canberra (H), Brisbane City (A), NSW Country (H), BYE; maximum 19 points available.

What a run home we’re in for.