Round eight of the NRC was nuts, there’s no other way to put it.
The Fijian Drua’s imposing home record took a hit, there were two sizable upsets that have definitely dented some finals chances, and by the end of it, a new entrant into the top four.
Here's what we're talking about ahead of the final round.
Results send everyone scrambling
Oh, what a weekend, what a set of results.
Not great for NRC tipsters (I had Queensland Country and NSW Country, thanks for asking), and probably not that great for Mick Heenan and Kevin Foote, respective coaches of Brisbane City and Perth, who would’ve been hoping to make their finals equations easier in round eight, not harder.
The big winners of the weekend are undoubtedly Queensland Country, Canberra and NSW Country.The Queenslanders now can’t finish lower than second, and their sixth win of 2017 is already more than their total number of wins in the previous three NRC seasons.They’ve gone from last in 2016 to hosting a home final – and maybe even minor premiers – in 2017, and that’s probably an indication of why their coach Brad Thorn was so quickly locked down as Queensland Reds head coach next season.
NSW Country started the weekend in sixth place on the ladder, and I’ll be honest, I expected this weekend to be the one that confirmed they couldn’t qualify for a third finals series.
But Brisbane City and Perth’s losses opened the door for them, and they gladly accepted the invitation. More on that shortly.
Canberra had the bye this weekend, and I’m guessing Tim Sampson is still shaking his head at what happened across the weekend.
Queensland Country’s win over the Drua now means that the Vikings are very nearly safe in the top two.
Their points differential is significantly better than Fiji’s, to the point that the Drua would have to beat the Sydney Rays with a bonus point to overtake them, assuming Canberra then lost to Greater Sydney.
Now, just a losing bonus point will probably be enough to secure a top two spot.
Queensland Country in the box seat
To repeat, Queensland Country have gone from stone, motherless last in 2016, with just one win, to guaranteed top two and quite possibly first overall in 2017. It’s a seriously remarkable turnaround.
The win over the Drua in Fiji was outstanding for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it was just further confirmation of their status of the best defensive team in the NRC this year, with a finals-like intensity to their line speed and their impact on the ball carrier.
The harder the Drua ran at them, the harder the Queenslanders hit. And the more success they had defensively, the more pressure they applied on the Drua, who in turn conceded more penalties and turnovers.
Secondly, beating the Drua at home did the other finalists a huge favour, ensuring the competition’s newcomers couldn’t host a home final, which would’ve made them all the harder to beat again.
As it was, hosting rights for the Drua was going to problematic - Suva’s National Stadium is hosting the Oceania Sevens on November 10 and 11, the latter being the day of the NRC final.
It's understood fitting the NRC final into an already tight schedule wasn’t really possible, and that’s even before possible broadcast and sponsor conflicts are identified.
Regardless, Queensland Country will now host their first ever finals match, and already Toowoomba has been mentioned as a possible venue, though you’d have to assume their Bond University base on the Gold Coast would also be discussed.
Brisbane City and Perth losses cancel each other out
As the Greater Sydney Rams first took, and then extended their lead over City at Ballymore Oval in the rain on Saturday afternoon, you could almost hear the smiles growing wider in the west.
Once the Rams’ impressive and well-deserved 31-19 win was confirmed, Perth Spirit supporters would’ve been excused for thinking finally the rugby gods were smiling on them this year.
City’s loss meant the Spirit just had to beat the Sydney Rays to get back into the top four, and further, third place was available to them with a bonus point win.
And they hadn’t lost a game at McGillivray Oval in two full years, so surely this was their time?
But, in further confirmation that the rugby gods have no sense of humour, Perth gave up an 18-point lead to the Rays who quickly gorged on the confidence each try gave them, scoring 26 unanswered points between the 30th and 55th minutes to take the lead.
Perth got back within a point, but the Rays had none of it, adding two more tries to send the Spirit’s finals chances spiralling back from whence they came.
Brisbane City’s loss opened the door for them, but Perth slammed it shut on their own foot, and now face the daunting prospect of having to beat a somewhat weakened Queensland Country side due to Wallabies and Barbarians selections, with a heavily weakened side themselves.
NSW Country tick all the boxes
The final game of the weekend saw a team finally take advantage of their situation.
After Brisbane City’s and Perth’s stutter, an unlikely top four opportunity was there for the Eagles, who up until last weekend (against Perth, ironically) really haven’t looked close to playing like finals contenders.
A win would put right in the frame for the finals, but a bonus point win by 17 points or more could see them jump both City and the Spirit and into fourth spot. It was very possible, but after this weekend’s results, who would be so confident to call it?
When Melbourne flyer Kiti Ratu scored his fourth try in five games in the 51st minute, the Rising had the lead and another upset was on the cards.
But then Seb Wileman took and intercept and finished off the nice passage of play that followed, and from there, the Eagles piled on the points - 26 of them in the last 16 minutes of the game to not just win with the bonus point, but by way more than the 17 points they needed.
The Eagles return to Orange in central-western NSW again next Saturday to host Brisbane City, and it’s essentially an extra week of finals footy for them. Win, and they’re in.
The Eagles will lose a few players to Wallabies and Barbarians selections, but not nearly as many as will City.
And City’s losses will be big - Quade Cooper, Andrew Ready, and Karmichael Hunt to name just three.
A record-equalling third NRC finals appearance is there for the Eagles if they’re good enough. But now, they’re actually playing like they are.
The round nine equation
Here’s what the six finals contenders face heading into this weekend’s final regular season round.
Queensland Country – 28 points
BEST CASE: Will finish 1st with a win over Perth.
WORST CASE: Could finish 2nd if they lose and if Canberra beat Greater Sydney.
Canberra Vikings – 25 points
BEST: Could finish 1st with a win over the Rams, and if Queensland Country lose.
WORST: Could drop to 3rd if they take no points from a Rams loss, and if Fiji beat Sydney with a bonus point.
Fijian Drua – 21 points
BEST: Could finish 2nd with a BP win over the Rays, and if Canberra lose to the Rams without a BP.
WORST: Will miss the top four completely if they take no points from a loss to Sydney, if either NSW Country or Brisbane City win, and if Perth beat Queensland Country with a BP.
NSW Country Eagles – 18 points
BEST: Could still finish 3rd with a win over Brisbane City, and the Drua lose to the Rays.
WORST: Lose to City and they’re out, and could finish as low as 7th if the Rams score a BP win over Canberra.
Brisbane City – 18 points
Best and worst case scenarios are the same as NSW Country’s.
Perth Spirit – 16 points
BEST: Could finish 3rd with a BP win over Queensland Country, and if the Drua lost, and if the Eagles and City draw in Orange.
WORST: Will miss the top four regardless if Fiji win, and if the Eagles or City beat each other.
There are actually more scenarios in play for many of the sides, but these are the details that matter.
What a cracking final round we’re in for.