Opening day of NRC: Five things we've learned

by Brett McKay

Here are the talking points from Perth Spirit’s 20-16 win over Melbourne Rising in the west, and NSW Country’s 22-12 victory over defending champions Brisbane City at Sydney University.

Yellow cards a very real threat

One of the biggest concerns about the decrease in penalty goal values in the NRC has always been that the move might lead to increases in cynical infringements from defending sides. Happily, referees have always been on top of this, handing out roughly twice as many yellow cards as we typically see in Super Rugby

There was no room for it on the opening day of the 2016 season either, with referees Graham Cooper and Angus Gardner quick to crack down on repeat offenders. Gardner handed out five cards himself in the NSW Country-Brisbane City match, and Country had to defend with no more than 14 players for all but three of the last thirty minutes.

This is consistent with how referees officiated the first two seasons of the competition, and it’s great to see this will continue. Attacking rugby should be rewarded, and teams must be able to use their advantage effectively.

And you suspect a few teams might learn the hard way in the first weeks of the 2016 competition.

NSW Country Eagle Ned Hanigan was one of many to be shown yellow. Photo: Getty Images

Softening-up period a welcome addition

When you become used to NRC games raining points, it was rather refreshing to see both games featuring a brutal opening full of big hits and the respective sides feeling each other out in the opening exchanges.

After the competition netted more than nine tries per game in 2015, only ten tries were scored in total across the first two games.

Perth scored in the first couple of minutes against Melbourne, but both sides quickly fell into an arm-wrestle for pretty much the rest of the first half as they sort to find forward and breakdown dominance.

Brisbane City skipper Sam Talakai felt the brunt of the Eagles defence. Photo: Getty Images.

It was the same in Sydney, with NSW Country and Brisbane City belting seven shades out of each other in the first 25 minutes of the game before the Eagles eventually scored and grabbed the early ascendancy.

Whereas teams last season were very happy to tap-and-go with penalties even as far out as forty metres away, today we saw teams taking their time, kicking for the corner, and trying to get into a set piece groove as early as possible.

It will be interesting to see how long this continues; there’s no doubt set piece is a crucial element in the Buildcorp NRC, so how long might it be before we find a team just ‘click’ from kick-off?

11am kick-off could be an ace up Perth’s sleeve

It was a throwback to junior rugby days, and you could see other sporting teams warming up in the background at UWA Sports Park, as the Spirit and Rising kicked off at the unusual time of 11am local time.

You would have to wonder how long it’s been since players at this level kicked off so early. The younger guys not so far out of Colts might be somewhat used to it, but for the seasoned Premier Rugby players, it will surely take some getting used to. For Super Rugby regulars, it must be completely foreign!

And so while opposition teams will be still wiping the sleep from their eyes as they run out, you can’t help thinking this could become a really handy advantage for the Spirit. The sooner they themselves can become used to it, the sooner they can really cash in; they have two more home games to come in the 2016 campaign.

Luke Morahan scored twice for Perth Spirit in their win over Melbourne Rising. Photo: Johan Schmidt.

Travelling east to west is often hard enough; playing in such an unusual timeslot can only make the task harder again for sides heading to Perth.

It should prove popular with the home crowd, too. With free entry, the Spirit would love rugby fans to get down and fill the hill, tuck into an early lunch, and hopefully enjoy the rest of the weekend after a Spirit win!

Wallabies welcomed back to parkland

With a bye in The Rugby Championship next weekend, expect more Wallabies squad members to be suiting up for their NRC teams. Luke Morahan was a stand out for the Perth Spirit today bagging a double in their win, proving that Wallabies Head Coach Michael Cheika can use the competition for his players to showcase their worth for national selection.

After Adam Ashley-Cooper was forced from the field in Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup match with concussion, and growing rumors of his departure back to France during the series, don't be surprised to see Morahan make his return to the Test arena on the back of his form in the opening round.

Eagles land as a force after toppling favourites

At last week’s NRC Launch, Brisbane City emerged as a clear favourite of the eight team representatives surveyed. With two titles under their belt in the opening two seasons, plenty expected – and still expect, to be fair – the Reds-laden City side to feature heavily in the Finals series.

But NSW Country have well and truly announced themselves as a force in this competition, after they dominated the reigning premiers across the park. The Eagles were immense at the breakdown, laid some massive hits in the first half, and soon established set piece ascendency as well.

Kyle Godwin and Dave Horwitz combined well in the centres – Horwitz surprisingly effective at 13, given he’s played the vast majority of this rugby at this level and beyond at either 10 or 12 – and the growth in Andrew Kellaway’s game since he debuted for the Waratahs this season is abundantly clear. Hooker Tolu Latu and young lock Ned Hanigan were also impressive in the win.

Eagles skipper Dave Horwitz wrestles with Brisbane's Michael Gunn. Photo: Getty Images.

But it was the second half defence that perhaps impressed the most. A man down for most of the second half, as mentioned, the Eagles to a man managed to do whatever they needed to do to get to where the tackle needed to be made. He won’t be impressed with the yellow cards, but the scramble defence might be coach Darren Coleman’s biggest positive coming from the game.

And sure, City were missing some crucial backline players, several of whom will still play a part in their NRC campaign. But while they might take a few weeks to find their shape, it’s fair to say NSW Country can’t rely on flying under the radar any longer in this year’s NRC.