NRC: 2016 the most open competition yet

by Brett McKay

After two rounds of the NRC we have the perhaps unexpected scenario of two Sydney-based teams unbeaten and leading the competition, while the Super Rugby-backed heavyweights are under early pressure.

The most open NRC season yet?

If there is anything that the Round 2 results have shown us, it’s that the 2016 edition of the Buildcorp NRC will certainly be the most even of the three seasons to date.

The general consensus floating around before the season started was that the three Super Rugby-backed sides, plus reigning premiers Brisbane City and possibly NSW Country would be fighting it out for the semi-final berths.

They still might yet, but the start of the Sydney Rays along with the Eagles just proves that the consolidation of NSW sides for this season was a good decision, and that the anticipated flow-on effect of playing depth to the three remaining teams has come to fruition.

The NSW Country Eagles are flying high after two straight wins to start the Buildcorp NRC season. Photo: Getty Images.Really, it’s only the Western Sydney Rams and Queensland Country that look a little off the pace, but in their defence, both teams showed huge improvement on their first outing of the campaign the weekend before. The Rams pushed Brisbane City all the way in a wonderful Horan-Little Shield challenge, and Country showed that they still have one of the best packs in the NRC.

How the favourites respond in Round 3 will be really interesting; there’s more than a few reputations to restore within all four sides with a win and a loss so far.

Rays prove that pragmatism still has a role

Sure, the conditions played a huge part in dictating how the game between the Rays and Perth Spirit was played on Friday night at North Sydney Oval, but it was great to see there is still room in this fast-paced game for some old-fashioned rugby.

With both teams toughing it out in the first half – Perth led 8-6 at the break – you always had the feeling that the first scorer after the break would be in the box seat to control the rest of the game.

Sure enough, the Rays scored a converted try within ten minutes, and from there the Spirit was under immediate pressure to chase the game; the heavy rain and the greasy conditions meant that the Rays’ six-point lead probably felt like 16.

From there, the Rays kicked for touch, played it in tight, reined in the expansive stuff, and let the forwards take over, with both their remaining tries coming off the back of a strong forwards pick-and-go platform and a lineout drive.

Come the finals, this will be a very useful skill. Yes, the NRC is all about scoring tries and playing entertaining rugby, but when it comes to knockout rugby, playing smart will always trump playing with risk.

The return of the champs, or lucky to get away with it?

What should we make of Brisbane City’s 44-36 win over Western Sydney at Ballymore on Saturday afternoon?

On one hand, six tries to five looks like they had it pretty well under control, and you’d naturally assume that the return of halves Nick Frisby and Jake McIntyre was the major reason for City’s turnaround after a lacklustre display in Round 1.

But on the other hand, you’d see that between the 22nd and 67th minute that City were never able to follow up a try with another try of their own; on all four occasions the Rams scored the next try, as City struggled to stack the phases and hold possession as much as the Rams did.

Mitch Felsman put his hand up for try of the year in his debut for Brisbane City. Photo: Sportography.There’s no doubt City will be happy to be on the board for 2016, and they’ll be happy they were ultimately able to kick away from the Rams in the last ten minutes. Whether they’ll be entirely satisfied is a whole other question.

And it doesn’t get any easier for Brisbane City. If ever there was a worse time for a reply of the 2015 Final against the University of Canberra Vikings, it’s immediately following their embarrassing thumping at the hands of NSW Country.

Melbourne find their execution

The biggest issue for the Rising in Round 1 wasn’t a lack of opportunities created, but rather the at times shocking execution that killed off those opportunities stone dead.

Come Sunday, Melbourne’s forwards were again what got them into the game against a Queensland Country side that included Wallabies’ James Slipper and Rob Simmons, but this time their last pass options and decision making was much improved.

Though, perhaps it was the half time rocket from coach Zane Hilton? Down 32-16 at the break, the Rising came out and scored 30 unanswered points in 25 minutes to completely dominate the result.

Rising Coach Zane Hilton congratulates his players after a come from behind win over Queensland Country. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyBut it was notable that the passes were sticking, the support runners trailed for offloads, and their attacking breakdown work allowed them to play with quick ball and carry all the momentum.

If Melbourne go deep in the competition this year, we might look back on this game – and the second half in particular – as the point where it all changed for them.

Eagles soaring after Viking conquest

What more can be said about NSW Country? An absolutely superb, completely dominant performance from the Eagles left the Vikings’ faces a similar shade of red to their playing strip.

From sideline to sideline, it was hard to find a Country player who didn’t do something brilliant at some point.

Darren Coleman was able to use precaution and bench anyone if any sign of niggling injury emerged, and even through his side let in four tries in the last quarter of the game, such was their dominance for an hour that the result was never in doubt.

For the Vikings, it’s kind of back to the drawing board, because they now head to Ballymore for a showdown with a Brisbane City side keen to show that Round 1 was their anomaly performance.

Somehow, Canberra’s Wayne Southwell needs to regather his side and get their minds back on the job; it would be worth reminding them that despite the result, no-one has scored more tries in the first two rounds.

But the short NRC season also means that they simply cannot afford another heavy loss like that.