NRC: Who can stop the Sydney sides in 2016?

by Brett McKay

A wonderful Round 3 of the Buildcorp NRC was played over two very contrasting days: grey skies and damp tracks in Sydney and on the Gold Coast, and beautiful sunshine in Brisbane and Tamworth on Sunday. 

Rays and Eagles set for a blockbuster

If we were surprised to see two Sydney-based sides out on top after two rounds last weekend, then we must be completely flabbergasted to see the Sydney Rays and NSW Country Eagles still out on top a week later. What’s more, they’ve extended their lead, too, with a three-point gap now from the Eagles in second to the University of Canberra Vikings – the team the Eagles thumped last week – in third spot.

But the surprise needs to stop, because both the Rays and Eagles are playing really, really good NRC rugby and absolutely deserve to sit atop the table.

The Rays are a really clever team that plays to their strengths, and while they might be the most dangerous team in the competition on the counter attack, they’re also the best defensive team in the competition, conceding fewer than three tries per game.

NSW Country are certainly among the hardest teams over the ball, and over three games this season have developed this enviable fall-back position where even if they can’t make things happen in attack, they’ll defend their line to the hilt. As it is, the Rays and Eagles are both scoring five tries per game, anyway.

Sadly, though, the unbeaten run for one of them has to come to an end, with an absolute blockbuster between the two teams now set up next Saturday at Pittwater Rugby Park on Sydney’s northern beaches. Never mind the pencil, just ink this one straight into the calendar now – and if you’re in Sydney, get there!

Quality v Quantity in the numbers comparison

The competition average of the course of the eleven-week 2015 NRC saw the home teams hold a 21 wins to 18 advantage over away teams, and with an average scoreline around 35 points to 33. The competition average of 9.6 tries per game was split 5.1 tries to the home side v 4.5 tries to the away side each game.

In 2016, and though the home teams still carry the win advantage – seven home wins to five away – three blowout wins by away teams actually has the away sides holding the points per game advantage: 33 points per game to the away side v 30 points per game for the home side.

This highlights the improving defensive qualities in the NRC teams twelve months on, where because of the shorter season in 2016, teams have put a lot more focus on fitness in the lead-up, with most having mini pre-seasons between the end of Premier Rugby around the country and the start of the NRC.

And when you look at the tries scored after three rounds, the much-improved defence point is further underlined.

After three rounds in 2015, 115 tries had been scored across twelve games, essentially bang on the competition average of 9.6 tries per game.

In 2016, the number after the first twelve games is just 102 tries; at an average of 8.5 tries per game, it’s more than one full try fewer per game scored. No wonder the 2016 NRC feels like the best yet.

Are we at ‘must-win’ stage now for some teams?

Absolutely. With only four rounds to play this season, semi-final aspirations will very quickly start disappearing from this weekend coming.

For starters, after a third straight loss, the Western Sydney Rams and Queensland Country simply cannot afford a fourth loss, or they can forget about the finals completely. As it is, they probably need to win every game from here on, and that’s not going to happen with the two teams still to face each other. The task is no easier this weekend, with the Rams heading to Canberra, and Country heading to Perth for the infamous late-morning kick-off.

Melbourne Rising and Brisbane City both sit with a win and two losses, and though they’ve been in positions to win at least one more game each to date, their execution has been their main downfall. They too face off in Round 4, from which you would have to think the loser might have a hard time qualifying for the finals.

The Western Sydney Rams are still without a win after three rounds of the Buildcorp NRC. Photo: Rams Media Unit. For all the top four teams – but particularly Canberra and Perth in third and fourth respectively (two wins and a loss each) – the equation is simple: keep winning.

The next few weeks will be crucial for the 2-and-1 and 1-and-2 teams, and where the most table movement is likely to occur. Which means that losses from here on can have a major impact on semi-finals chances.

What’s happened to Brisbane City?

It’s the big question of Round 3, after they turned a knife-edge halftime score against the Vikings at Ballymore into a four-tries-to-none second half bloodbath, surrendering the Horan-Little Shield for the first time in more than a year in the process.

So where has it gone wrong? Well, playing personnel is the major difference.

From the 2015 Championship side, City have lost locks Ben Hyne and Cadeyrn Neville to the Brumbies and injury respectively, Liam Gill to France, Junior Laloifi and Karmichael Hunt to injury, and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies. That’s not even all the losses, just the big ticket items from the side that went undefeated last season.

Gill and Kerevi are two biggest losses, and if you’ve watched Brisbane City across the three games, you’d agree that breakdown pressure and midfield impact are the two areas they’re most lacking in 2016.

It's been a tough start to 2016 for new Brisbane City captain Sam Talakai. Photo:ARU Media/Stu Walmsley.

Fringe Wallabies keeping the miles in the legs

One of the big reasons for the formation of the National Rugby Championship in the first place was so that fringe Wallabies squad players could continue playing at a decent level, and not have to rely on training track form to impress the national coach.

This weekend just gone is another great example, with Will Skelton, Luke Morahan, Henry Speight, Kyle Godwin, and Tom Robertson all getting good hitouts before re-joining the Wallabies in Perth in preparations for Argentina next Saturday.

For Robertson, it meant a hasty departure at halftime in Tamworth in order to make the only available flight that would enable a Sunday connection to Perth. With Allan Alaalatoa already ruled out, Robertson is now in serious contention for a Test debut next weekend.

And if his name is read out on Thursday, we can all be thankful for NSW Country’s unbeaten start to the competition!

Henry Speight has been firing in the Buildcorp NRC as he looks to break back into the Wallabies. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley.