NRC: 2016: The cream has risen to the top

by Brett McKay

The completion of round four means we’re now past the halfway point in the home and away rounds, and with the weekend’s results, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of the potential top four.

Two clear groups of teams emerge

With wins to NSW Country, University of Canberra, Perth, and Melbourne – the first three comfortable in the top four – it’s becoming more apparent now who can and can’t qualify for the finals series in 2016.

The Eagles remain unbeaten on top of the NRC ladder after their hard-fought 36-16 win over the previously unbeaten Sydney Rays on Saturday has them one win clear of the UC Vikings in second place, but I’ll come back to them later in this piece.

Behind NSW Country, just one point separates the Vikings in second and Perth Spirit in fourth. All three teams have three wins and a loss, and with the Spirit boosted by their big win over Queensland Country on Sunday, all three teams have reasonably healthy points differentials heading into the last three rounds.

Melbourne Rising sit less than a win outside the top four in fifth place, and have a similar good points for-and-against.

Behind them though, reigning back-to-back NRC Champions Brisbane City sit six points further adrift in sixth place, and face an uphill battle now to even just catch the top four’s current tally, never mind qualify for the finals in three weeks time.

And winless after four rounds, both Western Sydney and Queensland Country are effectively done for 2016. Only one of them can win all three games from here – they play each other next Saturday at Concord Oval in Sydney – and even then, it’s hard to see any team finishing in the top four with just three wins.

Eagles have one wing tip in the finals

NSW Country coach Darren Coleman would scoff at my suggestion if raised in person – this week at least – but with four wins in the can already, and a four-point gap to the Vikings in second, his side looks all but certain to play in a second NRC finals series in three attempts.

After finishing only one point out of the semis last season, the Eagles in 2016 are just one competition point behind their final tally in 2015.

The way they finished off the Rays on Saturday, scoring two tries in the last 90 seconds, sent all kinds of messages through the rest of the competition. A 22-16 win would’ve been a fair reflection of the contest at Pittwater, but adding the 14 late points that they did hinted toward a clinical edge that has developed in the Eagles this season.

The NSW Country Eagles are the only undefeated side in the Buildcorp NRC. Photo: AFP PhotographyA win over Perth in Orange next Saturday would lock down a top four finish, and from there they’re playing for hosting rights. And that would raise all new questions – namely, where would they play a home semi?

The run home

Here’s the last three games for each team, as we commence the downhill run to the finals.

NSW Country Eagles: Perth, Queensland Country (Away), Western Sydney (A) – maximum points available: 33

UC Vikings: Melbourne, Sydney (A), Perth – max points: 29

Sydney Rays: Brisbane City (A), Canberra, Melbourne (A) – max points: 29

Perth Spirit: NSW Country (A), Brisbane City, Canberra (A) – max points: 28

Melbourne Rising: Canberra (A), Western Sydney, Sydney – max points: 25

Brisbane City: Sydney, Perth (A), Queensland Country – max points: 19

Western Sydney Rams: Queensland Country, Melbourne (A), NSW Country – max points: 18

Queensland Country: Western Sydney (A), NSW Country, Brisbane City (A) – max points: 16

Brisbane City will struggle to make the top four in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The Horan-Little Shield magic touch

The Vikings completed a successful defence of the Shield at the first attempt, though they left it until the last ten minutes of the game to get the job done.

But they may just have stumbled across a lucky charm in doing so: one of the aforementioned great Wallabies centres himself.

Tim Horan was on hand at Ballymore last weekend to present the Shield to the Vikings, after they removed Brisbane City’s year-long grip on the challenge trophy, and the man himself was in Canberra on Saturday; not to present the Shield this time, but to watch his young bloke in action in the curtain raiser.

Alex Horan, in Canberra on a training contract with the Vikings, played flyhalf in the ACT Griffins’ 56-7 win over Rams’ development team, the NSW Pacific Island Barbarians.

I’d expect the Vikings have already invited the Horan family back for next weekend’s Shield defence against Melbourne Rising.

What’s happening with Queensland Country?

They featured well up the table in plenty of pre-season predictions, with many an NRC pundit convinced the abundance of quality young talent in the squad, along with the coaching dream team of Toutai Kefu and Brad Thorn, would see Queensland Country finally delivering on two seasons of promise.

But four rounds in, they sit dead last and winless, with just one bonus point in their tally courtesy of lodging two late tries in the 30-22 loss to the Sydney Rays last weekend in Round 3.

Save for the first half against Melbourne in Round 2, they’ve been fairly well outplayed: down 44-6 against Canberra in Round 1 with ten minutes to go, down 30-8 against the Rays with 15 to play, and against Perth on Sunday, they found themselves on the end of a 46-0 hiding with 25 minutes still on the clock.

Queensland Country coach Toutai Kefu is struggling to get the most out of his young side.  Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyThe trend is worryingly similar; a young side getting blown away in games. Yet on Sunday, it was the young Country who put Perth under the pump for the first twenty minutes, and who probably should’ve scored several tries. They couldn’t convert, and by halftime, they were already thirty points in the red.

How the Country coaches can turn their young team around will be a huge challenge. And after just four wins in two and a half seasons, it would be long overdue.