NRC: 2016 Semi-final race tightens

by Brett McKay

With just two rounds left to play in the NRC, the run home to the finals is starting to hot up. And after the weekend’s results, the only certainty is that we’re in for more surprises with top four destined to play each other.

Four going for three

With NSW Country still unbeaten and now five points clear on top of the ladder, all eyes will turn toward the four teams battling for the three remaining semi-finals spots. 

Certainly, the Eagles are safe. Even if they lost both remaining games to Queensland Country and Western Sydney and picked up no further points, their current tally of 23 would still likely secure a top four spot. Not that coach Darren Coleman will believe that, after a losing a likely semi-finals spot last season from the last match of the home and away rounds.

Behind them, five points separate the Sydney Rays in second place from Perth Spirt in fifth. Perth have three wins to their name as do Melbourne and Canberra, with only bonus points determining the placings.

The Vikings are just sitting inside the top four after five rounds of the Buildcorp NRC. Photo: Connie MoreauNo teams can really afford to drop games from hereon; the risk of sliding down the table is very real, as the Vikings found out after losing to the Rising at Viking Park. They started Round 5 in second and looking pretty solid.

Now they’re fourth and suddenly very vulnerable.

The key remaining games

Of the remaining eight games, seven of them can have some kind of impact on the run home for teams still in the hunt. Only the final game of Round 7, where Brisbane City and Queensland Country face off at Ballymore for the Andy Purcell Cup, will have no bearing on the finals at all.

Next weekend in Round 6, the Rays (2nd place on the table, 18 points) will host the Vikings (4th, 14pts). A Canberra win could see the Rays suffer the same sliding feeling down the table the Vikings experiences this weekend just gone.

The final round will see Canberra host Perth (currently 5th, 13pts), which if Canberra lost to the Rays and Perth beat Brisbane City in Round 6, could be the match that determines which team qualifies for the finals.

Who can stop the NSW Country Eagles? Photo: AJF PhotographyAlso in Round 7, the Rising (currently 3rd, 15pts) will host the Rays in what could determine who snares the final spot in the top two.

And this is all without trying to work out which of the final eight games will throw up the inevitable curve ball. Make no mistake, there is plenty to play for in the remaining rounds.

There’s always one blowout round

Just when it was looking like NRC teams had their defensive houses in order in 2016, along comes Round 5 to blow apart everything we thought was normal.

Over the first four rounds, we were averaging around 8.6 tries per game, which was more than a full try under the average across the whole 2015 season. The first four rounds produced 32, 38, 32, and 36 tries respectively.

In Round 5, we saw a mammoth 47 tries scored across the four games, a crazy average of 11.75 tries per game! It’s had the effect of raising the overall 2016 figure to 9.25 tries per game.

But fear not, because exactly the same thing happened last season. Generally speaking each round saw around 36 to 39 tries scored, with a round here and there slightly above, or slightly below that range.

And then there was the round in which 49 tries were scored in four crazy games, in which three of them saw more than 90 points tallied, and three of the winning teams topped 60 points themselves.

The round in question? Why, of course, Round 5…

NSW teams to the fore

Something that definitely didn’t happen in 2015 was three NSW-based teams all winning in the same round, as was the case over the weekend.

NSW Country and Western Sydney took the honours in the Concord double header on Saturday, and the Sydney Rays put one of the final nails in Brisbane City’s season on Sunday.

It only strengthens the thinking behind the decision to shed the fourth NSW team that played in the first two seasons, and there is no doubt at all now after five rounds that the three remaining teams have strengthened their playing base.

All three teams are carrying more depth in 2016, and are getting impact from the bench, a luxury they didn’t enjoy much of over the first two seasons. And that’s where the benefits were going to come; not so much within the XVs, but rather numbers 16-23 and the competition for those spots from the players on the fringe.

The Western Sydney Rams got their first win of the season over the weekend. Photo: Getty Images

Yellow card message might just be getting through

After Round 2, a staggering 21 yellow cards had been handed out to 19 players in just eight games. A crazy 2.6 cards per game, and with several games containing four and even five cards handed out as the teams battled with the edict from referees determined to keep the game open and flowing.

Fast forward to the end of Round 5, and the total number of cards given out is 39 from the twenty games played. For the first time this season, we’re under two cards per game. Only five players copped a yellow across the round.

It’s an encouraging sign that the players are now getting used to the pace and flow of games in 2016, and that with better defences and better fitness levels within the teams meaning they don’t have to rely on getting away with what they can at the breakdown.