NRC: 2016 The welcome curve ball

by Brett McKay

Because a predictable run home to the semis would be boring, right? The penultimate round of the Buildcorp NRC has indeed thrown up the late-competition curveball, in the form of Western Sydney’s huge upset win over Melbourne. It’s blown the semi-final race wide open as a result.

A quick recap of Round 6:

Queensland Country 40 defeated NSW Country Eagles 38 in Toowoomba.

Sydney Rays 58 defeated University of Canberra Vikings 14 in Sydney.

Western Sydney Rams 68 defeated Melbourne Rising 30 in Melbourne.

Perth Spirit 60 defeated Brisbane City 22 in Perth.

Top two confirmed

I’m not going to pull out the abacus and detail all the different scenarios facing the teams in the top four race, but one thing became clear after Round 6 was completed. 

The NSW Country Eagles and Sydney Rays cannot finish lower than second.

With the two best teams of 2016 now respectively eight and seven points clear of Perth Spirit in third, they can’t be caught and will host semi-finals on the weekend of October 15 and 16. 

Both clubs will now commence their scramble for venues in earnest. There will be a sentimental pull for the Eagles to head back out to Orange, after their Round 5 match scheduled for Endeavour Oval had to be relocated because the recent deluge in central west NSW, but I understand that Mudgee’s Glen Willow Stadium complex will also come into consideration.

The Rays would love to play their semi at North Sydney Oval, but it’s now out of action and due to host its’ first state one-day cricket match on Tuesday week. Their other home ground this season has been Pittwater Park on Sydney’s northern beaches, and that would seem the obvious alternate.

The key games in Round 7

Three of the four games next weekend can have an impact on the semi-finals, but some more than others. Only the Ballymore Derby between Brisbane City and Queensland Country on Sunday will have no effect whatsoever. 

1pm Saturday – Western Sydney Rams v NSW Country Eagles: A Rams’ win in this game will keep them in mathematical reach of a finals berth. The Eagles will also be playing for top spot overall. 

3pm Saturday – UC Vikings v Perth Spirit: Will determine whether Canberra plays in the finals at all, or will confirm a top four finish for Perth.

Perth Spirit can cement themselves a semi-final spot and end the Vikings season with a win next weekend. Photo: Getty Images1pm Sunday – Melbourne Rising v Sydney Rays: A win will confirm a top four place for the Rising, while depending on what the Eagles did the day before, the Rays could be playing for top spot and full hosting rights through the finals. 

I’m not sure the final round could’ve been set up any better. Get out to a game if you can.

Who’s got the momentum?

Despite the loss to Queensland Country, the Eagles are still playing good rugby and will be boosted by the return of the regulars, after giving some game time to bench and fringe players this weekend. They very nearly won that game in Toowoomba, in fact, so their confidence will remain high going into the final round.

The Rays, similarly, fear no-one in this competition, and will be backing themselves to heap more misery on Melbourne next Sunday, and beyond that, whoever they face in the semi-final.

Perth are timing their run really well. Two wins from their last three, and they certainly weren’t outclassed in the loss to NSW Country. They’ve got the ability to start fast and put Canberra on the ropes next Saturday, and the defence to hold out any intermittent threats. They should hold third spot. 

Melbourne are vulnerable, and are certainly capable of beating the Rays on Sunday, but they too can’t afford a slow start. Will need a huge improvement from what they showed against the Rams.

Canberra look even more vulnerable, and though they’re similarly capable of beating Perth, they’re now coming off successive 36- and 44-point thumpings. It’s had to have dented their confidence, and I can’t see them getting through now.

That leaves the Rams, and they have the least pressure of any teams still in the hunt. They need to beat NSW Country, obviously, but they can just go out and play with freedom, because the expectations and the maths are against them getting through. They’ll either get through, or they won’t; that’s their attitude on Saturday.

First shot at silverware

Before we worry about the small detail of semi-finals, there’s the matter of where the Horan-Little Shield will spend the off-season, and which NRC team will be crowned the holders for 2016. 

After their shock - but emphatic - challenge victory over Melbourne, the Rams will host the final Shield defence of the season at Concord Oval against NSW Country on Saturday, with the winner to join Melbourne (2014) and Brisbane City (2015) as holders. 

The Rams absolutely deserve their shot at the 2016 prize for the way they so clinically put the Rising away, but the decider gives the Eagles an extra boost for the Finals now, too.

The Eagles beat Brisbane City in Round 1, but with City coming down to Sydney for the game, they didn’t have to put the Shield up for challenge. NSW Country can effectively treat the challenge against the Rams as a quarter-final now, and warm up for the finals with something on the line.

Western Sydney Rams holding the Horan-Little Shield after beating the Melbourne Rising at Harlequins Oval. Photo: Melbourne Rebels Media Unit

The Queensland soul-searching can commence

More than a few NRC pundits had high hopes for the two Queensland sides, with Brisbane City widely tipped as favourites at the competition launch, and Queensland Country looming at top four smokeys with some key acquisitions ahead of the season.

Instead, they’ll finish the season in 7th and 8th, and where the Ballymore derby on Sunday might originally have shaped as a warm-up for the playoffs, it will instead decide the wooden spoon for 2016.

Country will go into the match with just five wins across three NRC seasons, while Brisbane City’s fall from grace has been sharp: their five losses in 2016 more than doubles the total number of losses from their Championship seasons of 2014 and 2015.