NRC: 2016: Rays' and Spirit's run to the finals

by Brett McKay

Sunday’s second Buildcorp National Rugby Championship pits the Sydney Rays and Perth Spirit against each other at Pittwater Rugby Park on Sydney’s northern beaches. Here’s a look at how both sides made their way through to the top four.

Sydney Rays kicked off their campaign in style, jumping out to a 38-14 lead against the Western Sydney Rams, but showing off a playing style that involved width, high-tempo passing, and taking advantage of gaps wherever on the field they might pop up. Two second half yellow cards and a subsequent week off for Jack Dempsey was the only thing to take the gloss off an impressive 50-30 win at North Sydney Oval.

Back at NSO a week later for the competition’s only Friday night game, and the Rays’ plans to cash in on the post-work drinks crowd was cruelled by torrential rain throughout the game against Perth. Three second half tries were enough to secure the 28-8 win for the Rays, after they dominated possession and came to grips with the horrendous conditions the best.

The Rays beat Perth in wet conditions at North Sydney Oval. Photo: Getty ImagesRound 3 saw the Rays head to the Gold Coast to face Queensland Country, and controlled proceedings throughout the game to notch the 30-22 win. A double to winger Richard Woolf showed that the Rays would play wide whenever the chance presented, but a couple of solid forwards tries also reminded everyone that they’re not just all about the flashy stuff.

The Rays’ first game of the year at Pittwater saw them hosting the also-undefeated NSW Country Eagles in a highly anticipated Round 4 clash. A tight first half delivered everything the build-up demanded, but after the break, the Eagles began to dominate the contest. A Penalty try was the Rays’ only points after the break, with the Eagles remaining undefeated after the 36-16 win.

How the Rays responded to their first loss was always going to be interesting as they headed back to Queensland, to take on Brisbane City at Ballymore. And though it wasn’t their most convincing win, the Rays just always managed to hit back when City scored, allowing them to remain that step ahead and going on to win 38-32.

Irae Simone scored four tries in the regular season. Photo: Getty ImagesCome Round 6, it the Rays’ turn to have a crack at the Canberra Vikings’ midfield defence, and this was the ‘statement game’ in which it became apparent the Rays were a genuine contender. They led 38-0 after 29 minutes, 46-8 at halftime, and were never threatened as they won 58-14 at Pittwater. Damien Fitzpatrick, Harry Jones, and Josh Turner all grabbed doubles, and a home final was becoming very likely.

The Rays’ final match before the finals saw them playing the Rising in Melbourne, and in winds measuring upwards of 80km/h at Frankston Park which made passing the ball impossible at times. The Rays started well with the wind behind them, and led 38-16 at the break. Running into the gale after the break, the Rays had to forget about playing for territory, instead just digging in and defending their lead, which they did superbly, holding on for a 38-32 win.

It wasn’t enough for them to pinch the Minor Premiership away from NSW Country, but they did lock in a home semi in the side’s first ever NRC Finals Series appearance.

The Rays fell one point short of the minor premiership. Photo: Getty ImagesPerth Spirit started their 2016 campaign with something of an upset, beating a highly-fancied Rising side at the University of WA, establishing an impressive defensive display that would become something of a trademark as the season went on. Only five tries were scored in total in the 20-16 win, but three of them were Perth’s – and two of them Luke Morahan’s – and that was enough to take the points.

Round 2 saw them in the aforementioned torrential rain at North Sydney Oval against the Rays, and though the Spirit were well in the game at halftime, the conditions got the better of them after the break, going down 28-8. Coach Dwayne Nestor told a few weeks later that that second half display in the rain combined with how they kicked on in the weeks that followed told him that his team was definitely one who preferred a dry track, for the kind of fast-attacking game they wanted to play.

Ryan Louwrens tries to get a kick away when the Spirit and Rays met in Round Two. Photo: Getty ImagesPerth were back in Sydney the following week to take on Western Sydney at Concord, and four first half tries gave us the first glimpse of a team who relished the opportunity to play with the ball. But after leading 30-16 at halftime, the Spirit had to again rely on their defence to get through a game, and though the Rams breached their line once, they had tackled their way to a 30-24 win.

Back at UWA Sports Park in Round 4, the Spirit served notice on the competition with an outstanding first half defence that kept Queensland Country scoreless despite nearly 90% of possession by the 30th minute. But then four quick tries before the break, and another two after halftime saw them leading 46-0 themselves, before the last 25 minutes were played with a more even share of the ball. Morahan bagged three tries in the 66-36 win.

Round 5 saw Perth’s scheduled trip to central-western NSW forced back to Sydney with only a few days’ notice, with Orange’s Endeavour Oval ruled unfit for play after more than a week of rain. A hastily-arranged double-header at Concord Oval was set up in conjunction with the Western Sydney Rams, with NSW Country and Perth playing before the Rams and Queensland Country.

The Spirit started slowly but fought back to trail by eight at the break, but couldn’t maintain the tight tussle with the Eagles, going down 48-24.

Back on home turf for the final time in 2016, the Spirit and Brisbane went toe-to-toe for the first forty minutes in Round 6, before six second half tries ended Brisbane City’s season and catapulted Perth right back into contention. Hard-working backrower Richard Hardwick, and Wallabies no.8 Ben McCalman both bagged doubles in the big win.

Ben McCalman put in a number of strong performances for the Spirit but won't feature in the semi-final. Photo: Getty ImagesA win by any margin was all Perth needed over Canberra in the final round to confirm another NRC Finals Series appearance, and though the final 42-36 scoreline suggests this match was close, in reality the Spirit were always well in control of proceedings.

The win saw Perth finish in third spot five points behind the Rays in second, but six points clear of Melbourne Rising in fourth on the NRC table.