NRC: Second semi-final: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

Perth Spirit have pulled off their second semi-final upset in as many attempts, shocking the Sydney Rays in a manner not at all dissimilar to how they upset the Melbourne Rising in 2014.

Perth beat the Rays 42-24 at Pittwater Rugby Park on Sydney’s northern beaches, and will now face off with NSW Country in next weekend’s Buildcorp NRC Final in Tamworth.

1. Blue sky + healthy crowd = great rugby

There just aren’t too many better things to do on a sunny Sunday afternoon, are there?

A really good crowd at Pittwater Park – ‘Rat Park’ as the locals prefer – and a beautiful clear, bright blue sky laid the foundations, and the dry, fast surface and two really well-coached sides took over from there.

There were plenty of rugby fans at Pittwater Park. Photo: Getty ImagesThis is how rugby should be played, and Semi-Final weekend has served it up on a platter both days.

Fingers crossed for more of the same next weekend in Tamworth.

2. Ta’avao knee concern

It was just about the worst possible start for the Rays, losing Waratahs prop Angus Ta’avao with what looked to be a worrying blow to his right knee in just the second minute of the game.

Ta’avao was screaming in pain before he’d even hit the ground, and writhed in agony immediately. He had to carried from the ground on a stretcher and played no further part in the game.

And it’s not just the Rays, there’s no doubt Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson will be sweating on the results of the inevitable scans. Injuries are never well timed, but injuries at this time of year can be a major disruption for the following season.

There were plenty of positives in the Sydney Rays 2016 season. Photo: Getty Images

3. Perth’s breakdown reward

The NRC has always been a brand of rugby in which the breakdown is a huge factor, arguably even more so that rugby played under the conventional scoring systems.

And with so much attacking firepower out wide for the Rays, Perth knew that the ability with which they can slow down the opposition ball, while winning quickly for themselves was going to key in the second semi, especially with the likes of Michael Smith, Chris Alcock, and Jack Dempsey in the Rays backrow.\

But the Spirit shone in this area, and their largely unheralded backrow of Ross Haylett-Petty, Richard Hardwick, and Brynard Stander consistently dominated the contest and delivered the type of ball their side needs, and the type that the opposition didn’t.

Pek Cowan tries to get across the gain line for the Spirit. Photo: Getty ImagesIf Perth can replicate that next weekend in Tamworth, they’ll give themselves a huge chance.

4. Rays centres shut down

They’ve been arguably one of the best centre pairings in the NRC in 2016, but today, and try and they might, the fancied Sydney Rays centres Irae Simone and Con Foley just couldn’t get into the game and get the little wins they’ve been so used to enjoying.

Ben Tapuai and Billy Meakes will be the Western Force centres next season, and the benefit the Force get by allowing these two guys a ten-week live audition to build combinations could be huge next season.

In truth, it wasn’t really a classic centres’ match, but all the little moments Tapuai and Meakes won, and Perth often found points as a result. Simone and Foley, by contrast, probably had their quietest day of the competition.

Billy Meakes and Ben Tapuai were outstanding for Perth. Photo: Getty Images

5. Eagles’ set piece nerves?

NSW Country Eagles coach Darren Coleman was an interested spectator at Pittwater today, and he’ll have walked away knowing that he’s got a bit of remedial work ahead of him this week to ensure his spluttering set piece doesn’t play in to Perth’s hands next Saturday.

With Tom Robertson and Tolu Latu on deck in Saturday’s first semi, the Eagles scrum looked assured. But with both players likely to be part of the Wallabies final Bledisloe squad this week and next weekend, the Eagles’ scrum could be vulnerable to a Perth pack who dominated from the outset today in the second semi.

And the Eagles’ lineout has had issues for a few weeks now, too. The Spirit stole lineout ball off the Rays several times today, and will no doubt see that as an opportunity next week.

And with Perth unlikely to be affected by Wallabies selections – certainly not in the forwards – they’ll take plenty of confidence into next Saturday night’s Final.