NRC round one: Try-fests and Fijian drama dominate

by Brett McKay

It might have been a little while coming, with the Wallabies the only Australian team in action since the first week of the Super Rugby finals, but the opening weekend of the 2017 NRC didn’t disappoint.

Lower value equals more tries!

The overwhelming view of NRC supporters and rugby lovers in general was that tries shouldn’t be worth more in the NRC than in other competitions, and the confirmation of a move back to convention was well-received ahead of the 2017 NRC season commencing. 

Further, the message coming from players, coaches, and competition administrators was that the reduction in points value for tries wouldn’t alter the attacking focus of teams this season, despite the carrot of a possible eight-point try (after a two-point conversion) no longer being there.

I don’t mind admitting I was sceptical of this. I was happy to be proven wrong, but I just wondered if reverting to the traditional points values for scoring plays really could maintain the open play and fast pace of the NRC game.

But 47 tries in the first four games of the season show there is nothing to worry about. Quite clearly teams have maintained their attacking focus, and more importantly, it’s clear coaches are still preparing them to play open rugby with ball in hand.

How does it compare to last season? Well, with eight-point tries on offer, round one of the 2016 season saw only 32 tries scored; in fact, over the first few rounds last season, we wondered on these very pages if improved defences were starting to have an impact.

In the end, there were 301 tries scored for the 2016 season, at an average of just under ten tries per game across the 31 games.

47 tries probably won’t be the norm in 2017, but it’s nevertheless encouraging to see the change in points values won’t change the fabric of the NRC one bit.

Gently, gently when it comes to penalty goals

There weren't many penalty goals taken in the opening NRC round. Photo: Getty ImagesPerth Spirit skipper Michael Ruru put it really well last week, when he said, “no-one wants to be the team who just relies on kicking penalties,” in reply to my question around what teams might do with penalty goals now that they’re worth three points again.

The five penalty goals attempted and kicked successfully in Round 1 is more than in all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons combined, where there were just three and one penalty attempted in the respective seasons.

Penalties being worth three points again in 2017 almost certainly meant they would become more commonplace, and I think the cautious approach to them this weekend shows that teams still aren’t quite sure when is and isn’t the right time to take the three.

The Greater Sydney Rams-NSW Country Eagles game on Sunday might provide something of a blueprint going forward. Eagles skipper Paddy Ryan pointed to the posts twice in the first six minutes of the game, and Tayler Adams kicking both certainly got the Eagles going from there.

The Rams basically didn’t touch the ball until fifteen minutes into the game (by which stage Country already led 13-0), and so taking the two first half penalties they did allowed them to initially get into the game, and subsequently jump out to a lead.

Certainly, I suspect teams might opt for penalties early in games, as a way of getting the scoreboard moving. Once the tries start flowing, though, there really won’t be a lot of point in taking them.

I’m going to put a pin in this for now and come back to it in a few weeks’ time. I’ll certainly be interested to see if five penalties per weekend becomes the standard.

Fiji brings the flair and the opening weekend drama

If there were any doubts around the inclusion of the Fijian Drua into this season’s NRC, they’ve surely disappeared after a wonderful debut at Ballymore on Saturday.

The Drua running in four of the last five tries of the match proved that they will be a dangerous side once they get into the groove of weekly competition at this level, not to mention fullback Peceli Nacebe’s double straight from the highlights reel inside twenty minutes.

Sadly, they also brought the most dramatic moment of the weekend, with confirmation that Drua hooker Samu Suguturaga will face the NRC judiciary for allegedly biting the ear of his opposite number, Brisbane City skipper Andrew Ready, during a 29th minute scrum on Saturday.

The marks on Ready’s ear were still prominent after fulltime, and it certainly took a little gloss off what had otherwise been a wonderful afternoon of rugby in Brisbane.

Without at all wanting to pre-empt the judiciary hearing, Suguturaga could be facing a lengthy ban if found guilty. The ‘lower end’ entry point for biting sanctions under World Rugby Regulation 17 suggests a 12-week suspension, meaning Suguturaga’s NRC could be over just as it began.

The performance that put teams on notice?

Certainly, the Greater Sydney Rams grabbed the competition’s attention in the way they ground their way back into the game, wore NSW Country down, and ultimately, blew the out of the contest.

It’s clear from round one that the Rams are a much-improved side in 2017.

But for a single performance that will have had the rest of the NRC competition really taking note, I can’t look any further than Perth Spirit’s ominous 45-33 win over Melbourne Rising at McGillivray Oval in Perth.

The reigning champions were more dominant than the 31-21 halftime lead suggested; a 38-21 lead soon after the break was more indicative, before a 45-28 lead midway through the second half effectively sealed the win.

Long range tries against the run of play were what kept the scoreline somewhat respectable for the Rising, but they never really asked the same questions of the Spirit defence, as opposed to what they home side threw their way.

And the outstanding-looking home crowd was something else. The locals accepted the challenge to ‘Fill the Hill’, and opposition teams now know that heading west will not at all be a simple task this season.

What of the Wallabies?

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was one of the many sandwiched onto the McGillivray Oval hill on Sunday, and he’d have been impressed with the showing of several of the dozen players he released from the squad last week to get some game time in with their NRC clubs.

Rising winger Marika Koroibete and Spirit prop Tetera Faulkner both grabbed doubles, Spirit centres Billy Meakes and Curtis Rona impressed, while young hooker Jordan Uelese also got some vital minutes.

Joe Powell, Izack Rodda, and Izaia Perese all turned out solid performances in Canberra, while Samu Kerevi and Adam Korczyk also impressed for Brisbane City.

If there’s concerns, it would be around lock Kane Douglas and backrower Lopeti Timani. Douglas was overshadowed by Brisbane City teammate Lukhan Tui, himself a Wallabies squad member in June, while Rising no.8 Timani was barely sighted and completely outplayed by his opposite, rampaging Spirit no.8 Isi Naisarani.

I suspect a big week looms for Douglas and Timani as they head into Wallabies camp ahead of the showdown with South Africa on Saturday night.