NRC's changing of the guard

by Brett McKay

We didn’t have quite as many tries in round two of the NRC but that didn’t seem to matter with all four games closely contested before a worthy winner emerged.

Plenty of tries, sure, but defence now being recognised "now" is perhaps a little harsh, because defence has always been just as important to NRC teams as attack.

Teams feel like they are getting a better handle on what kind of defensive patterns they need to play and the way they need to defend in order to minimise tackle busts and line breaks.

I very deliberately say minimise - a game played at the pace that the NRC is played at is always going to result in missed tackles.

But the teams that can maintain a higher tackle success rate will be the teams who can keep their opposition in check.

With nothing but gut-feel to base this on, my perception of round two is that we saw more tries from counter attack, or immediately from turnovers than we have traditionally.

If this is the case, that would underline the above point - it’s becoming harder to break front line defence - but catching teams in transition or when their defensive line is a long way from being set remains the greatest opportunity to score.

All up, there were 37 tries scored in round two - just over nine tries per game.

Last week it was nearly 12 tries per game and I suspect is that nine per game will a lot closer to the norm in 2017 than will twelve.

Cups, Shields, and Bells

It was great to see Queensland Country finally take out an Andy Purcell Cup for the first time in four NRC seasons, though to be fair, a couple of the previous contests have been fiercely fought and could easily have gone the other way.

Regardless, Brisbane City have always been a little more "crowy" around their shared Ballymore training base in the lead-up to Cup clashes and finally, Country have earned bragging rights.

Greater Sydney generously put the Horan-Little Shield up on offer straight away in round two against the Sydney Rays, despite being under no obligation to do so having only just relieved NSW Country of its possession last weekend.

You would think the Rams will again put it up next weekend in Perth, which, should the Rams return from the west with the Shield still under their arm, would be a defence worth celebrating.Taqele Naiyaravoro and the Rams are flying. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Rams also have the Benn Robinson Bell firmly in their grasp, too, with a second consecutive NSW derby win putting them in the box seat to ring the bell at season’s end.

The ‘Cat Bell’, as Fox Sports commentator Andrew Swain referred to it on Sunday, is decided among the three NSW teams, based on wins and points earned during those derby games.

With the Rams beating the Rays and Eagles in successive games, their grip on the bell looks complete for 2017.

A changing of the guard in Queensland?

The maiden Andy Purcell Cup win was one thing, but to me, the comprehensive 31-12 win over Brisbane City represented much more than that for Queensland Country.

After finishing the NRC in the bottom two in all three seasons to date, Country have always been looked down upon, seen as easy-beats, even if they were always capable of an upset on any given day.

The way they were able to take a game in the balance at halftime and push the momentum their way was a huge step forward for a team on the rise.

They built the pressure through their impressive defence, converted that into scoreboard pressure by scoring tries themselves and slowly choked City out of the game.Paddy James, Hamish Stewart and Izaia Perese are three exciting young talents in the Country backline. Photo: Getty ImagesAfter two games, an admittedly small sample size, both Country and City’s for-and-against, try tallies and competition points are very similar but when the pressure was at its’ highest on Saturday, Country went on with the job and City folded.

To me, that felt like a significant moment in the history of these two teams.

A nod to the club rugby graduates

Jack McGregor is turning heads for the Rising. Photo: WalmsleyThe NRC has always been about preparing the cream of the Under 20s crop and the best club rugby players around the country, allowing them to play at a level above what they’re used to, so that if they happen to one day win a Super Rugby opportunity, the step up in level won’t be so great.

The next breed is already starting to make their mark in 2017 and it’s great to see the guys being rewarded for strong club form looking at home at NRC level.

It means that we need to keep an eye on guys like Rays fullback Josh Turner from Manly in Sydney, Canberra Vikings prop Harry Lloyd from ACT club Wests, Rising and Australian Under 20s flyhalf Jack McGregor, GPS centre AJ Alatimu for Brisbane City, who moved east after a few seasons with Perth Spirit and Joondalup centre Sheldon Tarawa, who looked really impressive during his Spirit debut in Canberra.

When you see guys being rewarded for quality club form and then showing they can match it at the next level, well, you can almost feel the Australian rugby talent pool growing in front of your eyes.

Wallaby watch

There wasn’t quite the same dramatic release of a dozen or so players from the Wallabies squad back to their NRC teams in round two but there were still more than a few guys getting around whose NRC form is being closely monitored.

Izack Rodda had another strong game for Queensland Country and won’t have done his chances of joining the touring party for South Africa and Argentina any harm at all.

Tetera Faulkner wasn’t originally named to play for Perth Spirit but the tighthead prop was a late inclusion and put in another good shift which will undoubtedly please coach Michael Cheika, a known fan of Faulkner's work.

Chance Peni was also dangerous on the right wing for the Spirit.Sam Carter turned in a big shift for the Vikings on Sunday. Photo: Michael DanielOne player who caught my eye is Vikings lock and Brumbies skipper Sam Carter, who Cheika himself admitted was unlucky to have missed the cut when the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship squad when it was trimmed down to 33 players.

Carter was at his hard-working best for the Vikings on Sunday though, getting through a mountain of defence and leading with his experience when most needed.

It was his carry out of the Vikings’ half and offload to James Dargaville that created the match-winning opportunity for Canberra, with Dargaville sending centre partner Andrew Robinson under the posts to wrap up the win.

There’s no way Carter has played his last Test, on displays like that at Viking Park.

This was one of the key reasons for creating the NRC in the first place, to give fringe Wallabies the chance to play at a high enough level and keep pushing their case for recall.