NRC: Round three Saturday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

It was another exciting day of NRC rugby on Saturday.

What are we talking about after an historic day?

1. Playing in Fiji not just another game

NSW Country players walking from the field drenched in sweat at halftime, drinks breaks having already been taken, was all the confirmation the rest of the NRC needed that playing the Drua at home will be far from a holiday.

Temperatures north of 30°C, high humidity, and a home side wanting to play the game at break-neck pace made the going hard for the Eagles, and you can be sure Perth Spirit, the Sydney Rays, and Queensland Country will all have taken note.

Perth head to Fiji next week, while the Rays and Queensland Country will make the trip in late October, in Rounds 8 and 9.

Interestingly, none of those sides will be making the trip on the back of a bye, like NSW Country did this round. That might be a point for the feedback form once the NRC season is done.

2. Drua finals bound already?

NSW Country skipper Paddy Ryan game the Fijians a huge endorsement post-match in Sigatoka, telling Fox Sports that the Drua are going to be really tough to beat on their own turf.

The Drua’s three home games to come, and two of them being in the final two rounds when the temperature and humidity will only increase on what the Eagles encountered today, is certainly going to put them in the box seat.

But with them playing with so much confidence currently, they won’t just have to rely on home wins. Even when they look likely to concede a try, the Fijians have already developed a canny knack of finding tries out of nothing, and even from deep in their own half.

They’ll be hard to beat at home, no doubt. But if they could sneak another win or two in Australia, it’s already hard to see how they won’t finish in the top four.

And wouldn’t that be something in their debut NRC season!

3. No Nacebe, no worries

Fijian Drua fans, and NRC fans in general might have been wondering how the home side would cope when start playmaker Peceli Nacebe was carried off on a stretcher with an ankle injury in just the fourth minute.

Nacebe had scored 20 points himself in the Drua’s historic first NRC win in Melbourne last week, and was the central point in most attacking raids.

Kini Douglas would replace him at flyhalf, but the Fijians shared the attacking load around beautifully, ensuring that NSW Country’s defence had their hands full either way.

Flankers Filimoni Seru and Mosese Voka put in strong shifts each, inside centre Eroni Vasiteri took charge of a lot of the Drua’s attack, and the back three of Apete Daveta, Eroni Sau, and fullback Apisalome Waqatabu were almost always asking the awkward questions of the Eagles.

Hopefully Nacebe’s injury isn’t serious, because as good as Fiji were in winning, they’re still a better side with their no.10 steering them around. But if he’s out for a while, the Drua proved today that they’re certainly no one-man band.

4. Who blew out the lights?

It was always going to be a test of who could cope with the howling southerly at Pittwater Rugby Park in Sydney the best, and it perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise that the home side emerged on top.

The ball was being blown around all over the place, affecting kicks in general play, kicks for touch, and balls on the kicking tee all game. But the cloud cover was also being blown every which way, and whenever the sun went behind a cloud, the ground would plunge into darkness. 

After getting out to a big first half lead, the Sydney Rays knew the young Melbourne Rising would have some success with the wind at their backs in the second half.

And they did, initially, but as was the case throughout the game, their handling was an issue. This allowed the Rays to stay in front, and from there, their breakdown pressure created the opportunities they needed to close the game out.

The young Rising side will put it down to experience, but it also showed why home ground advantage is so important in the NRC.

5. Speed to burn

How good was it to see some serious pace on both sides at Pittwater?

The Rising pair of Semisi Tupou and Kitione Ratu caused all kinds of issues for the Rays, especially on transition, and Ratu especially looked at times as though he was having to slow down in support of teammates just to stay onside.

But it was the Rays wingers, Latu Latunipulu and Paula Balekana, who enjoyed the real day out. Latunipulu’s treble gives him five tries in two games this season, and it’s very obvious he has an excellent combination with classy Rays’ flyhalf Sam Lane.

Balekana was the leading try scorer in Sydney first grade this season, and the way he ghosted through a hole from set piece in the Rays half, in the lead-up to fullback Harry Burley’s try, proved that it won’t be long before he starts adding to his one 2017 NRC try to date.