NRC round three: Competition closing in

by Brett McKay

It rained tries at times during round three of the NRC but the real impact was felt on the competition table.

No-one is undefeated anymore, and the table experienced plenty of movement.

A close comp is a good comp

The big effect of Canberra and Greater Sydney both losing on Sunday is a rather dramatic shake-up of the NRC table.

After last weekend, and even though only two rounds had been played, there were distinctive gaps both at the bottom and top of the table.

The Vikings’ and Rams’ unbeaten runs coming to an end on the same day has meant the table has really tightened up.

The top four – Perth, Fiji, Canberra and Greater Sydney – are now separated by but just one point, and all share the same 2-1 record after three games.

The Rams dropped from first to fourth on account of their big loss in Perth, while the Spirit did the opposite; jumping from fifth to first.

Interestingly, there’s now also just one win separating Canberra in third with the Sydney Rays in seventh.

In fact, there’s only a bonus point win separating the first seven teams.

Results over the weekend have shown that all teams are beatable, but also that any team can beat anyone on the day.

The NRC being so short means that teams have always needed to start well; the relatively closeness after just three rounds just adds a complexity that will almost certainly play out over the remaining six rounds.

But who’s got the form?

Of course, the relative closeness of the teams also makes form really difficult to gauge.

Show me a person who had the previously undefeated Rams getting towelled up by more than 40 in Perth, and I’ll show you someone heavily reliant on hindsight, or perhaps less likely, who has mastered time travel.

But with Perth now heading to Fiji to face the Drua in round four, are they really likely to produce that performance again?

For one thing, there’s no certainty the squad they head to Suva with will be anywhere near as strong as what took to the field against the Rams.

And how is the Drua squad faring after three games at NRC level and pace?

Will Canberra learn from their mistakes when preparing for NSW Country in Armidale?

Are the Eagles in real trouble after two losses on the trot, or does desperation make them more dangerous?

How does the smooth attack of the Sydney Rays fare against the brutal defence of Queensland Country?

Can Country maintain the consistency after a weekend off?

Who make the improvements the fastest having both lost to Perth - Melbourne or the Rams?

Did the game day withdrawal of Jed Holloway really make that much of an impact on Greater Sydney?

They’re all good questions, and none of the answers offer any certainty.

Hence, the competition has a really interesting little period with more surprises ahead, I suspect, before the top teams start to emerge properly.

Big week ahead for the Eagles

Darren Coleman and the NSW Country Eagles have some big weeks ahead. Photo: Karen WatsonIt’s been far from the perfect start for NSW Country in this season’s NRC, in which last year’s finalists have looked a long way from their best.

A surprisingly slow start against the Rams in Round 2 was followed with a bye and an energy-sapping loss to the Drua in Fiji on Saturday.

This time last year, the Eagles were already top of the table, and wouldn’t lose a game until round six, where they lost to Perth, who of course beat them again the final in Tamworth.

Worryingly, the Eagles have found the try line just five times so far in their two games, well below the rest of the competition average of 5.5 tries per game.

The Eagles play their first home game of the season this weekend, where they’ll host Canberra in Armidale, and no doubt they will be motivated to play well in front of their country rugby supporters.

It’s not quite a ‘must-win’ for NSW Country, but they will probably treat it like that anyway, which means Darren Coleman’s men have a big week ahead of them to iron out some significant chinks in their game.

Wallaby watch: Tui’s new number?

Lukhan Tui ias back in the Wallabies squad. Photo: WalmsleyInteresting comments from Wallabies coach Michael Cheika in the wash-up of the side’s 45-20 win over Argentina in Canberra on Saturday night, in conceding that he is still wrestling with the balance of the Wallabies backrow.

Waratahs and NSW Country lock/flanker made his debut at blindside in June and has played seven Tests to date, but who’s position in the side continues to come under scrutiny. Cheika hinted at changes, but not before heaping praise on Hanigan.

“Ned's gone great - I want to make sure I say that. He's come from not playing - he wasn't even in the starting team for Super Rugby at the start of the year - and he's played [seven] Tests there in a row,” the coach said.

“He's come from nowhere and I've really got high respect for that guy because I think at first he didn't even know, he had no idea what he was doing in the team.”

The surprise came in the admission that Brisbane City lock Lukhan Tui has been running at blindside during his time in Wallabies camp this season, and is definitely in the frame to wear the Wallabies no.6.

“He's been practising a bit there, if he makes it on the tour (he could play there). He's going to play NRC I think on Sunday and then if he makes it on the tour, we might have a look at that,” Cheika said on Sunday.

Tui was outstanding on Sunday for City, once again outpointing Wallabies squad and Reds teammate Kane Douglas, and playing with a level of physicality that would be welcomed on the side of the Wallabies scrum, now that Scott Fardy is plying his trade in the royal blue of Irish club Leinster.

If the Tui experiment at no.6 happens, though, it won’t be next weekend; Brisbane City have the bye, and by which stage the Wallabies’ touring squad for South Africa and Argentina will surely be known.

Play where the people are

Perth fans turned out in numbers on Sunday afternoon. Photo: WalmsleyI couldn’t help but wonder last weekend in Perth, and again this weekend just gone in Canberra, why we haven’t played more NRC games as curtain-raisers to Test matches.

It’s only happened once in three-and-a-bit seasons to date: before a Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane in Round 9, 2014, in which an estimated 13,000 people watched the end of the NRC game between Brisbane City and Canberra beforehand.

This isn’t to suggest that NRC curtain-raisers would’ve boosted the crowds in Perth and Canberra, but rather a wonderance on why we don’t try and maximise the rugby content for the paying public. Certainly, the broadcasters would already have their equipment in place, so not having to set up at a different ground in a different city would actually make their life easier. And cheaper, too.

Clearly, people are coming out in good numbers to watch the NRC this season, but wouldn’t it be nice to get the NRC style of game in front of people who just like to watch the international game, too?

I hope it’s something we see again next season, especially in cities like Perth or Canberra.