NRC Round Four Saturday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

Two amazing games for very different reasons today, with NSW Country breaking their duck in dramatic scenes in Armidale, while Fiji really put the defending NRC Champions, Perth Spirit, to the sword in front of a huge crowd in Suva.

1. Armidale turns it on

Just as we saw in Noosa a few weeks ago, it was great to see the locals turning out in force as Armidale made its’ debut as an NRC host.

The northern tablelands city has a strong connection to the Eagles, through the University of New England’s sponsorship of the NSW Country side, not to mention the UNE side participating well in the new women’s AON Uni7s series.
A warm afternoon throughout the eastern seaboard definitely helped, but it was great to see the New England rugby community turning out in such great numbers. And I suspect it won’t be the last time the NRC is in town, either; the Bellevue Oval surface looked magnificent, and the facilities around the ground are on par with plenty of regular grounds.

2. Ugly at times, but beautiful in the end

The will be one of those wins when Darren Coleman insists you just focus on the win itself.

The Canberra Vikings were far from perfect, and even a long way off being completely ruthless, but for 78 minutes it really did look like they’d done enough to get away with the win.

NSW Country, by contrast, would’ve been beginning to rue more than a few opportunities that they’d let slip. Their handling wasn’t great at times despite enjoying possession and territory advantage, but they couldn’t win a lineout to save themselves.

In the end, it was only Tayler Adams’ extraordinary 45-metre touch finder that put them in position to launch one last attack. They had to be patient off the lineout drive, but found a way over when Alex Newsome and three or four teammates barged over out wide.

Cue Adams for the win.

With fourteen Vikings running straight for him, the Eagles flyhalf absolutely nailed the conversion, and was soon mobbed by jubilant teammates.

It was a memorably win for NSW Country, and one Armidale will remember, no doubt. And it might just be the little spark that reignites the Eagles’ campaign from here.

3. Vikings heading down a familiar path?

The weight of expectation has been something the Canberra Vikings have always had to deal with in the NRC; it’s something that sits with all the single team cities which benefit from having an entire Super Rugby squad, minus Wallabies, feeding into the NRC program.

After two wins and two losses in 2017, the Vikings’ NRC campaign feels like it’s on that all-too-familiar knife edge. They’ve been in similar situation in all three seasons to date, only going on with the job in 2015 when they were beaten in the Final by Brisbane City.
At two and two after four games, Canberra have three tricky games ahead: Fiji in Canberra, Melbourne away, and the Sydney Rays at home, before their bye in Round 8.

Already, it feels like they need to win at least two of those to stay in touch with the top four. They probably need to win all three, if I’m honest, to be seen as the threat they should be in this competition.

4. The perfect half of NRC rugby?

Between the 19th and the 26th minutes in Suva, Perth Spirit would’ve been wondering what on earth they’d done wrong, as they stood behind the goalposts on all three occasions.

To that point, they really hadn’t done anything wrong. They were holding possession, they were asking plenty of questions of the Fijian Drua, but try as they might, they could not break through.

But at 19-0 down, the scoreboard pressure increased from moderately annoying to completely bloody suffocating in just seven minutes, and the effect on the Spirit game was immediate. From there, the harder they tried, the more mistake they made.

Fiji’s defensive pressure also started turning the screws from here, relishing the contact and the physicality Perth were trying to dish up, and giving it back with interest.

When skipper John Stewart scored in the corner right on halftime, it had to have been one of the best halves of rugby ever played in the NRC.

It engulfed the Spirit attack, it pressured the ball-carrier directly, and in converting Perth mistakes into tries at the other end, it would become match-winning.

In just four weeks, the Fijian Drua have already proved themselves to be a hell of a team.

5. Not all lost for the Spirit

They’ll be better for the run, as they say in the classics.

The truth is, there probably isn’t much to take out of the loss for the Spirit, so there wouldn’t be a lot of point dwelling on it too much on return to Perth.

Obviously, they will need to cut out their mistakes, but they would need to do that anyway faced with the prospect of facing a Quade Cooper-led Brisbane City next weekend in Perth.

They had a few issues at set piece, for sure, but their quality players – Matt Philip and Isi Naisarani particularly – still put in decent performances in Fiji. Put a line under that game, get on with this week.

The return of the Super Rugby players who didn’t go to Fiji will make a big difference. Put the likes of Faulkner, Lance, Meakes, and Rona back in next week, and Perth will be as hard to beat as ever.