Two impressive, but starkly contrasting wins closed out Round 4 of the National Rugby Championship, with Queensland Country thumping the Sydney Rays 50-24 in Sydney, and the Melbourne Rising beating Greater Sydney 41-31.
1. Is any back in better NRC form than Duncan Paia’aua currently?
I can’t readily think of anyone if there is.
Since being handed the Queensland Country captaincy by Brad Thorn this season, Paia’aua has become one of – if not ‘the’ – dominant players in the competition, and has given midfield defenders headaches for the first month of this year’s NRC.
His ability to hit a hole has been the biggest standout about his game, and as he showed against the Rays, he’s certainly capable of cutting a side to shreds. His defence has always been pretty solid, as his ability to get an offload away, or indeed put a teammate through a hole himself.
Interestingly, Paia’aua doesn’t feature in any of the major attacking stats’ ‘top five’ lists, which you could well argue answers my opening question. But he is the leading try-scorer in the competition currently, and that’s still a decent measure.
Regardless, you can be sure the opposition defensive coaches have their work cut out for them for the remaining rounds. Knowing what he’s capable of is one thing; stopping him something different altogether.
2. Rays clear intent being cut down by execution
At 17-19 down at halftime, the Sydney Rays were absolutely in the game against Queensland Country, and had they – and not their opposition – scored first after the break, then we could certainly be talking about a different result entirely.
To that point, the Rays were asking just as many questions of the Country defence as was being asked of their own, and they were creating just as many threats and opportunities, too.
But, as has been the case this season, it’s just that bit of attacking polish that’s missing from their game. They can make the line break, but not finish it. They can get the offload away, but not hold onto it.
Their set piece is a little bit of an issue, but I don’t think that’s what is costing them games.
There’s no doubt the Rays have plenty of strike power out wide, and even plenty of creativity to make that strike power dangerous. They’re capable of playing the game they want to, but their execution is what is preventing them from really putting some teams away.
3. Rising youngsters get their reward
If there’s been a common tale to the young Melbourne Rising’s losses this NRC campaign, it’s that in all three losses before today’s confidence-building win, they couldn’t recover from conceding multiple tries in short periods of time.
Against Perth in Round 1, it was two first half blocks of two tries; against Fiji the following week, it was three converted tries in six minutes. And against the Rays last week, it was three tries in eight minutes early in the first half, followed by two more in four minutes right before halftime.
In all three cases, they did strike back, but they could never mount the tries like the opposition did, and thus conceding the blocks of tries ultimately brought them undone.
Today, against the Rams, the Rising side knew when they scored, they had to score again. They learned their lesson.
When Sione Tuipulotu scored in the 13th minute, they went over again five minutes later. When Semisi Tupou scored his first try in the 33rd minute, Kitione Ratu followed suit two minutes later. Just by keeping the foot down, the Rising found themselves in a match-winning position by halftime.
And the Rams were always going to come back after the break, but even when they did, the Rising side had the smarts to kick a penalty goal. When the Rams tried to come back again, the Rising finished them off with two more late tries.
This might just be the performance in which a young talented side graduated into, simply, a talented side. They know how to score points, but now what they need to do next after scoring points. It’s a big step forward.
4. A kick is only as good as the chase
So the old adage goes. And both Melbourne Rising wingers proved that today, chasing through kicks and being presented with a dose of sheer good luck as the reward. Neither kick was particularly outstanding, and neither chase had any clue of what was about to present. But if neither Kitione Ratu or Semisi Tupou chased like they did, they wouldn’t have scored tries today.
Ratu’s was first, chasing a Harrison Goddard box kick into the Rams’ half, only to have the ball bounce at right angles, straight into his arms virtually, and allowing him to run away and score. Rams fullback Cam Bailey had the kick covered, but could only watch as Ratu ran away with ball-in-hand.
Tupou’s came late in the game, but was another hacked kick out of the Rising half, and which most players evidently thought was heading into touch. But when Tupou won the race to the bounce, he was literally the only player there when the ball sat up and didn’t go into touch, allowing Tupou a similarly untouched run to the line.
You’ll never make luck like that if you don’t chase; but you just might if you do.
5. Rams running out of scrumhalves?
Having already lost Josh Holmes and Matt Gonzalez to injury in the first three rounds, the Rams’ evident scrumhalf curse struck again in Melbourne, with Dion Spice going off before halftime with a suspected torn pectoral muscle.
Spice and Waldo Wessels only joined the Rams squad ten days ago, and with Spice now likely to miss the rest of the season, the Rams are on the hunt over the upcoming bye weekend for halfback number five.
If you’re heading to TG Millner to watch the Rams play the Fijian Drua, and you have some experience feeding scrums, just take the boots along in case.