Stat sheet hides Drua's dominance

by Brett McKay

Round four of the NRC was the one in which the Fijian Drua laid down the challenge to the rest of the competition - catch us if you can.

Here's a wrap of all the weekend's action, headlined by the Drua.

Stats bely Drua dominance of Spirit

If you didn’t see the game, and still couldn’t see the final score, a look over the stats sheet for the Fiji-Perth match would show you anything but a 41-5, six-tries-to-one thumping by the Drua over the 2016 NRC champions.

The set piece battle was quite tight, with Perth taking a slight lineout advantage, Fiji a similar edge in the scrums.

The breakdown and attack numbers show Perth well on top, winning two-and-a-half times as many rucks, carrying 70% more than Fiji, and with 50% more defenders beaten.

Flowing on from this, Fiji made twice as many tackles as Perth did, missed 50% more, and they conceded 10 penalties to three.

Again, if you didn’t see the game, and still couldn’t see the final score, you’d have Perth winning reasonably well from these numbers.

Perth dominated possession, created more opportunities, made and missed way fewer tackles. There’s no way they lose on those stats.

But here’s where the story emerges - Perth conceded 26 turnovers to Fiji’s 14, and the Drua made nearly as many metres from just over half as many carries.

They attacked from turnover, and made ground for fun.

Fiji also kicked nearly twice as much as did Perth, suggesting that they ensured the game wasn’t played in their half.

Of course, from a stats sheet that indicates what should have been a close game, one stat stands above all others.

Six tries to one.

And that’s the lesson for the rest of the NRC.

Keeping the ball away from the Drua, or even playing down in their half mostly isn’t going to be enough.

Even when they don’t have a lot of ball, the Fijians can still skin you.

Crowd records tumble

The sight of a packed National Stadium in Suva was absolutely outstanding, with people crammed onto the embankments and generating a healthy ‘crowd hum’ throughout the game, which became a proper din whenever the Drua did something exciting, which was often.

Theoretically, the biggest ever NRC crowd was the 13,000 people who saw the end of the an NRC game played as a curtain-raiser at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, before the final Bledisloe Cup Test of 2014.

But officially, it was the 7889 people who witnessed the inaugural NRC final at Ballymore Oval that same year.

But after playing in front of a healthy crowd estimated above 4000 in Sigatoka last week, the Drua have likely set a new NRC record, with the Fox Sports commentary team reporting that it might have cracked five figures.

Going off what we could see on the TV, it’s pretty hard to argue, and it’s just yet more confirmation that the inclusion of the Drua is – just four rounds into the competition – an overwhelming success.

Home ground advantage healthy already

The Drua have proved this over the last fortnight, where both NSW Country and now Perth have found themselves in sweltering conditions, which is bad enough, having to play rugby at break-neck speed, which must be excruciating.

But it’s more than just playing the Drua in Fiji.

After the first 16 games of the NRC this season, Queensland Country’s win at Pittwater Rugby Park in Sydney on Sunday was just the third time in 2017 that the away team has won.

After four rounds, the averages have the home side winning 38-29, scoring 5.6 tries to 4.4.

11 of the 13 home winners were leading at halftime.

Last year, the split was 17 home wins to 14 away, but the average score was just 36-35.

Two of the three finals games were won by the away side, including Perth’s triumph in the final in Tamworth over NSW Country.

The peloton grows

The Fijian Drua now lead the NRC table, five points clear on top courtesy of their 3-1 start to the season - all three wins also coming with bonus points

They’re clearly the team to beat, even if they come back to the pack a little with two games now away from home.

What’s interesting, and particularly after highlighting how tight the table was looking last week, is what’s happening to the chasing pack immediately behind them on the ladder.

Queensland Country jumped to second with their big win over the Sydney Rays, but they are just two points ahead of arch rivals Brisbane City in sixth place.

Perth, Canberra, and Greater Sydney separate them, with all five teams on two wins.

It’s a similar story for the bottom three teams, with the Rays, NSW Country, and Melbourne separated by just one point.

I remember at a similar point last year starting to mention the competition being the closest yet, and it’s looking like the 2017 NRC will be closer again.

Danger stations

I’m going to hold off until next week before I map out the run home for the teams entering must-win territory, but already it appears as though there are a few teams sitting uncomfortably.

The bottom three - the Rays, Eagles, and Rising – all need to win next weekend, but that’s going to be difficult with NSW Country hosting the Rays in Goulburn on the holiday Monday.

The Rams have the Round 5 bye, which doesn’t help their cause after two losses, but Canberra and Brisbane City are the other two who I think are a bit vulnerable.

Canberra host Fiji on Friday night and Brisbane City head to Perth on Sunday - both face tough tasks.

If both the Vikings and City win, then they’ll rest easy and I’ll have reason to ease the suspicions.

If they both lose, I think their 2017 campaigns’ days will be numbered.