NRC round six Saturday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

It rained tries in both games today, as the Fijian Drua and Greater Sydney Rams counter-attacked each other for fun in Sydney, while the battle of the country cousins saw Queensland Country edge out NSW Country in a surprise thriller on the Gold Coast.

So, what are we talking about after today's results?

1. Pasifika Round draws them in

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone after last season’s Pacific Islands celebration day double-header at Concord Oval drew one of – if not the biggest – NRC crowd in Sydney in the competition’s history, but yet again the NRC Pasifika Round has pulled in big numbers. 

The Greater Sydney Rams-Fijian Drua encounter was the culmination in a big day of rugby at TG Millner, where it followed the Australian Schoolboy Barbarians side edging out a Fiji Under-18s side 21-20, and New Zealand Schools beat the Australian Schoolboys 34-11.

A crowd estimate in the 3500-4000 range should ensure the event remains on the NRC schedule next year, and it just reinforces a point I made a few weeks ago – that we obviously need to think about making more of these ‘event’ type activities, especially in Sydney.

And it was great to see the T.G Millner surface looking as good as it did, with the recent resurfacing ensuring the big day of rugby wasn’t played in the same dustbowl conditions endured during the Rams’ initial home games this season.

It can only help give people in Sydney’s west more reason to turn up next week, when the Rams host Queensland Country.

2. A worthy Shield challenge

In New Zealand, they talk about the ‘Cup fever’ that engulfs Mitre 10 Cup matches doubling as Ranfurly Shield challenges, which invariably turn what should be a garden-variety matchup into games that make no sense at all. Taranaki’s 34-point second half to overrun Canterbury 55-43 on Friday night being the most recent case in point.

Greater Sydney had held the Horan-Little Shield since Round 1, when they took it off NSW Country, and defended it the following week against the Sydney Rays.

But it was to be another four rounds before the Shield surfaced again, with the Rams putting it up on offer this weekend, and the Fijian Drua gladly accepting the challenge.

And accept it they did. Like Taranaki’s crazy second half in Christchurch on Friday night, the Fijians pulled out the magic in the second half against the Rams, blowing a 24-21 halftime lead out with a 33-point second half, and ensuring the Horan-Little Shield has yet another new home in its short history.

It might not have the same history as the Kiwis’ famed Log O’Wood, but challenges like the Drua’s today can only help build it.

It was a hugely important win, too, and the Drua look back on track after last week’s trouncing at the hands of the Vikings in Canberra. They now sit on top of the NRC table again, and with a bye next weekend to freshen up and two home games to come, they suddenly look a whole lot tougher to beat from here.

3. A double victory for the Fijians

Not only did the Drua take a comfortable win over the Rams on the field, they claimed a fairly sizable victory in the social media battle too.

There’s nothing to further to add here, except a hearty ‘well played’ to the Drua’s major partner, Fiji Airways. I’m pretty sure that’s what the cool kids refer to as a ‘burn’.

4. Return to the Game of Thorns?

At 31-0 with 25 minutes left to play on the Gold Coast, Queensland Country really should have gone on with the job and really put NSW Country away.

Their set piece and defensive pressure has been rightly applauded over the first five rounds of the NRC this year, and you felt at this point that those aspects of their game would close in on the Eagles, and choke them out of contest, as has happened to most sides to this point.

But they just didn’t, and the way they allowed NSW Country to build late momentum in the game and bring the margin back to just three points will be hugely concerning to Queensland Country and new Queensland Reds coach, Brad Thorn.

Duncan Paia’aua told a few weeks ago about the work ethic and trust in each other the coach’s brutal ‘Game of Thorns’ training ground challenge installed in them, and I can’t help but think the Queensland Country players might find themselves sitting for a refresher course this week.

5. Eagles will make it hard for themselves from here

THe Country Eagles are on the brink of missing finals. Photo:QRU Media/Brendan HertelThey’ve secured their first bonus point of the season in the three-point loss, but in losing a third game of five played, NSW Country have only ensured their run home to the playoffs will be difficult.

I’m still not sure five wins will be enough to guarantee a playoff berth this season, but regardless, the Eagles now have to win every one of their remaining games: Perth in Tamworth next Saturday, the Rising in Melbourne the following weekend, and Brisbane City in Orange in the final round.

It all hangs on the replay of the 2016 decider next weekend. If the Eagles can’t overcome Perth Spirit, then their already delicately-poised finals hopes will evaporate.

But it certainly adds another intriguing element to the contest now. If NSW Country could have their revenge on Perth from last season’s Final, and at Scully Park once again, then who’s to say they couldn’t set the wet sail for the finals?