NRC round six Sunday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

Two great games confirmed the playoffs contention of National Rugby Championship two teams, with the Canberra Vikings winning comfortably over the Melbourne Rising, and Brisbane City winning similarly well over the Sydney Rays.

Here are the talking points of the day…

1. Vikings march on!

Canberra’s thumping win over Fiji last week was probably the performance of this year’s NRC, but their inconsistent history meant that we really wouldn’t know its true worth until the followed it up this weekend.

Their 36-12 bonus point win over the Rising in Melbourne now sends them to the top of the table, leap-frogging the Drua on points differential after their win over Greater Sydney yesterday, and definitely establishes them as the form team of the competition currently.

Coach Tim Sampson has got his team singing again, after a mid-season stumble, and the Vikings have now scored 16 tries in their last 160 minutes while conceding just three.
That last point is the most significant. Canberra’s set piece has always been their strength, but a greatly improved defence will determine how far up the competition ladder they finish in 2017.

2. Melbourne youngsters continue their rugby education

With an average age hovering around just 20, and only marginally increasing when Lloyd Johannsson comes off the bench, it was always going to be a big step up in class for the Melbourne Rising this year.

Their first month of the season showed plenty of promise, and their Round 4 win over Greater Sydney was very well deserved even, but the two games since have brought them back to earth.
Facing the might of Queensland Country and Canberra in the last fortnight, both dotted with seasoned Super Rugby players, the young Rising players found the going pretty tough, and the result has been two fairly heavy losses.

But if the old adage, that they’ll ‘be better for the run’ carries through, this time next year is when the real benefit of Melbourne promoting the best of the Under-20s for this NRC campaign comes through. With a full season under their belt at this level, the Rising youngsters will be so much better equipped in their individual games in 2018.

3. Cards won’t help Wallabies recalls

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has long been a fan of the NRC, both for getting proper game time into his squad members not in the Wallabies 23 on matchday, and for those just outside the squad to make a claim for a recall, by playing well at a strong level.

Kane Douglas dropped out of the squad a few weeks ago, while Rory Arnold and Lopeti Timani didn’t travel to Argentina from South Africa. All of them were given the same message: find some form in the NRC and make it impossible for me to ignore you.

Douglas has been solid but unspectacular, and was again today for Brisbane City, and Timani was similarly quiet for Melbourne Rising. Both, however, spent time on the naughty chair; Douglas for a high tackle, and Timani for a cynical infringement that was so obvious there was no way he’d avoid the enforced rest.

Arnold was pretty solid for Canberra on his NRC return, combining well with Blake Enever in the Vikings’ second row that played a huge role in the Vikings’ set piece dominating.

Will it be enough for a recall ahead of Bledisloe 3? That’s hard to know, but staying on the field at least gave him a full 80 minutes of game time to push his cause.

4. City’s first half a reminder of their quality

They’ve been a slow-burner this season, Brisbane City, but that first half display at Pittwater was a timely reminder that they’re a pretty handy team at this level. They won’t necessarily be completely satisfied with the way they finished the game off – Sydney scored three second half tries – but they will be happy with what they’ve laid out to the rest of the competition.

Quade Cooper has enjoyed a quality NRC campaign and is steering the ship very well. There’s plenty of strike power on offer, with Samoan flyer Ed Fidow a constant threat, and Dylan Riley and Maalonga Konelio regularly a handful. Karmichael Hunt made a welcome return from injury today, and he adds another dimension and yet more class.
What might be more important for City is that a couple of guys who experience pretty disappointing Super Rugby campaigns are hitting some really good form.

And if experienced players like Andrew Ready and Nick Frisby keep delivering in key positions, then team in the top four will need to keep an eye on the two-time NRC Champions.

5. Strange day for goal kickers

It didn’t hurt their respective sides today, but it was interesting to note Brisbane City’s Quade Cooper and Canberra’s Wharenui Hawera both had rather off days from the kicking tee.

Going into Round 6, Cooper and Hawera were the leading regular kickers in the comp, knocking them over at 87% and 85%, respectively.

Today, Cooper kicked just three conversions from eight attempts, while Hawera similarly batted to kick three of six, the both of them putting a bit of a dent in their season percentage.

But, if there’s a silver lining, it’s better to get an off day out of way now than when it really matters.