NRC round six was the one in which a few finals runs were firmly locked down while a few others disappeared, though the top four placings are still a long way from being decided.
The cream always rises to the top
You can almost set your watch by it, that somewhere along the line a couple of genuine competition contenders lay down the performances that just confirm everyone’s thinking that they’re finals bound.
The Fijian Drua copped a hammering in Canberra in Round 5, and it was enough to give cause for concern about their ability to travel in this competition, which of course could become a problem if they couldn’t secure a top two berth.
But it turns out they just don’t like cold weather, with another clinical performance to put the Greater Sydney Rams away 57-31 in Sydney, pinching the Horan-Little Shield in the process.
Their win means the Drua retain a share of top spot on the table, alongside the team that handed out last week’s lesson, the Canberra Vikings.
The Vikings enjoyed another top-notch win, knocking over Melbourne Rising 36-12, and adding a strong defence to their already strong set piece.
Both the Drua and Vikings have the bye to come in the remaining rounds, but it’s hard to see them missing from the finals from here, not the way they’re playing at the moment.
It was notable that their wins, along with Brisbane City’s all came away from home.
After the home team had dominated the first five rounds, it was always going to take some quality teams to shake the away team curse.
Queensland Country well-placed
While Canberra and Fiji sit on top of the NRC table after round six, it’s actually the team in third place who might be in the best position to claim the hosting rights through the finals.
Queensland Country sit one point behind the top two, but importantly, still have a game in hand while the teams above both have their bye to come.
While the Vikings and Drua can finish with a maximum of 30 competition points, Country can still finish on 34 points.
Their run home is far from easy, though, comprising Greater Sydney Rams in Sydney this weekend, the Drua in Fiji in round eight, and hosting Perth Spirit in Ipswich in the final round.
Two wins will confirm a finals berth, but three wins would probably secure the title favouritism, too.
Country have the best defence in the NRC currently, and their up-and-down 34-31 escape against the NSW Country Eagles could be the game we look back upon as the point they refocused their season.
Perth fare well out of the week off
All teams have to have a bye in a nine-team competition, of course, but just as Perth Spirit drew back level with Canberra, Fiji, and Queensland Country last week, they lost the ability to keep up with them.
But as it happens, the Spirit have done alright out of the weekend and have held onto their place in the top four.
Queensland Country weren’t able to win with a bonus point and so are still within reach, and though Brisbane City have jumped up to just two points adrift in fifth place, the Spirit’s points differential is far better.
Perth’s run home consists of NSW Country in Tamworth this weekend, the Sydney Rays at home, and the aforementioned date with Queensland Country in the final round.
Like Canberra and Fiji, Perth can also finish on 30 competition points, and the week off might have just been perfect to build some serious momentum into the playoffs from here.
A successful defence is definitely on the cards.
City are back, baby
Speaking of momentum, Brisbane City are in a similar position, with their 41-29 win over the Rays in Sydney putting them within spitting distance of the top four.
Karmichael Hunt'cs return from injury ould be very timely as they launch a last-ditch tilt at the finals series, even if it’s highly likely he’ll win a recall for the Wallabies' Spring Tour.
The return to form of Andrew Ready and Nick Frisby will be just as important of the City, as they will be the guys to push the team through the run home which included the Rising in Melbourne, the Rams at home, and NSW Country in Orange in the final round.
They’re all very winnable games for City, and with 28 competition points possible, they’re very well-placed should a team ahead of them on the ladder slip up.
They have their destiny in their own hands, at least, and a very deserving of the ‘smokey’ tag at this stage.
Is that the NSW teams done?
It’s not definite yet, but it’s pretty close to it. Losses for the Rams and Eagles certainly dented their playoff chances fairly heavily, even if doesn’t put the line through them quite yet.
Both Greater Sydney and NSW Country can only finish with five wins and 24 competition points from here, and on current form of both themselves and the teams above them, it seems doubtful that would be enough to win through to the top four.
The Rams and Eagles don’t have impossible runs home, however, so you just never know.
We can put the line through the Sydney Rays for 2017, however, with a fourth loss for the season and a shocking injury toll meaning they can only finish with 20 points, and that definitely won’t be enough.
Add in the fact the Rays play three of the current top four, and it all adds up to the unclimbable mountain for the 2016 semi-finalists.