NRC Saturday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

There were two extremes to kick off round seven, with Queensland Country holding out Greater Sydney in a high-scoring thriller, and NSW Country and Perth fighting out the NRC's lowest-scoring match ever.

Here are the day’s talking points.

1. Queensland Country’s set piece tunes up for the playoffs

With just two-and-a-bit rounds to play before the finals, it was timely that Queensland Country reminded the competition of just how well performed their set piece is performing.>

While Greater Sydney had to scrap and fight to make gains, Country were able to use their scrum and lineout to great effect, both as a way of pressuring the Rams into mistakes and penalties.

And once those came, the set piece became the platform for points, with Duncan Paia’aua’s first half try on the back of three successive scrum penalties a great example.

The Queenslanders’ defensive line speed was excellent too, with three of their nine tries coming from intercepts – two of them from Wallabies scrumhalf Nick Phipps, making his NRC debut playing for the Rams – and one of Filipo Daugunu’s four tries coming from a 90-metre counter attack that began with a Rams’ handling error.

They’ll finish the weekend either first or second, depending on Canberra’s result tomorrow against the Sydney Rays, but it’s fair to say Queensland Country’s preps have already started.

2. Daugunu’s slice of history

Queensland Country flyer Filipo Daugunu had a hell of a day at T.G Millner, with two tries from intercepts as well as another two by more conventional methods, a yellow card for a high tackle on Taqele Naiyaravoro – and just think about how you might get yourself into position to take Taqele high – and a narrowly missed conversion attempt after the final bell.

He became the fourth player to notch four tries in one NRC march, the others coming in the first two seasons.

4 – Tom English, for Melbourne Rising against Brisbane City; Round 3 2014, at Ballymore Oval in Brisbane;

4 – Nigel Ah Wong, for Canberra against the Sydney Stars; Round 5 2015, at Viking Park in Canberra;

4 – Junior Laloifi, for Brisbane City against the Sydney Stars; Round 7 2015, at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney, and

4 – Filipo Daugunu, for Queensland Country against Greater Sydney; Round 7 2016, at TG Millner Oval in Sydney.

3. The rematch delivers

After last season’s NSW Country-Perth NRC Final in Tamworth produced a low-scoring defensive battle that belied the previous eight weeks of the competition, this year’s announcement of a Scully Park rematch was always going to be highly anticipated.

The sides threw everything at each other for the first ever scoreless first half in the NRC’s four-season history, but you just had the feeling NSW Country were edging ahead at the break.

Two Eagles tries in four minutes after halftime broke the game open, and though the handling errors continued for both sides, the Eagles’ scrum dominance was keeping them on top, and ultimately delivered a well-deserved win.

It means Country (13 points) are just three points behind the Spirit (16) on the table, with Brisbane City also on 13 ahead of their game tomorrow against the Melbourne Rising.

Country simply need to keep winning to keep their slim NRC finals hopes alive, but if they happen to sneak into the semi-finals, you can be sure they’ll look back on this win as the turning point in their season.

4. NRC recognition for Wallabies bolters

Jermaine Ainsley scored an impressive try for the Spirit. AJF PhotographyJust after Queensland Country’s win, the news came through from the Wallabies that three players were being brought into the Bledisloe Cup squad this week for experience at the international level of training and preparation.

Perth prop Jermaine Ainsley, Queensland Country midfielder Duncan Paia’aua, and Canberra hooker Folau Fainga’a – signed, yet to make his Super Rugby debut for the Brumbies – have all been included as a reward for their NRC form.

Paia’aua is the form player of the NRC, and is being earmarked as a possible playmaker at Test level, with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika concerned about the evident lack of depth behind Bernard Foley.

“Obviously we'll be looking to the [Barbarians] game as well for some of those guys and I think Jermaine Ainsley is a player we've had our eye on for a while. He had an injury now he's back playing, and will get a second game of NRC this weekend,” Cheika said of the Spirit tighthead.

"With Stephen [Moore] retiring at the end of the year, we're looking at a couple of younger hookers. We've seen a few guys around that we like. I think Folau Fainga'a is a guy we'd like to come and have a closer look at from what he's done in NRC. He's gone down to the Vikings and done quite well.”

Queensland Country outside back Izaia Perese, Brisbane City pair Adam Korczyk and Karmichael Hunt, Canberra lock Rory Arnold, and Melbourne backrower Lopeti Timani have all won recalls, further underlining the NRC’s crucial place in the Wallabies development and game management pathways.

5. The welcome injury returns

It was great to see a couple of Wallabies making their return from long-term injury via the NRC today, with the competition again providing the ideal quality and playing level to allow an intense test.

Former Queensland Reds captain James Slipper hasn’t played for seven months, but was satisfied after he made a solid 26-minute return from an Achilles tendon tear in South Africa.

Perth Spirit backrower Ben McCalman also made his first NRC appearance of the season, playing very well for 33 minutes to return from a persistent scapula injury that plagued much of his Western Force season.