NRC round seven saw something of a shake-up of the competition top four, with Perth Spirit, the team tipped by plenty to feature at season’s end now in a serious race to even qualify for the finals.
Try-scoring showing no signs of slow-down
Remember back in the first round’s review we wrote that round one's 47 tries for the weekend probably wouldn’t be the norm in 2017, with points on offer reverting to rugby’s traditional values?
All the teams and coaches said of the move back to five-point tries that it wouldn’t change their attacking preferences, and while I was very happy to hear this, I’ve already admitted I was a bit sceptical it would last all season.
Well, as was the case after the opening weekend,there's still nothing to worry about.
Round seven saw 45 tries scored across the four games – despite only five tries between NSW Country and Perth in Tamworth on Saturday – with the average of 11.25 tries per game not that much different to what we’ve seen throughout this year’s NRC.
To date, we’ve seen 291 tries scored across the 28 games played over the seven rounds; an average of 10.39 tries per game. This is up on last year, where 301 tries were scored across 31 games, at an average of 9.71 tries per game.
And how does 45 tries for round seven sit within this season? Well, after the aforementioned 47 tries in Round 1, the respective rounds have seen 37, 42, 35, 42, and 43 scored in round six
So it’s very much within the norm for the competition this season. And again, we clearly had nothing to worry about with the move back to five-point tries.
The run home gets trickier
We can narrow the final four race down to six teams now, and even if the current top three – Canberra, Queensland Country, and Fiji – look like they will go through to the NRC semi-finals, the final berth is far from settled.
Here's the run home for the six teams still alive.
Canberra Vikings (25 points, 5 wins):
BYE, Greater Sydney (A); maximum 30 points available.
Queensland Country (24 pts, 5 wins)
Fiji (A), Perth (H); maximum 34 points available.
Fijian Drua (20pts, 4 wins)
Queensland Country (H), Sydney (H); maximum 30 points available.
Brisbane City (18pts, 4 wins)
Greater Sydney (H), NSW Country (A); maximum 28 points available.
Perth Spirit (16pts, 3 wins)
Sydney (H), Queensland Country (A); maximum 26 points available.
NSW Country Eagles (13pts, 3 wins)
Melbourne (A), Brisbane City (H); maximum 23 points available.
The bye this weekend might not affect Canberra at all, with Queensland Country and Fiji to take points off each other on Saturday. Queensland Country then face Perth in the final round, which could have huge ramifications for both sides.
Brisbane City are in a really good place now. In fact, Queensland Country and Brisbane City are both in the NRC top four for the first time ever.
City should be too good for Greater Sydney this weekend coming, though NSW Country the following week – especially if they’re still alive – will be no pushover.
Ditto Perth; they should have few problems with Sydney, then they finish with Queensland Country in the final round.
And does anyone want to say NSW Country can’t make it? They simply have to win both remaining games, and win both games well. Their final round match against Brisbane City in Orange could even decide the final playoffs berth.
Depth, not stars, with decide the competition from here
The competition takes a really interesting twist from this week coming, and it’s going to be the depth of playing squads, and probably even extended training squads, that determines which team holds up the NRC Trophy on November 11, not any particular star players.
From this week, players will re-join the Wallabies squad for the third Bledisloe Cup match and the fixture against the Barbarians in Sydney the following week. After that, the Wallabies head to Japan to play the Brave Blossoms on November 4, before then heading to the United Kingdom on the end of year tour.
Just look at who the teams potentially lose on Wallabies duty in Australia, and then potentially lose for the Spring Tour, only counting Wallabies who have featured in the NRC this season:
Rory Arnold, Joe Powell, Henry Speight, Folau Fainga’a (Wallabies development group)
Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Izaia Perese, Duncan Paia’aua (dev group)
Adam Korczyk, Lukhan Tui, Karmichael Hunt, Samu Kerevi
Tetera Faulkner, Billy Meakes, Curtis Rona, Jermaine Ainsley (dev group)
Then there’s the players already named in the Barbarian squad for the October 28 match:
Sam Carter, Tom Banks
Taniela Tupou, Eto Nabuli
Andrew Ready, Quade Cooper
Pek Cowan, Anaru Rangi, Richie Arnold, Matt Philip, Isi Naisarani, Kane Koteka, Michael Ruru
Now some of those Wallabies players may yet be released to play for the NRC teams this week, but for the Barbarians games, it'll likely be all hands on deck.
Perth look set to lose up to 11 players, while Canberra, Queensland Country, and Brisbane City could lose up to six players each.
Comparatively, NSW Country will be licking their lips when they lose two players at most for what would be a must-win game against a heavily affected Brisbane City side.
For the semi-finals, all of those Wallabies players and maybe even some of the Barbarians could disappear completely for the Spring Tour.
And the Fijian Drua won’t be unaffected by this, either.
Their first end of season fixture against Italy will clash with the NRC final, and the likes of skipper John Stewart, scrumhalf Frank Lomani, lock Fili Seru, and flanker Mosese Voka, among others, could easily feature in Fiji Head Coach John McKee’s plans – and McKee travelled with the Drua squad on their last Australian leg, too.
So, the question is not who looks the strongest now, but who looks the strongest in a fortnight’s time.
Canberra’s perfectly timed bye?
Vikings’ captain Tom Cusack made a really interesting point post-match on Sunday, when he said after their big win over the Sydney Rays, “We’re getting into a position where we need to be and we’re flying pretty well with a good performance there, so we’ll rest a few bodies with the bye next weekend, and get firing for the last few games.”
After seven rounds, the Vikings couldn’t be better placed, sitting a point clear on top of the table.
But the week off will be welcome; it’s the perfect opportunity to rest up as Cusack suggested, have some niggles tended to, and then tune up for the finals in the final round against the Rams.
To date, the Vikings have lost flanker Ben Hyne and centre Andrew Robinson, just last week, both to serious knee injuries, but otherwise are in pretty good shape.
Depending on how they fare with the Spring Tour selections, they could head into the finals with essentially the same side they’ve played with throughout the tournament.
Wallabies (bolters) watch
It wasn’t a bad weekend for those fringe Wallabies looking to impress in the NRC.
Tom Robertson was part of a NSW Country pack that gave Perth Spirit all kinds of curry up front, while Spirit centres Billy Meakes and Curtis Rona were both pretty solid against their former Western Force teammates, Kyle Godwin and Alex Newsome.
Izaia Perese was at his damaging best for Queensland Country.
Rory Arnold, Joe Powell, and Henry Speight all made significant contributions to Canberra’s big win, as did Lukhan Tui, Adam Korczyk, Karmichael Hunt, and Samu Kerevi in Brisbane City’s.
Most encouragingly though, all three players named in the extended ‘development group’ for the next few weeks, Perth prop Jermaine Ainsley, Canberra hooker Folau Fainga’a, and Queensland Country midfielder Duncan Paia’aua turned in strong games, with the trio bagging tries to cap off a big weekend individually.