NRC Sunday: Five things we learned

by Brett McKay

The final day of the NRC regular season delivered yet more drama, with Canberra’s win over Greater Sydney delivering them to top spot, and Perth’s come-from-behind victory securing not just the minor premiership for the Vikings, but their own unlikely finals berth.

What are we talking about after the final  regular season round.

1. It's not over until it's over

An incredible second half turnaround from Perth Spirit saw them keep Queensland Country scoreless after halftime, but it took until after the full-time siren for them to be in front on the scoreboard. 

They looked out of the contest at the break, but the Spirit showed plenty of just that, clawing their way back into the game after halftime, and then scoring two tries in four minutes to bring the margin back to just seven points.

Momentum is a funny thing in rugby, and no matter what they tried, Country just couldn’t get any of it. And they harder they tried, the more mistakes they made, which in turn presented more opportunities for Perth.

A host of debutants and a starting side virtually unrecognisable after Wallabies and Barbarians selections plucked up to a dozen players out of it meant Perth’s chance of sneaking into fourth spot on the table looked remote heading into the final round.

But the rugby Gods have smiled on the west finally in 2017, with Peter Grant’s 80th minute penalty for the win never looking like missing off the tee.

2.  The Horan-Little Shield heads west after a well-travelled season

Perth Spirit won the Horan-Little Shield. Photo: SportographyIt was largely forgotten among the absolute scenes of jubilation as Grant was mobbed by teammates, but Perth’s 29-26 last-minute win also secured them the Horan-Little Shield for 2017.

I don’t mind admitting that I forgot all about it when scrambling to get the match report finished, and it didn’t rate a mention on the Fox Sports commentary at the end of the game either, with all focus rightfully on the result itself, and the fact that the Spirit had indeed snuck into the final playoffs spot.

Happily, it seems I wasn’t alone in overlooking the final destination for the challenge trophy.

The Shield was well-travelled in 2017; Greater Sydney claimed it from 2016 holders NSW Country in Round 1, and defended it the following week against the Sydney Rays.

The next challenge didn’t come until Round 6, when the Drua took the Shield back to Fiji for the first time, before Queensland Country repatriated it back to Australia last weekend.

The Spirit’s win today is the first time they’ve even held the Shield, and they’re also the fourth different end of season holder in the four seasons of the NRC.

3.  Hot afternoon a preview for the finals

Today’s warm weather was both a reminder that summer isn’t too far away, and that the next two weekends of the NRC Finals will require a bit of common sense when it comes to player management.

Greater Sydney and Canberra endured temperature approaching 33°C in Sydney, while that was matched in Ipswich, where Queensland Country and Perth faced off.

Water boys were busy throughout both games, and the use of prescribed drinks breaks on the 20-minute mark of each half in Sydney made a lot of sense.

You suspect that will be required again next weekend in Toowoomba at the very least, which is set to host the Queensland Country-Fiji semi-final on Sunday.

4. Vikings clinical when it counts

The Rams might have felt like they were making the running in the first half against the Vikings, but either side of halftime, Canberra scored three converted tries to none to not just halt the Rams’ momentum, but blow it away completely.

These ‘championship minutes’ are so often when the All Blacks and the Kiwi Super Rugby sides inflict their most damage on sides, and it was telling that the Vikings were equally clinical the game was most in the balance.

They would post another converted try in the 53rd minute to put the margin out to 20 points, and even though the Rams would score again ten minutes later, the Vikings were never really in danger.

Next week, Canberra will welcome back Sam Carter and Tom Banks from Barbarians duty, while flyhalf Wharenui Hawera will also return, after being a late withdrawal from the match. Clinical when it counts’ now the Vikings will set themselves for a tilt at a second NRC final.

5. Wallabies bolters once again prove the NRC’s worth

At around half-time in Sydney, word filtered through of the Wallabies Spring Tour squad announcement, and the couple of big ticks for the NRC that came with it.

Injury to lock Rory Arnold has opened the door for Vikings and Brumbies teammate Blake Enever to make the trip to Japan and the UK, along with Perth Spirit and ex-Western Force lock Matt Philip.

Enever was something of a surprise inclusion, having beaten Sam Carter for a spot, and particularly when Carter had played solidly for the Barbarians on Saturday and had featured in Wallabies squads in 2017. Philip, on the other hand, had been the form lock of the NRC, featuring regularly in Team of the Week selections throughout the season.

And once again, these couple of selections, along with the inclusion of Queensland Country flanker Liam Wright and Melbourne Rising fullback Jack Maddocks as development players, prove the value of the NRC as a genuinely quality competition from which players can gain higher honours selection.