NRC: A funny old game goes into finals

by Brett McKay

The ninth and final round of the NRC regular season served up one last round of surprises, comprising a draw, a huge upset, a fairly predictable result, and what was supposed to be a mathematical improbability.

A draw? What does that mean?

When we  did the finals calculations last week, one of the scenarios that allowed Perth Spirit to qualify for the NRC Final Series involved a draw between NSW Country and Brisbane City

And back then, it really only served to highlight the difficulty the Spirit faced in making the final four.

But with NSW Country and Brisbane City drawing 38-38 in Orange on Saturday, that scenario viewed as highly unlikely, quickly became front and centre.

While Fiji’s losing bonus point from their loss to the Sydney Rays in Suva was enough to secure third, it also guaranteed a home semi-final for the Canberra Vikings, who would eventually finish in first spot after their win over Greater Sydney.

This made Perth Spirit’s equation, easier, too. They simply now just had to beat Queensland Country. Their superior points differential would mean they’d leapfrog NSW Country into fourth place and secure a third finals series appearance. If they could beat Queensland Country.

It took until after the final bell, but they did indeed win. The mathematical unlikelihood, really only ever included to keep the pedants at bay, was what got Perth home in the end.

NSW Country rue the one that got away

At 35-19 with twenty minutes to play, NSW Country had all the momentum against Brisbane City, and really should’ve gone on with the game from there.

Even after letting City back into the game, when Tayler Adams kicked the 75-minute penalty to get back out to a seven-point lead, their defence had been good enough throughout the game to hold City out.

Or so you’d have thought.

Just when they should’ve been tightening up, the Eagles relaxed, and that was enough of an invitation for Brisbane City to hit back and place more pressure on Country than they really should’ve been allowed to.

They really should’ve won that, and even won it well.

It was another inconsistent 80-minutes from the Eagles, unfortunately, just when they looked in the last few weeks like they were really ramping it up for a tilt at the finals.

But this was a slow-burn of a result. They’d have been annoyed about the draw at the time, but not nearly as annoyed as they’d have been when Peter Grant’s match-winning penalty sailed through the posts in Ipswich.

Those last lax five minutes essentially ruined their finals hopes. Which would be the ultimate ‘one that got away’.

Discipline fast becoming the Drua’s undoing

Two weeks in a row now, we’ve seen the Fijian Drua on the wrong end of significant penalty counts; 18 penalties conceded to five against Queensland Country last weekend, and now 15-9 against the Sydney Rays on Saturday in Suva. They lost two players to the sin bin against Country, and another against the Rays.

Worryingly, there was also another eye gouging allegation levelled against the Drua, following suspensions being handed down already this season for biting and eye gouging.

Furthermore, the Drua (along with Queensland Country) share the ‘honour’, if you can call it that, of having copped the most yellow cards for the campaign, with six players earning seven yellow cards across their eight games to date.

That’s nearly one per game, and it makes defence difficult when there’s a reasonable chance you’ll spend ten minutes of a game defending with 14 men.

The Drua will be eyeing off an opportunity to square the ledger with Queensland Country this season, but against the one of the best defensive teams in the competition, they can’t afford to lose a player for ten minutes during a semi-final.

This is the only aspect of their game they need to tighten up, and if they don’t, they can forget about reaching the decider.

Better to stumble before the finals than in them, right?

Rugby is a funny old game, we all know that, and the funny old game reiterated this very fact in the form of Queensland Counry’s second half in Ipswich.

Leading 26-7 at halftime, Country seemed well in control. They had Perth covered comfortably, and it really looked like they would go on with the job. NSW Country – sitting tentatively in fourth  at this point – were certainly hoping this would be the case.

Because we know rugby’s a funny old game, we knew this wouldn’t necessarily be the case. The Queenslanders started making mistakes, conceding penalties and turnovers, and before they knew it, their comfortable lead had vanished.

But, with a home semi-final already confirmed, Country didn’t really lose out by losing. Yes, they’ll be annoyed, and yes, Brad Thorn might make them run an extra lap or two this week, but the simple little reminder of what can happen if you drop off the contest in an NRC game is very timely.

Much better to get that scratchy half of football out of the way this week when it doesn’t really matter, than to do it next Sunday when it definitely does.

So then, the semi-finals…

If took until the last minute of the last game of the last round to get there, but we finally have top four confirmed.

Next weekend’s NRC semi-finals have been confirmed and will line up like this:

Saturday November 4

Canberra Vikings vs Perth Spirit, Viking Park, Canberra; 7pm AEDT

Sunday November 5

Queensland Country v Fijian Drua, Clive Berghofer Stadium, Toowoomba; 2pm local, 3pm AEDT

Both games will be broadcast LIVE on FOX SPORTS, with the Vikings-Spirit to follow the Wallabies' first game of the Spring Tour, against Japan in Yokohama.

So, who will win through to the final on November 11?

Well, I think Queensland Country start fairly comfortable favourites on Sunday, and will be bolstered by the return of Taniela Tupou and Duncan Paia’aua from Barbarians and Wallabies duty, respectively. This shores up their set piece and adds spark to their attack, and that should be more than enough for a Drua side now without half a dozen regulars called up to the Flying Fijians for their Spring tour.

But the first semi-final on Saturday will be way harder to predict. Canberra will welcome back Sam Carter, Tom Banks, and Wharenui Hawera, but Perth will also have a swag of players back from the Barbarians. And now they have all kinds of momentum and confidence, too, having won through despite the evident mathematical hurdles put in front of them this weekend.

Anyone game to say the Spirit definitely can’t win through to a third NRC Final?