Road to the finals: Vikings and Spirit

by Brett McKay

The NRC finals kick off on Saturday night, with the Canberra Vikings and Perth Spirit meeting in the nation's capital.

Here’s how the two sides reached the final four.

The Canberra Vikings started off their campaign with a come-from-behind win over the side who many expect they’ll face in the final, Queensland Country, 48-40 in Canberra, in the first match of the 2017 NRC season.

 James Dargaville and the Vikings overpowered James Tuttle's Queensland Country. Photo: Getty ImagesLocked at 26-all at halftime, the Vikings soon found themselves down 40-26 with half an hour to play, before storming home with three tries in 18 minutes to seal the win.

They didn’t do it any easier against Perth at home in round two, where they led 19-5 at halftime before the Spirit scored three converted tries in 20 minutes to take the lead.

The Vikings regrouped, and score two late tries to finish in front, 33-26.

The pattern was becoming worrying, though, and it didn’t get any better in round three, where they allowed Brisbane City continual opportunity to hit back and kill off momentum, losing 42-40 at the University of Queensland.

By round four, it was a full-blown issue, when the Vikings blew a 21-10 lead with less than 20 minutes to play and conceded a try after the bell to lose 25-24 to NSW Country in Armidale.

In round five, the Vikings were back at home, pitted against a rampant Fijian Drua side who were suddenly the talk of the competition, and already widely recognised as a title contender.

But in what was thought to be a real danger game for Canberra, they sparked to play probably their best game in two seasons, running in 10 tries to one, to beat the Drua 66-5.

Tom Cusack scored a hat-trick and Tom Banks a double, as the Vikings equalled the biggest winning margin in NRC history.

Suddenly into their groove, the Vikings jumped out of the blocks against the Rising in Melbourne, scoring five of the first six tries before going on to win 36-12, and then followed that up with another big win over the Sydney Rays in Canberra in round seven.

The Vikings led 31-0 at halftime, and scored another six tries in the second half to win 71-14, with Folau Fainga’a, James Dargaville and Ryan Lonergan all bagging doubles to the match remembered for Rays flanker Gary Bautz – who played for Wests in ACT Premier Rugby last season, coincidentally – being sent off for a dangerous tip tackle.

A well-timed round eight bye allowed a few niggles to mend and tired bodies to be rested, and from there, Canberra set up their finals hosting rights with a controlled 35-22 round nine win over Greater Sydney in Sydney last weekend.

They had to wait until the crazy round of results was completed before knowing whether they’d finish first or second, but Queensland Country’s loss to Perth meant that the NRC minor premiership was theirs.
Billy Meakes and the Spirit started their NRC campaign in style. Photo: WalmsleyTheir opponents, Perth Spirit, started the season in ominous form, with a 45-33 win over Melbourne in front of the first of many raucous crowds on the McGillivray Oval hill at the University of Western Australia.

With a scoresheet that just listed Super Rugby player after Super Rugby player, the Spirit threw down a sizeable gauntlet to the rest of the competition, and were rated as one of the teams to beat from that day forward.

Of course, they were beaten the following week, in the aforementioned clash in Canberra, but with Isi Naisarani once again leading the way, the Spirit pack caused plenty of issues for the Vikings, memories which will undoubtedly remain fresh come Saturday.

Round three saw their biggest win of the season, putting nine tries past the Greater Sydney Rams and winning 61-17 in front of the faithful at McGillivray.

Seven different players crossed, including doubles to Wallabies tourist Billy Meakes and hard-working flanker Kane Koteka, while another highlight was the sight of Clay Uyen giving up a considerable weight advantage, but still felling Taqele Naiyaravoro every time the met.

They travelled to Fiji in round four and found themselves on the end of a 41-5 thumping that seriously shortened the Drua’s odds to take out the title.

The Spirit didn’t necessarily do a whole lot wrong in Suva, but they just couldn’t strike a blow.

That was quickly forgotten the following week anyway, when they thrashed Brisbane City 62-28, scoring 10 tries to four and with Chance Peni and skipper Michael Ruru nabbing doubles.

A round six bye was followed by a rematch of the 2016 final, taking on NSW Country in Tamworth yet again.

A tough and gritty match saw the NRC’s first even scoreless first half, before Country held on to win a gruelling affair 15-10, notable for the way they slowed the Spirit down at the breakdown.

Needing to win both the remaining games – or so they thought, at that stage – to qualify for the finals, Perth lost their first game at McGillivray in more than two years, going down 44-31 to the Sydney Rays.

The Spirit led 24-6, but then conceded 26 unanswered points either side of halftime.

The closest they got was to trail by a point with 21 minutes to play, before two late tries sealed the first of several upsets that really shook up the competition over the last two rounds.

That left one last chance for the Spirit, placed 6th at this point, to qualify in the top four, the daunting prospect of beating the competition-leading Queensland Country side fresh from becoming the first side to beat the Drua in Fiji.

A draw between NSW Country and Brisbane City had opened the door for Perth, but things weren’t looking great when they trailed 26-7 at halftime.

Three unanswered second half tries drew the scores level with 14 minutes to play, before the game became seriously back-and-forth with neither team looking like cracking.

Country were somehow holding on in the face of immense Spirit momentum but didn’t give them an opportunity until an 80th minute offside penalty 35 metres out from their line put the game squarely on the right boot of flyhalf Peter Grant.

The former Western Force, Stormers and Springboks veteran nailed the penalty after the final siren, the kick never veering once it left the tee, raising the flags and with Grant immediately mobbed by his Spirit teammates.

The mathematical improbability had become reality, and the Spirit were into their record third NRC finals series.

The Vikings take on the Spirit on Saturday night at Viking Park, kicking off at 7pm AEDT, broadcast LIVE on FOX SPORTS.