NRC 2017: Thrilling to the end

by Brett McKay

It seems an age since the 2017 NRC kicked off, yet the competition is over in the blink of an eye.

Queensland Country’s incredible 42-28 win over the Canberra Vikings in the season decider on Saturday night has similarly put their underwhelming first three NRC seasons a long way in the rear-view mirror. 

The decider a thriller to remember

The Canberra-Perth semi-final was an instant NRC classic but it took just seven days for that encounter to be topped by the decider.

Like the first semi, the final went down to the wire, once again decided only minutes before time.

The Phil Waugh Medallist as the Player of the Final, Country skipper Duncan Paia’aua scored his second try of the match with just four minutes left on the clock,breaking the third deadlock of the match.

The scoring flow highlighted the brutal shifts in momentum; Queensland County scored first in the 20th minute of the match, before Canberra scored three converted tries in 14 minutes to lead 21-7 at half-time.

After the break, and after Brad Thorn reinforced his pre-game message, that “it’s not going to be perfect”, the young Country side responded with three converted tries in a 14-minute streak.

The Vikings hit back in the 68th minute to draw the scores level for a third time, with the grandstand finish assured, befire Paia’aua scored his decisive second try in the 76th minute.

Vikings fans were still confident their side could find something special, confidence gave way for stony silence as Country won the restart, and the competition’s leading try-scorer Filipo Daugunu scooted down the sideline to score the match-winner with less than two minutes on the clock. A thrilling finish, if ever there was.

Despite the closeness, the stats sheet tells of Country’s dominance

At 28-all with four minutes to play, you might have been excused for thinking the two teams were pretty close. And they were, but only on the scoreboard, really.

With their second-half resurgence, Country were working their way back into the scrum contest, and had definitely taken the advantage in the lineout, where Canberra had a clear edge in both set piece departments at halftime.

The final two tries gave way to a completed stats sheet which echoes the sharp change in momentum.

In winning 42-28, Country averaged 4.2 metres per carry to the Vikings’ 2.6. The Queenslanders beat 35 defenders to Canberra’s 18, and made 14 clean breaks to 9. They also made more than twice as many offloads.

Kicking and passing stats were even, but Canberra missed nearly twice as many tackles.

The final set piece stats were pretty even, reflecting Country’s ability to make up ground in the second half. Ruck success rates mirroring each other indicate the closeness of the breakdown contest too.

So, despite there being little separating the two teams on the scoreboard with only minutes to play, Country were the team bending the gain line, busting tackles and offloading. Considering they were making only half as much ground and missing twice as many tackles, it’s actually a wonder the Vikings were as close to winning as they were.

So, an off night for the Vikings?

The Vikings had an off night. Photo: Getty ImagesProbably. Given their only other losses this season were by two points to Brisbane City in round three , and just one point to NSW Country a week later, you could reasonably argue that Canberra were both playing with the best momentum in the competition and edging closer to a performance below their now-established standards.

Their captain Tom Cusack’s comments immediately after the game give us something of a clue.

“Just a few little lapses. They had a pretty good game plan. A game plan from them that we didn’t really expect; they kicked a lot of high ball out to our wingers and that’s where they got some reward,” he said.

“We weren’t able to nullify that, and probably our work rate off the ball wasn’t good enough in those times.”

Country kicked more than any other team in the NRC this year – and by some margin – so the Vikings would have known that that was coming. The difference was where they targeted with their kicks, and the way that made these kicks all the more effective for their kick chase.

The Vikings weren’t able to do much in the way of making it hard for the Country chasers to get through, which in turn put their catchers under pressure, and then quickly conceded territory with the handling error.

Along with Tom Banks, Ben Johnston and Andy Muirhead are both accomplished fullbacks in their own right, but they had a hell of a time in the face of this targeted pressure. And though they competed well at the breakdown all night, the Vikings just couldn’t get back to offer their back three enough support.

Closeness of the competition carried through to the final

For most of the 11 weeks of the competition, we’ve been writing on these very pages that 2017 has been the closest, most competitive NRC of the four played to date.

At any given point through the season, any team on their day has not just been capable of beating any other team, but on more than a few occasions, have actually beaten any other team.

Melbourne ran last for most of the nine rounds, yet beat a Greater Sydney Rams side sitting mid-table quite well.

NSW Country battled in their opening rounds, yet beat Canberra and Perth within a few weeks of each other.

The Fijian Drua looked unbeatable at home, yet Country went and did just that in Round 8. 

The Sydney Rays – in the toughest road trip of the competition – inflicted Perth’s first loss at McGillivray Oval in more than two years in round eight, then went to Fiji and repeated the dose a week later.

Perth, sixth at the time and missing more than a dozen players -  were thought to be long odds of knocking Queensland Country out of the minor premiership in the final round, but Peter Grant’s boot saw them into the semis.

And when you lay out the anyone-can-beat-anyone results like that, it’s really no wonder the final went down to the wire. It really has been a magnificent season.

What to expect in 2018?

Well, that’s a little harder to pick, given that we’re still 10 months away from knowing anything. 

Canberra will nobe back bigger and better, and Queensland Country will be too – with the caveat that both teams might lose a few 2017 stars to higher honours.

If  the NSW teams have a better run with injuries, you'd think that 2017 is a one-off, the first season of the four in which no NSW-based sides finished in the top four.

Melbourne Rising will be much improved, but will be intrigued to see how many of the now-former Western Force contingent return to the Perth Spirit jersey, while the Fijian Drua will be tougher prospect for the experience in 2017.

All in all, it’s been an outstanding season, but there’s no reason why 2018 can’t be even better again.