McKay NRC preview: Skippers, get your skates on

by Brett McKay

If we learnt just one thing from the first weekend of this year’s National Rugby Championship, it’s that the teams we thought would be pretty strong in 2018 are indeed pretty strong.

All three winners in the opening round – Fiji, Queensland Country, and the Western Force – looked well-drilled, but dangerous in their own way. And already they look like they’ll take some removing from the NRC top four.

And what that proves with just six rounds to play before the finals is that there really isn’t any time for building into the season. The easiest way to reach the playoffs is to get there early and keep winning. He who hesitates finishes fifth. Or worse.

With the Sydney Rays and NSW Country squads now confirmed, the first full weekend of the NRC is upon us, and as if last weekend wasn’t ‘real’ enough, things will be very real from now on.

SATURDAY: Fijian Drua v Brisbane City, 3pm, Churchill Park. (Streamed on FoxSports website)

Brisbane City will have undoubtedly gone to school on the Drua after their big win last weekend over the Melbourne Rising in Nausori, and I’m quite sure they’d have noticed that on the stats sheets, there really didn’t look to be a lot of difference between the two sides.

A glance at the stats sheets shows that the Rising carried more often, beat more defenders, made less than 60% of the number of tackles the Drua had to make, and missed fewer tackles too.

They dominated the lineout and scrum and conceded ten fewer penalties. And with turnovers pretty even, it’s clear that Melbourne really didn’t do a lot wrong. Except score half as many tries.

Which just goes to show that sometimes it’s not how much ball you have, but what you do with it. Melbourne conceded just as many turnovers as Fiji did, yet the Drua made them pay more often than not.

That’s got to be the biggest ‘learning’ for Brisbane City this week, who of course, are more than capable of scoring from distance as well.

But if they can draw the Drua into a structured, set-piece and kick-for-territory games that doesn’t give the Fijians a chance to counter-attack – or at least limits them – then you go a long way to beating them.

Sydney Rays v Canberra Vikings, 3pm, Concord Oval. (Live on FoxSports)

Equally, the Rays will know that the Vikings weren’t terrible last weekend in Canberra either, yet came away from the rematch of the 2017 decider with Queensland Country with nothing to show for it.

That probably makes Canberra a dangerous side to be playing in Round 2, but the Rays still carry the literal element of surprise up their sleeve, given they’ve only just come together this week.

The Vikings like to play a forwards-led game, but they also know where they need to improve. Lock Darcy Swain summed it up pretty well this week when the question was put to him:

"Maybe breakdown, but definitely not set piece. I think we're more than capable of doing the job at set piece. We're missing a couple of guys that will do the job for us there, but we're pretty happy with our set piece.

"At breakdown, yeah, there's a few things we need to clean up. We only got one turnover, compared to their six or seven, so that's something we need to address this week and put into place on the weekend."

There’s no doubt the breakdown will set the tone in this match, but when he comes off the bench, keep an eye on former Rays and Waratahs centre Irae Simone, who admitted he would be trying to “run over the top” of a couple of his former teammates.

He did say it with a smile, but I’m not sure he was joking.

SUNDAY: Queensland Country v Melbourne Rising, 3pm, Mike Carney Park, Townsville. (Live on FoxSports)

This will be an interesting contest, and if there the Rising believe in small mercies, it would have to be that Country aren’t near as dangerous at turning defence into attack and then points as Fiji were last Saturday.

That’s not at all to say the defending champs won’t counter, but it’s a fair observation that playing for field position and within their structures is one of their strengths.

As shown above, Melbourne really didn’t do much wrong last weekend, but were certainly made to pay for their mistakes. Against Queensland Country, they will have a much better opportunity to pull this game into a bit of a grind and slow them down if need be – particularly if their set piece is dominating again as it did last week.

Within the forwards, the battle between Country’s Liam Wright and Melbourne’s Richard Hardwick on the openside will be enthralling. Both have been recognised as Wallabies of the future, and have had a taste of life inside the national setup.

But both are excellent players in their own right, and their individual performance on the ball could go a long way toward deciding the breakdown battle, which in turn will almost certainly decide the outcome of the match.

That all said, knowing what’s coming from Queensland Country and stopping it are two very different things. The Rising will be better for the run last week, and there aren’t too many tougher ways of starting and NRC campaign than with an away game in Fiji. But they’ll need to be; a second loss would be significantly harder to come back from with only five games to play.

Western Force v NSW Country Eagles, 3pm UWA Sports Park (Streamed on FoxSports website).

Could we see the McGillivray Oval hill filled like never before on Sunday?

The Sea of Blue have been loud and proud throughout 2018, but in previous years they’ve had to switch to the state colours as Perth Spirit ran out in that magnificent black and gold hooped strip they sported with distinction for four NRC seasons. With the Force carrying through from World Series Rugby to the NRC this year, never before has the Sea of Blue gone for so long in a season.

And I hope it is a massive crowd. I hope it’s standing room only! The hill at McGillivray genuinely looks like one of those great suburban ground to watch rugby from, and it would be wonderful to see the strong rugby crowds in the west continue through for another few months yet.

Flyhalf Andrew Deegan won our Rising Star nomination for Round 1, and it’s true, I did indeed describe his performance against Brisbane City as “excellent”. But fullback Jack McGregor – who this time last year was making us sit up and pay attention as he ran around in the Melbourne Rising no.10 – wasn’t far behind him. If they click again, the Force will take some beating at home.

But NSW Country fans, and indeed Waratahs fans will be hoping to see a first glimpse of Jake Gordon and Mack Mason together at this level, because that could well be an eye to the future. If they click, and what looks to be a pretty useful forward pack follow, the Eagles will take some beating, too.