NRC: Fiji and Force step up, Vikings prove depth

by Brett McKay

The second round of the National Rugby Championship was a weekend of redemption for a number of sides, with Melbourne and NSW Country announcing themselves, Canberra returning to the winner’s circle, and Fiji, Queensland Country, and the Western Force remaining unbeaten.

One away win could lock Fiji in

The Fijian Drua’s 66-5 win over Brisbane City equalled the biggest winning margin in the history of the NRC means that just two rounds in, their for-and-against record is ridiculous.

And yes, it will even out over the remaining five rounds, but it’s about as good a foundation for a run to the playoffs as a team could win.  

At 106 points for and 22 against (and 16 tries to 4), it quite possibly means that if the Drua can sneak a win over even just one of Queensland Country in Mackay next weekend, or the Rays in Sydney the weekend after, they can really set up their playoffs.

We certainly know that they’re going to be hard to beat at home, and they have two home games to come in Rounds 5 and 6.

So assuming they keep a clean sheet at home, one win from their three away games in Australia will have them pushing for a top two finish and a home semi.

Country will present a much harder challenge defensively that City did on Saturday, but even the reigning champions would’ve had trouble stopping all ten of the Drua’s tries in Lautoka.

It was actually difficult to believe it was the same Brisbane City side that really didn’t do a lot wrong against the Western Force in Round 1.

So while it seems a crazy notion to suggest a must-win element in the Queensland Country game for the Drua, it’s obviously not to keep alive finals chances. It’s quite likely to confirm their involvement.

Canberra back on track, minus their Wallabies

While all eyes were on the Wallabies selection last week, the Canberra Vikings were quietly wondering how many of their four current internationals would still be there for their Round 2 clash with the Sydney Rays.

When the answer came back ‘none’ - and the Rays themselves named a solid-looking side with plenty of guys coming off Shute Shield finals campaigns - the Vikings, coming off the loss to Queensland Country in the first game, suddenly had an air of vulnerability about them.

But in winning 54-17 at Concord, the Vikings have removed any question marks that might have arisen since the Round 1 loss.

They needed a big performance from what will be their core NRC players; one that showed they could win well with the personnel they had, not reliant on the ones missing.

All their Super Rugby regulars were good; but it was the performances of the likes of lock Darcy Swain, backrowers BJ Edwards and Michael Oakman-Hunt, and outside centre Len Ikitau that will give the Vikings plenty of confidence that they’re in a good space for next week’s even more intriguing clash in Canberra with the Western Force.

Where there’s life, there’s Jackson-Hope

There might not have been a better player for the Canberra Vikings than no.12 Jordan Jackson-Hope who turned in another belter of a display. In the lead-up, there was plenty of talk about him staying at flyhalf, with concerns over Wharenui Hawera’s concussion recovery, but he played out one spot at inside centre where I’m of the belief is his more natural, and more dangerous decision.

With Hawera delivering the width to the Vikings’ attack, it was Jackson-Hope in midfield who did the straightening of the attack, with the big winners Ikitau and Lausii Taliauli and the quick men outside.

Jackson-Hope has been mentioned as a possible Brumbies playmaking option for the future, but I can’t help but wonder if this mightn’t dampen his natural attacking instincts.

One pass further out just gives him a bit more time and space and the Brumbies have made no secret of the fact they’re after more impact in the midfield.

It seems a win-win to keep him at 12 and certainly the Vikings are seeing that now.

Melbourne. Rising.

As far as NRC upsets go, a Rising win over Queensland Country might have been up there with the Sydney Rays ending the Perth Spirit’s two-year unbeaten streak at home last season.

Maybe even up there with the Spirit knocking off an unbeaten Rising side in the 2014 semis.

When the Rising got to within a point of Queensland Country with just a minute on the clock up in Townsville, you’d have been game to think they weren’t capable of finishing the job.

In the end, Harrison Goddard’s missed touch-finder allowed Country to hold out for the win, and to hold on to their undefeated start to the campaign by the narrowest of margin.

But we now know that the Melbourne Rising of 2018 are much better than the inexperienced side of last year. Blessed with a lengthy list of Super Rugby players – which they didn’t have in 2017, after so many Rebels departures – the Rising in 80 minutes made the rest of the competition take notice that they will not be easybeats.

Country didn’t do a lot wrong, but they weren’t quite at that same clinical level that disposed of Canberra in Round 1. Melbourne learned plenty from their loss to the Drua in Fiji last weekend, and showed that they will have an impact on this year’s NRC.

On the road again next weekend to NSW Country in Mudgee in the NSW Central Tablelands, their performance in Townsville suggests Melbourne’s first win isn’t too far away. 

Eagles good, Force just that much better

When their squad was named last week, NSW Country immediately entered that ‘looks good on paper’ area of judgement, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hoping that what looked like a handy team would prove to be exactly that when they took the field.

And they were, more than handy even, although it took until after the break before things really started to click for them. In all fairness, they’ve barely had a week together, with a number of players – and coach Darren Coleman – still in club rugby mode until last Sunday.

Once they found some combinations by halftime, though, the Eagles the uphill task of trying to reel the rampant Western Force; the home side were already up 35-7 within the first few minutes of the second half.

But then prop Paddy Ryan burst through a hole like he was Daniel Herbert, Apo Latunipulu followed, and lock Jed Holloway hit a hole like the good no.8 he often is, and suddenly, there was just a converted try in it with less than ten to go.

From there, the Western Force machine clicked back into gear and finished off the job like they perhaps should have much earlier when they led five tries to one.

With the Horan-Little Shield on the line again, they weren’t about to let it slip out of their grasp.

The scoreline shows they won 54-28 and suggests they were comfortable, but they’ll know that they hard to work hard to get there.

This game showed that NSW Country are going to be a handy team in 2018; but it also underlined that when they look vulnerable, this Western Force side knows how to pull away from a scrap.