McKay NRC column: Round three and tough questions are being asked

by Brett McKay

The thing that sticks out to me about the third round of the National Rugby Championship is that it is – by a solid margin – the hardest to pick of the season so far. All four games pit teams against each other who could easily beat their opposites.

Just when you thought you’ve mounted a strong case to pick four winners, you quickly realise you could get all four wrong, too. It makes for a great round of rugby, but it only leaves questions floating in the lead-up… 

NSW Country vs Melbourne

Both Country and the Rising enter this match knowing that they played pretty well last week despite finishing on the wrong end of the scoreline and that would give them the confidence going into this match that a win could kick their campaign into gear.

The biggest question over NSW Country will be whether they’ve quickly identified and addressed the clear defensive frailties that allowed the Force to jump out to a 21-0 lead in less than half an hour, and 35-7 shortly after halftime.

Country missed a staggering 39 tackles in 125 attempts – falling off every third tackle attempted, almost – with a large chunk of them coming in that first half where the Force seemed to make line breaks for fun.

Once they held onto some ball themselves and started playing right back at the Western Australians, Country put on 21 points in 23 minutes to give the Force a hell of a scare.

They’re good enough to push the top teams; they proved that to themselves. But which Eagles will show up in their first game on ‘home’ territory?

Melbourne were maybe the biggest surprise packets of Round 2, leading 2017 Champions Queensland Country in Townsville for 50 minutes, and then pulling the gap back to just one point when Country clawed the lead back in the last quarter of the game.

Can they replicate this form and get the win they probably should have had last week? They’ve certainly got the equipment to do it with Angus Cottrell, Richard Hardwick, and Isi Naisarani all in barnstorming form at the breakdown and getting though a mountain of work.

They can learn from what the Force did to Country last week, and try and open them up early. Do that, and they absolutely have the senior players on board who know how to steer the young Rising ship home.

Queensland Country vs Fiji

Who can possibly stop the Drua currently? 106 points and 16 tries in their first two matches of NRC 2018, and they’ve confirmed once again that they’ll be bloody hard to beat at home in Fiji. But what about now that they’re in Australia for two rounds?

Queensland Country will be the first NRC team to test if the Drua suddenly become mortal once they have to pack the passport, but Country first of all have to work out why they allowed themselves to be dragged into a dogfight by Melbourne last week in Townsville.

But then again, maybe that’s actually not a bad tactic against the competition leaders? Drag them into a scrap and give them no chance of breaking out from distance, while simultaneously choking their attack when they inevitably go wide and look to force the mistakes.

If any team is good enough to do this, it would be Country. But only if the defensive foundation that Brad Thorn laid down with them in 2016 and 2017 remains.

On the other hand, could the Drua find the discipline in their game and in themselves to try and counter a slow-down from Country? They have an excellent forward pack, though there might be a few question marks over their set piece – Brisbane City certainly looked to have the upper hand in both lineouts and scrums last week in Lautoka.

If the Drua could suddenly find some set piece steel, and some discipline in the face of opposition pressure, then they might just find their NRC title odds being wound in further.

Sydney Rays vs Brisbane City

Two teams that the scoreboard shows were well beaten last week need to quickly remind themselves that they’re better sides this week, and find a way of finding their first win of 2018.

Sydney didn’t look too bad at Concord against Canberra, to be fair, but they did look like a squad that had enjoyed the luxury of just a couple of training sessions, compared to a Vikings side that at least had another game under their belt.

The Rays may well be bolstered by Wallabies lock Rob Simmons, and the long-awaited return of Waratahs flanker Jack Dempsey, but there is plenty of other talent around the park to trouble a City side that has been up-and-down over the first fortnight of the competition.

Backrowers Lachie Swinton, Jack Heyson and Patrick Sio all put in a solid shift last week against the Vikings, and you suspect that if they can get the upper hand of their Brisbane City opposites, the Rays would have the ability to go on from there.

But will Brisbane stick with the Premier Rugby trio of Pat Morrey, Fraser McReight, and Matt Gicquel again, or do they find an actual lock somewhere and move skipper Adam Korczyk back to where he’d play a lot better?

And what of the Quade factor? He’s very obviously the one player on the field who could impact the game more than any other, but we didn’t see a lot of him behind a well-beaten side last week in Fiji. The fans will undoubtedly flock to Woollahra to see him, but which Quade Cooper will turn up?

Canberra vs Western Force

As if the three games on Saturday weren’t cracking enough for you, Sunday’s game looms as an absolute ripper.

The Vikings were thrilled at their ability to win and win well last week in Sydney minus their four Wallabies stars, and will know within themselves that they have the squad to get the job done themselves.

So how much confidence do they gain from the return of Tom Banks and Joe Powell from Wallabies camp, not to mention the long-awaited injury return of boom backrower Rob Valetini and evergreen hooker Josh Mann-Rea?

We wait and see. And we wait and see if much of the Western Force squad so used to traversing the continent every other week in the past four seasons of the NRC can just slip back into their ‘happy place’, as Heath Tessmann described their travelling routine to me a year or two back.

Certainly, the Perth Spirit sides of the past have had no issue coming to Canberra, winning their first two matches in the Capital, and with the second of those in 2016 killing off the Vikings’ finals chances in the last round while simultaneously giving the Spirit the momentum that saw them claim the title with two finals wins on the road.

It was only in last year’s two meetings – in Round 2 and the Semi-Final – where Canberra managed to square the ledger at two wins apiece.

We know the Force are a well-drilled side, and they’ve massively benefitted from their four or five months together as a squad, and nearly ten games now as a playing group. But a third straight NRC win would push more than just a foot through the door of the finals this year; it would have to confirm their overall favouritism.

Are the Force ready to be the hunted in 2018? Or are they already just coping with that and are getting the job done anyway?