McKay NRC column: Something for everything in round three

by Brett McKay

The National Rugby Championship’s third round served up try after glorious try, as Queensland Country continued their unbeaten start, and Melbourne and Brisbane City opened their accounts in style.

There was some wonderful rugby for the purists too, with Canberra accounting for the Western Force in a clash of brutal physicality.

English, Petaia, and Campbell light it up in Saturday try-fest

The tries flooded in from the outset on Saturday, to the point where across the two early games – NSW Country v Melbourne, and Queensland Country v Fiji – that three players seemed to be locked in a try-scoring shootout.

Little over half an hour into both games, in Mudgee and Mackay respectively, the Rising’s Tom English, and Queensland Country pair Jordan Petaia and Jock Campbell had an incredible eight tries between the three of them.

English would run in a fourth try after the break, to equal the NRC record for most tries in a match – which he already shared with several other players – and then set a new record himself with a fifth try in the 51st minute to send Melbourne ahead 43-0 at the time, on the way to their statement-making 62-7 demolition of NSW Country.

Petaia and Campbell went try for try in the middle of a first half points spree, in which Queensland Country went from trailing the Drua by five to leading 38-5 in 24 unanswered minutes.

Country’s try fest had the immediate impact of pushing the Drua back into their shell, and from which they never really emerged, suffering their first loss of the 2018 tournament, and leaving the reigning Champions the only undefeated side.

In all, 37 tries and one penalty try were scored across the three games; well above the competition average to date. And the multiple scorers didn’t end with these three: Rising’s Kiti Ratu, and Brisbane City’s Lachlan Maranta, Sam Wallis, and Matt Gordon all bagged doubles before the day was out.

Not just Rising. Now in full view

If the signs were there last week that Melbourne were about to lay down a performance that would get them noticed, I’m not sure even those signs pointed to as clinical a display as what the Rising put on in Mudgee.

The opening period set up what looked to be an intriguing battle. Melbourne were making inroads but hadn’t landed that killer blow. The Eagles, on the other hand, were giving as good as they got.

English scored his first try in the 15th minute, and his second nine minutes later. But at 12-0, it was hardly panic stations for Darren Coleman and his side.

But when English had his hat-trick by the 29th minute and Kiti Ratu his first try only a few minutes later, the Melbourne momentum was snowballing. Michael Ruru’s try on half time made it 31-0 at the break, and suddenly the Eagles were in a battle to stay in the game.

After the break, Country needed to be the first to score, but instead copped a yellow card to Jaline Graham, which was followed five minutes later by English’s fourth try. When Apo Latunipulu joined Graham on the naughty bench in the 50th minute, English racked up no.5, and the game was over.

The Rising are now playing probably the best NRC rugby we’ve seen from them since the 2016 Finals. The competition knows they’re around now, but it’s up to them to decide how well they finish 2018. 

Country bring the Drua back to earth

Despite their unbeaten start, the underlying concern about the Fijian Drua was that as was the case in 2017, they would find the away games in Australia much harder than the incredible backdrop they play in front of at home.

Before Round 3 kicked off, I wondered last week if Queensland Country might be tempted to try and drag the Drua 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.”

Given what Fiji had done to Brisbane City with an endless supply of turnover ball, it seemed a reasonable game plan.

Country didn’t quite drag the Drua into a scrap, but in scoring their first two tries in quick succession, it did have the same impact.

And then when two quick tries became six tries in 24 minutes, Country had done to the Drua what the Drua had done in the opening rounds: they’d blown them out of the contest.

Fiji won a penalty try before the break and scored the first try after halftime that they needed to, but when Filipo Daugunu scored from a great Petaia ball forty metres out to hit straight back, Country had this one covered. 

I’m sure the Drua will win games in Australia this NRC season, but the blueprint on how to keep them quiet is there. The big test for them for away games will be how they get themselves back into contests that get away from them.

City back on the horse

Brisbane City have been an interesting beast over the first two rounds. After being outpointed by the Western Force in Round 1, and then touched up by a rampant Drua in Fiji in Round 2, it really felt like that despite not really having done a lot wrong, their standing after a fortnight seemed a touch rough.

That was further underlined by a really good performance on Saturday to put the Sydney Rays away in a high-scoring contest. And though the scoreline says it was a 21-point margin in the end, the result was effectively sealed when promising young No.8 Sam Wallis scored his second try just after halftime to make it 49-12.

The teams went try-for-try after that, but it was never in danger for City, who showed they were capable of bouncing back after the heavy loss to Fiji the week before.

I’m not sure they’re a top four side, but I’ve no doubt City will claim a few more scalps before the season is done.

For the Rays, however, the loss was game one of three over an eight-day period. But City has shown them how easy it can be to put a big loss behind them in a quick turnaround. 

Canberra confirm all suspicions

In a few weeks’ time, when the Canberra Vikings are shaping to be in the race to the playoffs right up to their ears, they will look back on the Western Force win at home in Round 3 as proof that they have plenty of talent across the park to challenge with the best.

When the Force scored two tries to take a narrow lead into the break, the Vikings will have been annoyed at shelling the lead, but undoubtedly their coach Nick Scrivener will have reminded them that they had been the side playing all the rugby.

To come out in the second half and grind away, piecing and probing away at the Force for twenty minutes before nailing two tries in six minutes; that was a win built purely on hard work and character.

And given previous results between sides is a point of tie-breaker for teams finishing on equal points, it could yet prove to be a crucial win in the grand scheme of this short NRC campaign.