McKay NRC column: Crunch time has arrived

by Brett McKay

NRC Round 4: this is crunch round.

If Round 3 was tough on the tipping sheet, then Round 4 of the National Rugby Championship is going to be tough on the competition table. By Sunday evening, we’ll be beyond the halfway point of the regular season, and with just three matches to play before the semi-finals.

Which means Round 4 is really important for the teams hoping to put a toe through the finals doorway, but absolutely crucial for the sides desperate to stay in contention. Simply put, Round 4 is crunch round.

SATURDAY: Melbourne v Brisbane City

So Melbourne are back to their NRC best, I think we can all agree on that. Last weekend’s demolition of NSW Country in Mudgee was Rising circa 2014, when they went through the preliminary rounds unbeaten and picked a cut-throat semi-final to have their first off-night of the season.

City weren’t half bad last weekend, either, putting on sixty on the Sydney Rays, before then conceding two converted tries in the last few minutes to slightly undo all their good work.

Both sides sit mid-table with the one win they received last week to open their account in 2018, but you get the feeling that this game will determine which of the two sides will stay within reach of the top four; be that waiting for a slip-up of one of the teams above, or by storming into finals contention over the final three rounds.

On paper, this looks like it might be a tough ask for City, but maybe that actually works in their favour? Quade Cooper still has the ability to blow open a game, and they’ve unearthed some quality backrowers in this campaign too.

The Rising, on the other hand, look primed for a tilt at the semis, and there’s no doubt last week’s win caused teams above them to take notice. After three weeks on the road, Melbourne finally get a home game… which is in Adelaide. I’m not sure that will hold the navy and white hoops back.

Queensland Country v Western Force

Is this an early preview of this season’s Final?

These two teams were my picks before a ball was kicked in anger in 2018, with Country keeping a huge chunk of last year’s Championship squad together, and the Force being the first side in NRC history to come into the competition with a four-month, seven-game body of form behind them.

Their coming together in Round 4 should become the clubhouse leader for the game of the year, with both sides capable of finding points from anywhere and with defensive games that will almost certainly prove very handy indeed come finals time.

The playmaking battle between Country and Queensland Reds young gun Hamish Stewart, and Force no.10 and our inaugural Rising Star nomination for 2018, Andrew Deegan will be worth the price of admission at Bond University alone.

Country are still unbeaten in 2018, while the Force suffered their first defeat of the season to Canberra last Sunday; a loss which could spark them into gear for the rest of the year.

This is proper flip-of-the-coin match-up, which means you need to do whatever you wanted to do on Saturday early, just to ensure you don’t miss it.

SUNDAY: NSW Country v Canberra

The unfortunate overlap of the Shute Shield Grand Final and the opening round of the NRC necessitated it, but Sunday will reveal the ultimate cost of NSW Country and Sydney having to play three games in the space of a week.

The Eagles were excellent in disposing of the Rays on Wednesday night, but now face a resurgent Vikings side coming off the back of a superb second half defensive effort to keep the Western Force scoreless in Canberra last Sunday.

And while the Vikings are becoming used to playing with all or none or some of their Wallabies, NSW Country will be needing to drag Wednesday night’s momentum forward but without four Wallabies forwards in Tom Robertson, Tolu Latu, Sekope Kepu, and Ned Hanigan, as well as three-try Man of the Match, scrumhalf Jake Gordon.

The man Gordon will replace on tour to South Africa and Argentina is Joe Powell, who will instead start for the Vikings and get some precious game time after holding a lot of tackle bags but not doing much actual tackling in games over the last few months.

It’s must win for Country, but you just suspect that Canberra’s depth might edge them that much closer toward locking down a finals berth.

Sydney v Fiji

The final game of the weekend pits a Rays team desperate to break their duck in 2018 against a Drua side desperate to prove they can win away from Fiji.

The Rays looked better on Wednesday night in going down to NSW Country than in their first two games, but the toll that the short turnaround will take is the big unknown going into a must-win game like this. The Rays’ schedule isn’t ideal for coach Chris Whitaker, but it’s something the Rays just need to put behind them and get on with.

Easier said than done, though, against a Drua side that will be fast and physical, and not necessarily in that order.

And what’s more, last season, the Drua always seemed to need a week to warm up to life on tour in Australia; on both occasions they toured in 2017, they lost the first game, before bouncing back to win the second. After winning Round 3 and 4 games at home last year, the Drua lost heavily on a freezing Friday night in Canberra, before bounding back to thump the Greater Sydney Rams at TG Millner and claim the Horan-Little Shield.

The Drua lost last week to Queensland Country, and pretty heavily at that. Which means the Rays know what is coming on Sunday at Concord.

What better time to meet the challenge head-on and notch their first win of the season.