McKay Column: Was this the best round of NRC ever?

by Brett McKay

Round four of the National Rugby Championship reminded everyone that for all the try-scoring highlights and weekly Try of the Year entries, it's the teams that dictate proceedings at scrum time that determine the final outcome.

Cracking contests

It was 'Bonus Point weekend', with all four losing teams taking extras away from their contests in what was a really close weekend of NRC rugby. How close? After four rounds, the top four are separated by just one point. 

Now because I have kept track of this sort of thing, I can tell you that we haven’t had an NRC round this close since Round 7 in 2016. That weekend – the final round of the home-and-away season – saw all four losing sides claim bonus points across the round, with 46 tries scored and an average score of 41-44 in favour of the away teams.

Last weekend, we saw 37 tries across the four games – all won by away teams for the first time since Round e8 last season – at an average score of 29-33 to the away side, and all four games were absolute rippers.

Was it the best NRC round ever? Maybe. It’s certainly a decent argument…

Smith twins for the win

Leading 21-7 at halftime, it really felt like the Melbourne Rising side that had been threatening over the first two rounds, and who exploded into life last weekend, was about to go up another gear against Brisbane City in Adelaide.

But City and Queensland Reds front-rowers, twin bookends JP and Ruan Smith had other ideas about that.

The twins proceeded to establish scrum dominance with every second half scrum, and off the back of that, Brisbane City clawed their way back into the contest to level the scores with 27 minutes on the clock.

The Rising hit straight back through Michael Ruru, but City scored two tries in three minutes to capture the lead.

From there, their forwards led the shut-out, and try as Melbourne might, there was just no getting through the impressive Brisbane City forwards.

City and the Rising sit just outside the top four with two wins each, and both can still cause upsets on the run home. But only the Queenslanders have a couple cheeky props leading the way so effectively.

Force continue their Country dominance

It's quite incredible when you think how up and down teams have been over the five-year history of the NRC, but in winning 42-40 on the Gold Coast, the Western Force kept their unbeaten run Queensland Country intact.

You read that right; over the five years of the NRC, Queensland Country have never beaten Perth Spirit/Western Force in five attempts, but they have come agonisingly close.

In the final round of 2017, a Peter Grant penalty in the 80th minute sealed a remarkable 29-26 comeback win against Country.

The Spirit looked done and dusted down 26-7 at halftime, yet somehow kept the competition-leading Country scoreless after the break.

That win vaulted Perth into a third finals series in four seasons and meant Country shelled what would’ve been a well-deserved minor premiership. 

This time around neither team really deserved to lose, with the lead changing hands six times in the second half as Country and the Force went try-for-try. Jack McGregor’s 76th minute try levelled the score yet again, and captain Ian Prior’s perfect record from the kicking tee remained in place, as the Force took the two-point win.

Though the Fijian Drua are yet to lose to – and indeed, yet to beat – some teams, the only other clean sheet between teams still active in the NRC belongs to the NSW Country Eagles.

Wednesday night’s 33-19 Round 1 catch-up win ensured the Eagles have never lost to the Rays, in either their previous North Harbour or the current Sydney guises. That can’t hurt a burgeoning rivalry.

Game of two scrums in Armidale

Despite losing their all-Wallabies front row and backrower Ned Hanigan, NSW Country’s unheralded pack did its own demolition job on the Canberra Vikings at the University of New England in the NSW northern tablelands.

The Eagles’ pack dominated the scrum contest from the outset, and the match spent a good seven or eight minutes camped in the Vikings corner as Country won penalty after penalty.

Referee Damon Murphy banished Vikings loosehead Sione Taula to the sin bin after a third straight penalty, and the seemingly inevitable seven-point penalty try followed soon after. Country led 14-0 at the break, and a third match in eight days didn’t seem to be bothering them at all.

Canberra’s trump card was the second half injection into the contest of evergreen hooker Josh Mann-Rea, and slowly but surely, the Vikings’ pack edged them closer and closer. When boom backrower Rob Valetini barged over with half an hour to play and Lausii Taliauli sped away seven minutes later, the ledger was squared.

A Mack Mason penalty looked like it might do the job until Wharenui Hawera cancelled it out with one of his own with only seconds remaining.

Remember that “Where there’s life there’s Jackson-Hope” header a couple of weeks ago? Well, this is where I wished I’d really used it, because with hope all but lost, Jackson-Hope once again delivered.

A dummy to the two outside support men with Eagles defenders scrambling to cover them, and Jackson-Hope was over for the match-winner. Country had let one slip, and the Vikings had escaped with a third straight win.

Drua win the second game on tour. Because they always do…

The third game in a week didn’t seem to be worrying the Sydney Rays, and when they led an error-prone Fijian Drua 24-5 after 45 minutes, it really felt like they’d go on and secure their first win of the campaign.

But the Fijians clicked into gear when Cyril Reece score with less than 30 minutes to play, and it was as immediate as their goal-kicking was wayward. 29 points in 28 minutes was what they produced to take the win and rocket to the top of the NRC table, but we should’ve expected it.

In their season-and-a-half playing in the NRC, the Drua have now toured Australia for two weeks at a time three times in total. On all three tours, they lost the first game – sometimes heavily – but they have now always bounced back to take the second game.

And now they have their next two games back in Fiji, meaning even if they drop their final away game, against the Western Force in Perth, they could easily take a five-and-two record into the semis.

We’re past the halfway point of the NRC season now, but things are about to get really interesting.