McKay NRC column: Rating the contenders at the halfway mark

by Brett McKay

I still haven’t worked out if last weekend was the best ever round of National Rugby Championship, but my goodness, it was a great weekend of rugby. It was seriously good.

But this weekend looms as maybe even more important again, because now that we’re beyond the halfway point of the season, we start learning about the reality or the desperation of the run home for the eight sides.

1st – Fijian Drua (14 points, 3 wins)

The new boys on the NRC block were in a very similar spot last year, sitting right up near the pointy end of the table with three rounds to go, only to have a bye and two losses at home with a dozen players out on international duty undo all their good work in the early rounds.

The Fijian Drua took a win in Sydney. Photo: Getty ImagesThis year, their run home starts with two home games against NSW Country and Canberra, and their first ever NRC trip to Perth in Round 7 to take on the Western Force.

Two current top four sides in the last two weeks makes this a tough run for the Drua, but even just two wins from those three games could be enough to secure home finals. And what a spectacle that would be, an NRC semi-final in Fiji; we could be talking another record crowd.

2nd - Queensland Country (14 points, 3 wins)

The reigning premiers have three very winnable games to come, and three wins would almost certainly secure top spot and home ground advantage throughout the NRC Finals Series.

Of course, where Country would play those home games is another problem for another day, but what a problem to have.

Queensland Country impressed in round one. Photo: Getty ImagesIt starts with the Andy Purcell Cup grudge match with Brisbane City, at the home of the Wests Bulldogs this Sunday, and chance to draw closer to even in the head-to-head stakes with City.

After that, it’s the Sydney Rays at Bond Uni, and their NSW Country counterparts in Tamworth.

The Western Force loss in Round 3 was the loss Country had to have, and home ground advantage is very much within their grasp.

3rd – Canberra Vikings (13 points, 3 wins)

The next fortnight will determine the Vikings’ season, with Melbourne bringing more of a challenge to Viking Park on Saturday night than their table position indicates.

Then, the following week, it’s the enormous challenge of facing the Fijian Drua on their home turf in Lautoka.

Ryan Lonergan is one of the players in the Vikings NRC squad. Photo: Getty ImagesIf they can get through those two games, then Brisbane City in Brisbane in the final round could decide whether the Vikings can finish top two or not.

But they have to get past the Rising on Saturday night first, and if there’s a danger game this weekend, this might just be it.

4th – Western Force (13 points, 3 wins)

The Force have had just the one home game in the first four rounds, but they no have two more to come in their last three games, all starting with a second Horan-Little Shield defence on Sunday, against the Sydney Rays at in Perth.

But while on paper this game looks like it should be one-sided, the Force will only have to look back to Round 8 last year, to know the danger of the Rays. On that day it was indeed the Sydney Rays who ended Perth Spirit’s unbeaten run at McGillivray Oval, a run that stretched more than two years.

After that, it’s Melbourne in Geelong, and then Fiji in Perth to finish the regular season. Plenty of good judges think the Force can win all three and finish top two. I agree.

5th- Brisbane City (9 points, 2 wins)

It was a super-impressive comeback to beat Melbourne last weekend, and while that win has kept them within reach of the top four, a win over Queensland Country this weekend in Toowong could be what puts them right in the mix.

Following that, City have NSW Country in Camden and the Canberra Vikings at home in Brisbane. Brisbane City need to win at least two of their next three to be a chance of making the top four, but even then, other results would probably need to go their way. Three straight wins, though… that would make things interesting.

6th – Melbourne Rising (7 points, 1 win)

The Rising are the only other team outside the top four to possibly challenge for a semi-finals berth. Furthermore, they’re maybe the only team outside the top four playing the kind of rugby that could upset top four teams.

The Rebels are bracing for an important clash. Photo: Getty ImagesMelbourne’s run starts with the Vikings in Canberra on Saturday, then it’s the Force in Geelong and the Sydney Rays in Ballarat to finish. If any team is capable of winning three games on the trot, it might be the Rising. There’s just something about them, to my eye at least, that isn’t reflected in their table position.

7th – NSW Country (5 points, 1 win)

The Eagles have looked really good in their last two games, and were desperately unlucky not to get the points against Canberra last weekend. It’s a real run home, though; Fiji in Fiji tomorrow, Brisbane City in Camden, and then Queensland Country in Tamworth to finish.

The Eagles’ slow start will prove too much, but if any team outside the top four is going to play the spoiler role for teams above them over the next three rounds, it’s NSW Country.

8th – Sydney Rays (1 point)

Here’s a bold claim: the Rays will win a game in 2018. They have the Western Force in Perth on Sunday, then it’s Queensland Country on the Gold Coast, and Melbourne in Ballarat to finish.

I don’t know which of those three Sydney will definitely win, but they’ll win one of them. Something has to click for them soon; there’s too many good players in their side to come away with nothing for the year.