NRC McKay column: City still in the hunt as final four take shape

by Brett McKay

Round five of the 2018 NRC saw the field of contenders for the playoff narrowed to five, with Melbourne’s loss to Canberra almost certainly ending their chances and Brisbane City’s superb win over Queensland Country adding some spice to the final two rounds.

What wet weather?

You may well have noticed the wet surface and the soaked jerseys and the distinct lack of locals on the hill at Churchill Park in Lautoka on Saturday, and rightly concluded that the conditions weren’t great for running rugby. 

But if you watched for any length of time, you quickly would have seen that the wet conditions certainly didn’t hold the Fijian Drua back from doing what comes naturally to them: running rugby!

Of their eight tries, four came from well inside their half, showcasing some incredible support play and the kind of rugby that looks wonderful under blue skies, never mind the kind of weather this match was played in. But the Drua scoring long-range tries is hardly even news now, so it’s worth pointing out some moments that just make you scream at the TV in delight.

Openside flanker Jone Navori’s incredible offload for Apisalome Vota’s first try was absolutely “sublime”, as Fox Sports’ Andrew Swain waxed lyrical at the time, a wonderful combination of absorbing the contact, busting the arms through the other side, and dishing it off for Vota to run away and score with eight to play.

Replacement Peni Matawalu’s twenty-metre pass off the deck would’ve been impressive enough if it came in the first twenty minutes of a game, but his outstanding pass for Vota’s second try came in the 78th minute of a game that had been decided some time beforehand.

This is where we’re at with the Fijian Drua; just marvelling at how on earth they do what they do with a rugby ball.

Scratchy, but effective for the Vikings

If the mark of a decent side is their ability to eek out wins that they probably don’t deserve to, then the Canberra Vikings have more than proved that they’re a decent side over the last three weeks. 

In consecutive weeks, the Vikings have beaten the Western Force at home, NSW Country in Armidale, and Melbourne at home, and in all three wins they’d have walked away wondering how they got away with wins that their opposition thought were well and truly in hand.

Coach Nick Scrivener would be the first to admit they haven’t been at their best in all three wins, but he’d also be quite rightly thrilled that his young Vikings side is finding ways of getting the job done. The second half set piece has been quite incredible in all three wins; often the platform that has driven the revival.

Canberra have two weeks to find their best, or even something near an 80-minute performance, and when they do, they’ll be more than a handful against any opposition.

Equally, Melbourne were again left lamenting a second half fadeout, which saw them being outmuscled in the rough stuff, and which made life pretty difficult for the backs to get anywhere. I still maintain they’re a better side than the table suggests, but there’s no doubt the gap between starting side and bench players is their undoing.

Scrum resets becoming an issue

One of the very fundamentals of the NRC when it was first conceived was the speed of play and the increased overall ball-in-play time. Over the first few seasons, both aspects have been wonderful, with plenty of games played at a faster pace than Super Rugby, and with ball in play times nearing forty minutes.

The rugby in 2018 has again been great, but if there is a criticism of this year’s play, it’s been that we have found games getting bogged down by technicality, particularly around the scrum, and with the result being that far too much time has been spent resetting scrums. This is made with no data to back it up, but it seems is that the 2018 ball in play time is well down on recent seasons.

Last week we saw the crazy situation in the NSW Country-Canberra game, in which upwards of seven or eight minutes was lost as scrums took over. At least four full-arm penalties were given in the midst of numerous resets, the Vikings lost loosehead Sione Taula to the sin bin for repeated infringements, yet it took another three minutes and more scrums packed before the Eagles were awarded a penalty try.

This weekend, the Vikings and Melbourne packs did their best, and both had the ascendency at different points, but again, too many resets and too many scrum penalties meant that precious time was again lost. And though both sides had players on the naughty chair, none were for scrum infringements.

We need to get games moving again; if that means going to the full-arm penalty early – or, indeed, an early yellow card – then so be it. We’re seeing some great rugby played in the NRC, but we’re also seeing too much of barely any rugby being played at all.

City regain ‘Andy’ and out themselves in the hunt

In hindsight, Round 5 did look a bit obvious, meaning there was always bound to be an upset somewhere along the way. And in fairness, Brisbane City probably wouldn’t see their fourth Andy Purcell Cup win in five seasons as an upset, simply because beating Queensland Country is something they never have trouble getting up for.

The Queensland Derby has always been a hotly contested affair, and the 2018 edition was one of the best in recent years, with lead changes and comebacks and both sides going try for try through the second half. And City knew of the danger posed by Country, too, evidenced by Quade Cooper kicking two penalty goals for the match. It has happened before, but teams kicking more than one penalty in an NRC game is still a rare event.

But more than getting their hands on ‘Andy’ again, Brisbane City’s impressive win puts them right back on the edge of the NRC top four – they now trail Queensland Country in fourth by just a point, and just as importantly, they’ve opened a six-point gap on Melbourne in sixth place which should ensure they don’t get run down.

City now have NSW Country in Camden this weekend, and Canberra at home to finish. And having just toppled the reigning Champions the Derby, City have just proved they’re good enough to challenge for a playoffs spot. 

Western Force edge close to back-to-back Horan-Little Shield titles

A completely dominant 63-15 win over the Sydney Rays by the Western Force now means the Horan-Little Shield goes on the line automatically next weekend against the Rising.

When it was first introduced four seasons ago, one of the conditions was that after two successful defences, the Shield is then automatically up for challenge for each subsequent game the holder plays whether home or away. Rising will get their first crack at the Shield, of which they were the inaugural holders for the 2014 season.

Should the Force survive a third challenge, they would then have one final home defence for 2018 against the Fijian Drua, and a win there would make them the first back-to-back holders in the Shield’s short history.

Shield defence aside, the extent of the Force’s clinical win will be enough for the other teams in contention to sit up and take notice. They’re now sitting in second spot, and they will take a lot of beating if they can hold onto the home finals advantage in 2018.