The penultimate round of the National Rugby Championship was another ripper, with three brilliant and closely-fought contests and a very timely reminder from the defending Champions.
We saw the Fijian Drua take another step toward sealing a top two finish, the Western Force set up a monumental Horan-Little Shield title defence at home, and Brisbane City coming back to ensure their grandstand finish remains alive.
Super Sunday delivers
If losing bonus points are the barometer for cracking games, then Sunday served it up to us very nicely, indeed.
Melbourne Rising left Geelong with their third losing bonus point from their fifth loss of the season, again proving that they’re a better side than what the table shows.
It’ll be cold comfort after the fact, but this performance of the Rising against the Western Force might have been their best of the season.
The halftime score of 12-7 was a perfect illustration of the contest, and we saw another four lead changes through the second half as the Rising and Force went try-for-try to ensure the contest went the distance.
Melbourne looked polished in their attack at times, and scored some wonderful tries along the way, but the little mistakes that have been their undoing throughout the 2018 NRC had an uncanny knack of handing the Force an opportunity.
And they were opportunities the Force forwards were only too happy to take. Their lineout drive was impressive all day, with none better than Heath Tessmann’s throw to the back and the maul which started moving immediately to see replacement prop Cameron Orr barge over with fifteen minutes to play.
Winger Clay Uyen finished off a nice movement to seal the win with three minutes left on the clock, and you’d have to think if the Western Force go all the way this season, this win over Melbourne will be seen as the performance that set up their run through the playoffs.
The NSW Country-Brisbane City match was close throughout the first half, and when the Eagles scored two converted tries either side of a smartly-taken penalty goal to push them out to a 13-point lead with less than twenty minutes to play, it felt like all the momentum was with the home side in Camden.
But as it’s always been, finding quick points in the NRC isn’t necessarily as difficult as it can sometimes appear, and City proved this with two converted tries of their own in the space of six minutes to catch the Eagles, and then re-take the lead with Quade Cooper’s fourth conversion of the afternoon.
From there, it was just a matter of holding out, and despite NSW Country winning a penalty after the bell, Brisbane City had done enough to put themselves on the edge of the NRC top four.
A mouth-watering final round awaits
The Western Force’s 31-28 win over Melbourne propelled them to second on the NRC ladder, on 22 points behind the Fijian Drua on 23.
Which means the NRC minor premiership will be decided next Saturday afternoon over in the west, when the Drua make their first ever trip to Perth with the daunting task of taming both the Force and the parochial McGillivray Oval home crowd. It looms as an amazing contest as is.
But throw in the Horan-Little Shield title for 2018 as well, and the contest goes to all new giddy heights. The Force’s third straight Shield defence sets up one last monumental defence at home, when whatever the result, we’ll have a ‘first’.
If Fiji spring what would be an upset, then they’ll be the first NRC team to take the Shield title off Australian soil. And if the Force win, to follow up Perth Spirit’s 2017 win, they’ll become the first team in Shield history to go back-to-back.
But that’s not all…
The final regular season game for 2018 sees Brisbane City hosting Canberra at David Wilson Field, the home of Easts Tigers in Queensland Premier Rugby.
Like the Drua and Force, the 4th-placed Vikings and 5th-placed City are separated by just a point, which means this contest will decide the final playoff spot for 2018. What a way to warm up for the finals.
Is October the NRC’s opportunity?
With the AFL and NRL competitions decided, and with the major summer sporting codes still in pre-season mode, any surfing around their Fox Sports remote over the weekend would’ve found wall-to-wall Bathurst 1000 coverage during the day, and… that’s about it.
Which makes you think that these last two rounds - this weekend just gone and next weekend – before the playoffs commence would be a prime opportunity for the NRC to play games in prime-time slots and get them in front of as many live sport-craving eyes as possible.
We’ll effectively do that once the finals begin anyway, so what does the NRC have to lose by making the shift from afternoons to under lights early and try and maximise the viewing audience?
You might even maximise the live crowds, too, by removing the conflicts with local sport for families.
It just seems like a no-brainer. With not a whole lot else on of a Friday or Saturday night in the month of October, why shouldn’t the NRC make a claim for the space?
And if that claim will come in two weeks’ time for the finals anyway, why wait until then?
First half trap plus late mistakes cost Vikings
All last week the Canberra Vikings knew the score: they couldn’t allow themselves to get caught up in a fast-paced, offload and counter-attack game against the table-topping Fijian Drua.
Even though it’d been raining pretty heavily in Fiji all week, the Vikings knew they couldn’t play into the home side’s hands.
Except that that’s exactly what they did. After being so conscious of not giving the Drua precisely the kind of opportunities they thrive on, the Vikings shelled five tries and 33 unanswered points in 18 minutes. Even scoring the last try to go into halftime down 33-12, it was hard to see how Canberra pulled this game back under control.
Somehow they did, and the more they held onto the ball after the break, the more they slowed the game, and the more points they found themselves – to the point that they led the match with twenty to play. By playing exactly the way the they wanted to, the Vikings got themselves back into the contest and led the Drua on home soil.
Ultimately, though, they couldn’t hold on. Despite holding a numerical advantage with Mosese Voka in the sin bin, and the territorial ascendency, simple little mistakes conspired to kill off the win Canberra probably deserved to that point.
And the price of those mistakes is the virtual quarter-final situation they now find themselves in next Sunday against Brisbane City.
Queensland Country right the ship
After two straight losses threatened to unravel the reigning Champions defence, Queensland Country roared back into life with a clinical demolition of the Sydney Rays on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
In fairness, the Rays had done well to notch tries either side of halftime to reduce the margin to two points, but even then, you could feel the Country were about to explode.
The result was five tries, a penalty try, and a 38-point scoring spree in just 20 minutes to completely blow the Rays away. Filipo Daugunu seemed to be making linebreaks for fun, but he was hardly alone, with Duncan Paia’aua back to his string-pulling best, and Jordan Petaia outstanding in the no.13.
Just when the thought might have been there about Country looking vulnerable in this year’s NRC, they’ve reminded everyone that they’re still going to have a huge bearing on the rest of the competition.