McKay NRC Column: Major showdown for minor premiership

by Brett McKay

Here we go then, the final round of the 2018 National Rugby Championship, and we’re in for an absolutely sensational weekend of rugby. 

Two games will have a huge impact on the final makeup of the top four: Western Force v Fijian Drua on Saturday will decide who claims the minor premiership and the Horan-Little Shield for 2018, while Brisbane City v Canberra on Sunday will determine which of the two sides takes the final playoff berth. 

If you’re in Perth or Brisbane, do yourself a massive favour and get to either game. If you’re not, stock the fridge, prepare the snacks, and get comfy on the couch. You don’t want to miss any game this weekend. 

SATURDAY: Western Force v Fijian Drua, Perth 

Second v First. The minor premiership and home ground finals advantage awaits. It could be the game of the season. And it will be the Drua’s first ever NRC trip to Western Australia. 

On paper, it shapes as a wonderful contest. 

The first-placed Fijians dominate all the attack stats: they lead the way in carries, clean breaks, defenders beaten, and offloads. They've scored more tries than every other side bar Queensland Country, and comfortably lead the run metres - they're not far off doubling the metres tally of the Force, in fact. 

Interestingly, the Drua have conceded the fewest tries. Probably because they don’t have time to let tries in, on account scoring so many tries and running so many metres themselves. And the Drua unsurprisingly don’t make the most tackles, but they have missed the second-fewest number of tackles this season. They average nearly four fewer missed tackles per game than the Force. 

But Fiji do give chances. They’ve conceded the most turnovers in the competition, they’re the most penalised team in the competition, and they’ve earned the second-most yellow cards. 

The Force, on the other hand, are very happy under the radar and just get the job done. They rank about mid-table in pretty much all the attack stats, though they do offload less and kick more than every other team in the NRC. 

They’ve conceded the fewest penalties and only one yellow card for the season, and are among the more miserly teams when it comes to turnovers conceded. And they’re at home. 

As if this all doesn’t make this a mouth-watering contest, the Horan-Little Shield being on the line for 2018 adds just another level of intrigue to the contest. Fiji have held it once before but only briefly, while the Force can follow on from Perth Spirit last season and become the first side since the Shield’s inception to claim the title for both a second time, and in back-to-back seasons. 

It will be a ripping contest. Please don’t miss it. 

SUNDAY: Brisbane City v Canberra Vikings, Brisbane 

If the Force-Drua blockbuster does indeed play out as the game of the year, it’s my very strong hunch that the City-Vikings clash won’t be far behind it. 

A reply of the 2015 decider, this seemingly innocuous match at the start of the campaign now looms as a virtual quarter-final for both sides, with the winner taking the final semi-final place. 

City can finish as high as third if they win and Queensland Country lose to their NSW cousins, while Canberra could actually climb to second if they win, the same Country-clash scenario plays out, and the Force take no points out of their match with the Drua. There are other possibilities with a Force bonus-point loss and a Vikings bonus-point win, but the for-and-against gap between the two sides is probably too big. 

Brisbane City started a bit slowly, but have really built some serious momentum with four straight wins and will fear no-one now that they’re on the edge of a third NRC Finals campaign. 

Canberra lost a hard-fought game first up to Queensland Country, but then won four straight themselves before being run down in Fiji last weekend. 

Both teams have a good set piece and both could lay a claim on having the best scrum in the competition. There’s no doubt this game will be won up front, and that’s where Canberra will be focussed, given the star quality waiting in City’s backline. The Viking can find points, though, and Brisbane have conceded the third-most tries in 2018.

When viewed this way, it’s almost a shame that both sides can’t make the playoffs. But that’s the by-product of a close competition; one of these very good teams is going to miss out. 

THE OTHERS: NSW Country v Queensland Country; Tamworth, Saturday 

Here’s a stat for you: despite playing in twice as many finals series as Queensland Country and finishing higher on the table in three of the previous four seasons, the Eagles have only beaten their Queensland counterparts once from four attempts. 

Is this the week they really click in 2018, and at the same time close that gap? 

NSW Country really should have won more than the one game in 2018, particularly those agonising losses to Canberra and Brisbane City. Too often they’ve been there or there abouts, only to let themselves down in some way, shape or form. They’re the most yellow-carded team in the NRC, averaging one per game. 

And the task doesn’t get any easier in the form of the reigning champions, who took a bit of a hit with two losses on the hop before bouncing back to account for Sydney pretty comfortably last week on the Gold Coast. 

This will be a pretty entertaining game, and almost certainly high-scoring. But I can’t help but wonder if the Eagles can produce the big NRC pre-finals twist with an upset win. 

Melbourne Rising v Sydney Rays; Ballarat, Sunday 

If I’ve been waiting for the Eagles to click this season, then I’ve absolutely been waiting for Melbourne to finally Rise in 2018, too. 

On paper, their squad should have them firmly in the race for a playoff berth this weekend, but like NSW Country, they’ve been guilty of ill-timed mistakes and letting teams back into matches. 

The Rays haven’t really had a chance to claim a scalp in 2018, however, but have certainly played some enterprising rugby, with some really talented young players putting their hand up. 

This match will be entertaining, too, but is it one mountain too many for the Rays? Have they got the performance in them that would avoid the unwanted record of being the first side in NRC history to post a winless season? 

We find out on Sunday.