McKay NRC Column: And then there were four

by Brett McKay

The National Rugby Championship’s final regular season round delivered all the theatrics and drama that a final round should, setting up next week’s semi finals beautifully.

Fijian Drua’s second half domination in Perth saw them claim the minor premiership and all the finals hosting rights, while Queensland Country’s bonus point demolition of NSW Country meant the Western Force slipped out of the top two.

And that was all before Canberra triumphed in a wet weather slog-fest for the purists.

Queensland Country’s defence on track

Losses to the Western Force in Round 4 and Brisbane City in the Round 5 Queensland Derby threatened to unravel Country’s NRC title defence, but the 2017 champions have bounced back nicely over the last two games to remind everyone that they’re a long way from done this season.

By the table standings, Queensland Country entrenched in the top three teams, should have comfortably put the eighth-placed Sydney Rays away last week, and the seventh-placed NSW Country this weekend as well.

The scoreboard for both games shows that the Queenslanders scored dominant 40-point and 24-point bonus point wins, but the truth of both games is that the degree of relative comfort only came in the final quarter.

The fact that they were really made to earn both wins – a grind for a solid hour in both cases – just might make Queensland Country all the more dangerous now that the competition has entered the knockout stages.

As if there was ever any doubt, let it be brushed aside. Queensland Country are bang up for back-to-back titles.

Force-Drua worthy of a repeat showing

All last week, the expectation was that the Western Force-Fijian Drua match would be a ripper and there is no question the game lived up to every bit of the hype. A cracking game played in front of a vocal and sizeable home crowd on the McGillivray Oval hill was the perfect finish to great NRC double-header of Fox Sports on Saturday.

It left you wanting for more, and if the rugby gods decreed that he Force and Drua should meet again during the finals series, I don’t see how anyone could possibly disappointed.

But could it actually happen?

Fiji winning a home semi-final would surprise no-one; despite sharing their home games between Lautoka and Nausori in 2018, the Drua went unbeaten at home, and indeed, have only lost two games in Fiji in their two seasons playing in the NRC.

Canberra now have to head back to Fiji for a second time in a fortnight, and the lessons they learnt from shelling what would’ve been a memorable (and maybe top two-sealing) win, and playing two games in wetter conditions than anyone should endure in consecutive starts will hopefully be what gets them to a third NRC final.

The Western Force, equally, were the team to bring Queensland Country’s unbeaten start to 2018 to a halt, with their last-gasp 42-40 win on the Gold Coast. And let’s not forget, it was Perth Spirit’s after-the-bell 29-26 win over Country last year that saw Perth sneak into the finals. It’s not at all impossible to think the Force could repeat the dose, which would give us the repeat showing of Saturday evening blockbuster.

And wouldn’t that be something.

Shield headed for paradise

The Drua won the Horan-Little Shield on Saturday. Photo: Getty ImagesIf you were going to be put on show for a year, what better place to be displayed than in an island paradise?

That’s the fete of the Horan-Little Shield for the next twelve months, after the Drua became the Shield’s fifth different holder in the five years since its inception with their win over the Force in Perth.

Fiji’s Shield win continued a trend, where it has changed hands in the final challenge of the season for the last three consecutive seasons. NSW Country won it in 2016 with a last-round win over the Greater Sydney Rams, while Perth Spirit took the Shield to Western Australia after a last-round win over Queensland Country.

But you don’t have to draw a picture on Shield, just engrave the name of the final holders, and from now until this time next year, it will simply say “2018 FIJIAN DRUA”. I hope it has a lovely time on its new island home.

Melbourne delivers unwanted record Sydney-bound

It was an impressive second half burst from the Victorians, when they exploded with 29 points in 19 minutes to blow the Sydney rays out of the contest. A contest which had been reasonably even through the first half had quickly been put to bed, with the Rising securing their second win of the season.

But, in the cold light of not featuring in the NRC finals for a second straight year, the Rising will have to concede that 2018 has been a season of underachievement for a squad with as much Super Rugby experience as they have.

Their two wins were both big wins, but came against the two NSW-based sides, which have had their own issues this season. Their three losing bonus points came in games with a combined losing margin of just six – even they win just two of those three, then a four-win record on par with what Brisbane City finished with would be a much closer representation of where they should have finished comparatively to the top sides.

Simple mistakes and bench depth were the key factors, in the end. But if the 2019 season learns from these 2018 failing, then perhaps the underachievement will have been worth it.

For Sydney, the first season back in the traditional colours and that magnificent collared jersey will be one to forget, with an unwanted record the only thing they have to show for it: the Rays are now they first team in the five seasons of the NRC to not record a single win.

It means after playing in the 2016 semis, the Rays have since won just three times in 15 NRC starts. On top of NSW Country’s single 2018 win, the NRC reviews in NSW this season won’t make for a comfortable end to the campaign.

Canberra’s win for the purists

It was wet, muddy, raining, low-scoring, forwards-led, a slug fest, and it was amazing.

Old school, put-the-long-studs-in, wet-weather rugby doesn’t get played very often at the elite level these days, and so it was great to see in a competition that has averaged just under ten tries a game in 2018, both teams rolled the sleeves up, tucked the ball under the arm, and just ripped into it.

This was one of those games which neither team deserved to lose, but someone had to.

And though their scrum was pinged and penalised from minute one to minute eighty, Canberra just had that little more control and method to everything they did. In the end, that and two well-taken Wharenui Hawera penalties were the difference between the two sides, with the Vikings now again needing their passports this week.

The Vikings will need every element of this control and guile to keep the Fijian Drua on a tight leash in this weekend’s semi-final – but if they can bring the game back to the same set-piece and breakdown grind they found in Brisbane, then maybe they can do the job in Fiji, too.