The National Rugby Championship semi-finals served up a couple of games to remember.
The Fijian Drua too good for the Canberra Vikings in Lautoka on Saturday, while on Sunday Queensland Country played their way into a second straight decider, getting the better of the monsoon conditions and the Western Force on the Gold Coast.
Fiji and Queensland Country will now meet in the 2018 NRC final in Fiji next Saturday afternoon.
Canberra’s mud-running form nearly the difference
Despite much of Australia’s east coast being drought declared, or near enough to it, the Canberra Vikings had become something of the wet-track specialists over the last fortnight.
They very nearly beat Fiji in Fiji after a week of rain on the islands back in round six, and then did account for Brisbane City on a good, old-fashioned mud heap in the final round last weekend.
Coming into the semis, seemingly everyone recognised that the Vikings were going to need to try and pull the game into a tight, set piece battle if they were to be any hope of controlling their game against the Fijian Drua.
Hours and hours of rain in Fiji on Saturday morning must have been music to the Vikings' ears, then, and a soggy Churchill Park greeted both sides come kick-off. Undoubtedly, the Vikings adapted to the conditions the fastest , but that’s hardly surprising given what they’ve played in over the last two rounds.
Canberra established set piece dominance early and used that to power their advantage to a 23-7 lead on 50 minutes.
And even though young flyhalf Noah Lolesio had missed four conversions to that point, it was still hard to see how the Drua were going to get themselves back in the contest...
Fiji do a Vikings on the Vikings
…but the front row changes the Drua made at half-time began to have an impact. Out of nowhere, Fiji won a penalty from a massive dominant scrum, and lock Albert Tuisue emerged from his ten minutes in the naughty chair and proceeded to mow down Vikings ball-carriers.
Prop Eroni Mawi’s pick-and-drive try changed things, and from there, the Drua got better with every phase of possession.
Just like Canberra had done a fortnight earlier, the Drua were clawing their way back into the game through the forwards, and when No.8 Eremasi Radrodro barged over, the margin was back to just two points with 20 minutes to play.
Buoyed by the sizable home crowd, the Drua grabbed the lead soon after, and when their dominant scrum was awarded a well-deserved penalty try with just minutes left, the maiden NRC Final had been locked in.
At 23-7 down, it looked like Fiji weren’t just going to be knocked off at home, but that the margin was going be comfortable. To claw themselves back into the contest and win the way they did, it will have to be a huge confidence boost for next week’s final at home.
Country’s all-round game keeps their title defence alive
There may not be a more perfectly balanced side in the NRC this season than Queensland Country.
Of the four semi-finalists, Fiji’s attacking prowess is well known, while Canberra and the Western Force’s set piece platform worked superbly for them throughout their campaigns. But Country are the only side who can rely on the set piece and their attack in equal measures.
Country’s attack was again on song in the first half, as conditions held up at Bond University, and boom outside centre Jordan Petaia did his chances of a Wallabies tour call-up for the injured Reece Hodge no harm at all with another dominant attacking display.
Then, when the heavens opened in the second half, Country turned to their scrum and lineout to get the job done.
And this was timely, because the Force had done exactly the same thing to claw back the deficit themselves. Forward pressure and some hard work at the breakdown led to some very handy three-pointers for Hamish Stewart, and Angus Scott-Young’s pick-and-drive sealer on full-time put a bow on their first ever win over a Western Force/Perth Spirit side.
If anyone can beat the Drua in Fiji, Country are the team best-equipped.
Force survive the lightning, but not Angus Blyth
In all my life, I cannot ever recall a rugby game being temporarily stopped because of lightning. It was the right call, by the way, and you only have to take note of the lightning and rainstorm that led to a V8 Supercars race being abandoned at nearby Surfers Paradise to know how bad things really could have become.
The Force scored through prop Harry Lloyd only a few minutes after play resumed, but just as they started going to their pack to get the job done, their lineout was being picked off by Country lock Angus Blyth precisely when they needed it least.
The Force scrum won a few moments here and there, but they were too spasmodic to generate momentum. They matched up well with Queensland Country going into the semi-final, but just couldn’t quite get it done on the day.
It’s been another big year for the Western Force though, and there’s no doubt at all that their World Series Rugby campaign gave them a great platform for a fourth NRC finals appearance.
The Final: we’re going to Fiji!
In the back offices of the Fijian Rugby Union, I’m sure there would be a planning document or the like which formed the proposal for the Drua to join Australia’s NRC last season.
And in that document, I’m sure they would’ve included some lofty goals for success for the team from the islands.
But would a home final inside two seasons have been one of those goals? It’d be fascinating to know.
Regardless, the Fiji-Queensland Country decider will be a cracking contest, and if the weather holds out, you couldn’t rule out the possibility of another record NRC crowd being posted.
It’ll be physical, the ball will see plenty of air, and above all else, it will be entertaining.
Like the semi-finals this weekend, you could make a strong case for both sides being good enough to lift the NRC ‘Toast rack’ trophy next Saturday – but that just makes the build-up that much more intriguing.