McKay column: Which teams must win this week to keep NRC finals hopes alive?

NRC
by Brett McKay

With three rounds of the National Rugby Championship already behind his, this weekend’s Round 4 is the one which we tip over the halfway point of the competition.

And with only three rounds to be played after this one, it means this weekend suddenly becomes very, very important for the finals aspirations for a number of teams.

Four wins has always been the rough number needed to make the NRC finals, although it’s not quite as simple as that because the season has changed lengths fairly regularly.

Will Harrison attempts to evade a tackle from Angus Blyth. Photo: Getty Images

For one thing, this season is only the third in which eight teams have played seven games each before the semi-final stage.

In 2016, such was the standout quality of NSW Country, the then Sydney Rays, and Perth Spirit (now playing as the Western Force) that Melbourne actually snuck into fourth spot with only three wins, beating Canberra with a less worse negative for-and-against.

Last season, back to eight teams after the cessation of the Greater Sydney Rams, four wins wasn’t enough for Brisbane City, with Queensland Country, the Force, and Canberra all on five wins and only separated by two points.

In 2017, the addition of the Fijian Drua pushed us back to nine teams playing eight regular season games, and though four wins was enough for the Drua and Perth to finish in the top four, NSW Country and Brisbane City missed out.

A draw meant the Eagles actually lost one game fewer than the Spirit, with a points differential of just 30 the only thing that split them. The Sydney Stars finished fourth with four wins in 2015, but NSW Country again missed out with the same number of wins, but this time one fewer bonus points.

 

And the second-highest bonus point tally in the competition was enough for Perth to squeeze into fourth in the first year of the NRC in 2014, despite only tallying three wins.

So you see what I mean when I say four wins is the rough number: it’s always been the target but sometimes it still isn’t enough. And that may well be the case again in 2019.

But with a month of the competition to be played before we hit the semis, it’s worth looking at who can at least get to four wins.

Starting at the bottom of the NRC table, the Melbourne Rising are yet to record a win from their three games, meaning they must win all four from this weekend just to get to four wins.

The Drua are the 2018 NRC champions. Photo: Getty Images

They also don’t have any bonus points, meaning they really are still stuck in square one, taking on a Queensland Country side this weekend in Ballarat.

But the Rising last week ran out their best forwards pack of the season and it pushed the Western Force all the way.

That pack has pretty much remained intact this week, save for the very welcome addition of Wallabies pre-RWC squad member Luke Jones at blindside. There’s no doubt if Melbourne are going to find four wins from here, it will have to be forwards-led and it has to start this weekend.

Defending champions the Fijian Drua sit seventh on the NRC table with just one loss but with two draws their only points to date.

The Drua aren’t quite as strong this season, it’s fair to say, and have already dropped one of only three home games this campaign. Their next home game is tomorrow, however, when they host Sydney at Churchill Park in Lautoka, less than three hours before the Flying Fijians take on the Wallabies in a Rugby World Cup clash in Japan.

Tom Banks will start for the Wallabies against Samoa. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

Like the Rising, the Drua must win this weekend against Sydney and will probably need to win all their remaining games against Canberra, Melbourne, and Queensland Country. The four points from two draws means that three wins from the last four games might be enough, but the strength of the top teams is such that you probably can’t rely on it.

Sydney sit in sixth spot and produced one of the performances of the season last weekend, to not just upset Queensland Country but to properly put a score on them, winning very well 47-26.

Another performance like that will certainly make competitive against the Drua in Fiji, and though they only need three wins from their remaining four games to get to the four-win target, I think Sydney need to win this weekend to make finals footy a real prospect, with Melbourne to come and a tough finish with Canberra and the Western Force in the last two rounds.

Queensland Country are in fifth, but only one solitary differential point over Sydney. Both teams have one win and both have six points. But Country should be good enough to get over Melbourne’s forwards and with plenty of strike power out wide.

After this weekend, Country have their annual grudge match with Brisbane City to come in Gladstone before finishing with NSW Country and Fiji.

Brisbane City captain Fraser Mcreight and Queensland Country captain Angus Scott-Young. Photo: Getty Images

It feels like an easier run home than Sydney’s, which makes it an easier route to four wins for the Queenslanders.

In fourth, Brisbane City are only two points ahead of their Country cousins, but their Round 1 draw with Fiji could prove very handy in the final standings. City also need to win just three of their remaining games to reach four wins, but there’s a few tricky games ahead, starting with NSW Country at Norths Rugby Club in Brisbane this weekend, followed by Queensland Country and the Western Force in Perth.

If they can find at least two wins in that list, then a final round win over Melbourne should see City back in the finals for the first time since their unbeaten NRC title back in 2015.

Canberra edged back into third with their gritty but important one-point win over Brisbane City last weekend and this weekend welcome Joe Powell and Tom Banks into their starting side to take on the Force in Perth.

Two wins and nine points means the Vikings need only two more wins over their remaining four games, with Fiji, Sydney, and NSW Country to follow this weekend’s juicy fixture in the west.

They have class written all over them, the Vikings, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win at least three of their next four and well and truly challenge for a top-two finish and home semi.

Junior Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase was among Country's best in their draw against the Drua. Photo: Getty Images

Unbeaten with two wins, last weekend’s draw with Fiji in Wollongong, and 10 points to sit second, NSW Country look equally capable of finding two more wins to take their tally to four. But it’s a slightly rocky road ahead, with Brisbane City, the Western Force in Port Macquarie, Queensland Country, and Canberra to finish.

Like the Vikings, the Eagles also look capable of winning three of the last four and you even suspect the Viking Park clash in Round 7 might decide second spot.

That just leaves the top-of-the-table and also unbeaten Western Force, who need only one further win to hit the magic number of four.

Even if they dropped this weekend’s clash with Canberra, it’s still hard to see them not finishing top two with games against NSW Country, Brisbane City, and Sydney to come.

They’ve got the distinct advantage of long-established combinations through Global Rapid Rugby and now have momentum in the NRC behind them as well.

I can’t see the Western Force/Perth Spirit not playing a fifth NRC finals series in six seasons and as I suspected when the competition kicked off, they remain the team to beat in 2019.