Four rounds of the National Rugby Championship are now behind us, with this weekend’s round five the green light for the run home to the finals series.
And after laying out the run home for everyone last week, and trying to establish who can and can’t get to the magical four game target that will make finals qualification easier – but not guaranteed – last weekend’s results have left me with a few questions for the upcoming round.
Which Canberra Vikings will show up?
I’ve mentioned before that if there’s a criticism of the Canberra Vikings through the NRC, it’s that a squad so well supplied with quality contracted players over the years really should have come through for more than just two NRC final defeats in five seasons.
Much of the issue has been a consistent inconsistency, which sees the Vikings drop games they really shouldn’t.
That’s not to say they should’ve won in Perth last week, because it was abundantly clear they weren’t good enough on the day.
Whether it’s a bit of late-season fatigue, or whether the draw caught up with them, with a third away game in four weeks a tough enough ask, let alone it being played across the other side of the country, they now have to give coach Nick Scrivener a reaction to that loss.
Even sitting equal fourth on the table still, they effectively have to win all three of the remaining games at home to be assured of playing in the finals. And they definitely can do that, with the carrot of a home semi even there for them.
It’s all up to them, now. If the right team run out, they can go all the way. But they just proved to themselves that they don’t have to be far off the pace to cop a beating.
Which Fijian Drua will show up?
The other side of the same contest in Canberra tomorrow brings the same question, and it’s just as valid.
The Drua have started this year’s NRC a bit slow but the fact they’ve been able to grind out a couple of draws could prove very handy yet. And it obviously gave them a bit of momentum, because it all clicked for them last weekend in Lautoka as they ran in a comprehensive bonus point win over Sydney.
And that momentum creates more momentum, because the win over Sydney pushed them from seventh to equal fourth with Canberra. A win this weekend over the Viking would put the Drua in the finals frame and reignite their Championship defence.
But we also know the Drua haven’t been great travellers, winning only a handful of games on Australian soil.
And after facing the Vikings in Canberra, Fiji then play the Rising in Melbourne, before finishing the season with Queensland Country on home soil in Sigatoka, which means their defence now comes down to attitude. And that attitude needs to be right, if they’re going to start that defence by beating Canberra in Canberra.
Who can make a run from down the table?
I’ll be honest, I’m actually not sure any of the bottom teams could win their last three straight and go on a run that could finish somewhere near fourth spot.
Fiji’s draw is tough: Canberra in Canberra, Melbourne in Melbourne, and then Queensland Country back in Fiji. Two bottom four teams, but only one game back at home.
Queensland Country, in sixth, have Brisbane City in Gladstone this weekend, followed by NSW Country on the Gold Coast and Fiji in Fiji. That’s a tough tun, too. Two top four teams and a resurgent Fiji.
Fresh off their massive loss in Fiji, seventh-placed Sydney have Melbourne in Sydney this weekend, then Canberra in Canberra and the Western Force back in Sydney. Two top four teams, and the Rising straight off an impressive first win of the season.
Melbourne are only one win off fourth currently, but have Sydney in Sydney, Fiji back in Melbourne, and then Brisbane in Brisbane. One current top four team and a dangerous Fiji – but it’s all moot if they don’t beat Sydney this weekend.
So the issue for all four of these teams is that getting to four wins is a long way from certain. And only Fiji have the benefit of a couple of draws that add up to one win.
Which team drops off first?
May last answer points to the top four being somewhat settled, and that puzzle can become a little clearer when any of the three teams with just one win – Queensland Country, Sydney, and Melbourne – drop another game this weekend.
Another loss this weekend means three wins would be the maximum, and I can’t see a scenario where that would be enough.
So who’s in danger? Probably Melbourne but maybe Queensland Country too.
If the Rising had Sydney in Melbourne, you might be inclined to pencil them in for a win. But a team comprising so many Melbourne local players having to play away becomes a tough ask.
Likewise, Queensland Country mark one game down on the calendar before all others, and that’s the Andy Purcell Cup clash against Brisbane City.
And simply, they must win it this weekend. Their annual grudge match has perhaps never been more important.
Can the Western Force go undefeated?
Only the Melbourne Rising in the inaugural season of the NRC back in 2014, and Brisbane City the following year have gone through a regular season undefeated, with City going on with the job in 2015 and winning their second title without dropping a game.
The Force have NSW Country in Port Macquarie this weekend, Brisbane City over in the west next weekend and then Sydney in Sydney to finish.
For the Western Force, they all look winnable in their current form. And that would obviously secure top spot, and a home semi-final for the first time in five finals appearances between them and the former Perth Spirit.
It looks doable, and what’s more, it would bring much deserved rewards.