The Canberra Vikings have secured a home semi-final after edging out the NSW Country Eagles 27-19 in the first game of the final round of the NRC at Viking Park in Canberra.
While the Vikings’ spot at the business end of the competition is assured, the Eagles’ finals prospects remain on a knifes edge pending the results of the three remaining games that will take place on Saturday.
In a torrid contest, Country made sure Canberra didn’t have it all their own way. Despite trailing 27-7 just after the break, the Eagles dominated up front in the final 30 minutes as halfback Jake Gordon’s magic saw Country roar home.
But spirited Canberra goal line defence in the closing stages cut short the Eagles’ charge and now the Vikings, with three straight victories under their belt will enter next week’s home final brimming with confidence.
The Vikings controlled the opening stages and on the back of three quick penalties peppered the line, but their hearts were broken by Mark Nawaqanitawase in the sixth minute when the Junior Wallabies winger swooped onto a Bayley Kuenzle pass and raced 95 metres to give the Eagles an unlikely 7-0 lead.
Canberra’s reply was swift when from a rolling maul centre Irae Simone found space with a deft grubber and winger Toni Pulu did the rest grounding the ball out wide.
Ryan Lonergan failed to convert, but the Canberra outfit signalled their finals-like intensions when the halfback slotted a penalty goal in the 14th minute to put Canberra in front 8-7.
Undeterred by the importance of the contest and a potential home final themselves, Country attacked with expansive ball movement from the get-go. But it proved decisive just before halftime, when a loose pass ended with Viking Len Ikitau, and the centre ran away to gift Canberra a 13-7 halftime advantage.
Pete Samu crossed minutes after the restart and when a Mack Hansen long ball after sustained goal line pressure put fullback Tom Banks across the stripe, at 27-7, it looked like the Vikings by the length of the straight.
The tied changed in the final quarter after the Vikings re-jigged their front row. Replacement prop Thomas Ross was penalised in his first scrum and the Eagles’ pack seized the advantage rolling across the line with Maclean Jones awarded the try.
Tom Staniforth ensured Country maintained momentum and led the Eagles upfield and they quickly found themselves within eight points of the Vikings after Gordon fooled the defence from close range to score next to the posts.
The sneaky halfback crossed again after 68 minutes but the Vikings had the final say, ruled to have prevented the ball from touching the grass.
On tired legs Canberra managed to repel raid after raid as the clock wound down. Their tenacity was eventually rewarded with a penalty, allowing them to kick clear and into next week as Country are left to ponder what might be over the next 24 hours.
Canberra Vikings 27
Tries: Pulu, Ikitau, Samu, Banks
Cons: Lonergan 2
NSW Country Eagles 19
Tries: Nawaqanitawase, Jones, Gordon
Cons: O'Shea 2