The key games to decide the NRC semis

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    This time last year, seven rounds of the National Rugby Championship decided the top four and we were already deep in to the finals series.

    This year, the addition of the Fijian Drua means that we still have two rounds to go yet, and there’s some crucial games to come that will have a huge impact on who takes part in the finals.

    Fiji v Queensland Country, this Saturday
    This will be the game that decides whether either side has a true shot at a top two finish, or not. Country have a four-point advantage currently, and a much better points differential, too, and so a losing bonus point could actually be enough to maintain a foothold in the top two.

    If Country win this, I think they’ll control their top two destiny going forward. If Fiji win – and particularly if they can prevent Country taking a losing bonus point – then they have a real chance to take maximum points the following week against the Rays.

    For Fiji, the key this weekend is going to be whether they can crack the Queenslanders’ defence, and whether they can maintain a game-pace that Country can’t keep up with. For Country, it will be whether they can maintain their defensive shape for the eighty minutes, and whether they can do it without one or both of Izaia Perese and Duncan Paia’aua, both currently in the Wallabies camp in Brisbane.

    NSW Country v Brisbane City, next Saturday
    The first thing I need to state here is that this game becomes moot if the Eagles can’t beat Melbourne this coming Sunday. I think they will, and that is the underlying assumption here.

    NRC rugby - Australia's rugby future

    The Eagles need to win both their remaining games to get to five wins and the maximum 23 points available to them. Even then, they will almost certainly need Perth to drop one of their remaining games. I’ll be honest, I think they’re up against it, but if the balls fall their way, this game in Orange could have a huge bearing on fourth spot.

    Knowing the defence is going to be what wins games at the pointy end of the season – and learning from what Perth did against then in last year’s Final – NSW Country have been trying to slow teams down in the last two weeks, exemplified no better than what they did to Perth in Tamworth last weekend.

    What will work in their favour will be that Brisbane City won’t be anywhere near as strong as it was last weekend against Melbourne. Quade Cooper and Andrew Ready will be out on Barbarians duty, and Karmichael Hunt, Samu Kerevi, Lukhan Tui, and maybe even Adam Korczyk could be pulling on Wallabies jerseys in Sydney.

    Country will miss rampaging no.8 Sam Ward, also on Barbarians duty, but Wallabies prop Tom Robertson less so, given they’ve only had him once or twice this season. The Eagles will have better continuity of personnel, and have to use that to their advantage.

    And if they can, then they just might scrape into the semi, and from there they could do anything.

    Queensland Country v Perth, next Sunday
    The final regular season game of the 2017 NRC could count for nothing, yet it could also count for bloody everything. Results in Round 8 this weekend will determine that, of course, but it looms as a really big game for both sides either way.

    As with NSW Country-Brisbane City above, this will the game most affected by the Wallabies-Barbarians match. Spirit coach Kevin Foote confirmed to me this week that he’ll be without upwards of 13 players for the Wallabies game, but will also lose more players to the Classic Wallabies game in Lismore next Tuesday.

    So not only will he be down on strike power, he’ll be going into the game with a really disrupted preparation. To his great credit, he’s known it was coming for some time, and he’s kept his extended training squad going throughout the NRC with this very game in mind. It’s entirely likely that the Perth XV that runs out in Round 9 will bear no resemblance to that from Round 8.

    Queensland Country will lose upwards of six or seven players as well, so already, this match looks badly compromised. And I haven’t even started talking scenarios yet.

    Country may not need to win this game to qualify for the semis, but Perth definitely will. Country probably will have to win to finish in the top two, but Perth are battling with Brisbane City and NSW Country just to be in the mix.

    James Tuttle Queensland Country NRC

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    Queensland Country could yet finish first overall with two wins, with a maximum 34 points available, but two losses could mean they miss the top four completely. For Perth to finish with their maximum 26 points, Queensland Country could only finish with a maximum of 30, and the Spirit would still need NSW Country to beat Brisbane City.

    I’ll just say it again: this game could count for nothing, yet it could also count for bloody everything.

    Round 8
    SUPER NRC SATURDAY
    1pm AEDT/2pm local – Fijian Drua v Queensland Country; Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji – LIVE on Fox Sports 501
    3pm AEDT/2pm local – Brisbane City v Greater Sydney Rams; Ballymore Oval, Brisbane – Live streamed
    5pm AEDT/2pm local – Perth Spirit v Sydney Rays; McGillivray Oval, Perth – Live streamed

    SUNDAY
    2.30pm AEDT – Melbourne Rising v NSW Country Eagles; Harlequin Oval, Melbourne – LIVE on Fox Sports 501

    Canberra Vikings have the bye.

    [BOLD] NRC ladder:
    Canberra 25, Queensland Country 24, Fiji 20, Brisbane City 18;
    Perth 16, NSW Country 13, Greater Sydney 9, Sydney 5, Melbourne 4.

    [BOLD] TIPS:
    Three from four again last week, but I’m claiming NSW Country as a moral victory after saying, “I am absolutely certain there will be at least one upset somewhere.”

    Three of the four games look pretty obvious this week, which is always concerning. Brisbane City, Perth, and NSW Country should all win pretty well, I think.

    The genuine 50-50 pick is Fiji-Queensland Country. Fiji are unbeaten at home and will be rested after the bye. Queensland Country have the best defence in the competition. And I reckon that’s where games are won and lost at this time of season, so I’ll go with Country, but with not a lot of confidence.

    It’s a big weekend for the comp and a huge Saturday, so enjoy your NRC rugby this weekend.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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