Brilliant final befitting the best NRC season to date

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    It just capped off the season so perfectly in so many ways.

    Queensland Country’s 42-28 win over the Canberra Vikings to take their maiden NRC title caps off a very obvious fairy tale turnaround, and one that will just as obviously have Queensland Reds fans feeling confident of a similar up-bump heading into the 2018 Super Rugby season.

    I said in last week’s preview and several other radio and podcast chats that there really wasn’t much between the two sides other than the game was being played in Canberra. When James Slipper wasn’t named last Friday, I thought that might tip the scrum slightly towards the Vikings, but it still wouldn’t be enough to have them installed as raging favourites.

    And happily, that’s the way it the match played out. The scoreboard shows a fourteen-point final margin, but I don’t think anyone watching the game would say Country were a fourteen-point better side on the night.

    It was a brilliant NRC Final, a close contest that could’ve swung either way until Country scored the two match-winning tries in the last four minutes. Of the four Finals played now, this one was easily the most fiercely contested.

    In the inaugural Final in 2014, Brisbane City were already leading 29-21 when Junior Laloifi scored the runaway try that sealed the win over Perth. The following year, City only led 13-10 when Alex Gibbon sealed their undefeated back-to-back title in the 72nd minute, but Canberra had done well to remain that close for that long.

    Even last year, Perth were well ahead 20-8 before NSW Country staged something of a late fightback to score in the 74th minute and bring the margin back to four. But even then, Perth’s defence was so effective that the damage had been done.

    This year it was all about momentum, and particularly momentum shifts. Country scored first, but then looked in trouble by halftime, by which time the Vikings had scored three converted tries in fifteen minutes. Their scrum was being forced back, and the Vikings – with only two real jumping options – were even stealing lineouts.

    Whatever Brad Thorn said to them at the break worked, however, and Country hit back with three converted tries themselves to regain the lead and the momentum by the hour mark. Duncan Paia’aua’s yellow card was a turning point – and while I agree it looked a touch rough, I’ve also seen cards given for very similar examples – with Canberra scoring shortly after to level the scores for the third time in the match.

    With four minutes to go, Paia’aua’s second incisive hard-line run of the match saw him crash through to score, and when boom Country try-scoring freak Filipo Daugunu scored from the restart, the match had literally been decided in the space of two-and-a-half minutes.

    Yet, despite the closeness, the better team on the night certainly won. By the time Paia’aua crossed for his second try of the night, Country had already dominated both territory and possession for long periods of the second half.

    Queensland Country NRC Grand FInal

    (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

    The final stats sheet reflects this. Country beat 35 defenders to Canberra’s 18, with twice as many offloads, and making 14 clean breaks to the Vikings’ 9. On average, Country made 4.2 metres every time they carried the ball to the Vikings’ 2.6 metres.

    The set piece numbers were pretty even, highlighting how Country squared things up in the second half, and the breakdown stats showed both sides won all their own ruck ball, essentially.

    The big difference? Canberra missed nearly twice as many tackles as Queensland Country did.

    Paia’aua was an obvious choice for the Phil Waugh Medal as the Player of the Final, but I’ll admit to getting a bit caught out in my RUGBY.com.au match report, by pre-emptively giving him the Player of the Season gong as well.

    It’s fair to say I was stunned when Caleb Timu’s name was announced. The Country no.8 finished the season really strongly, but I’m far from convinced he was as good as even the Vikings’ Rob Valetini, let alone Paia’aua, whose performance in the Final convinced me it would be enough to have him deservedly recognised.

    Timu didn’t even feature in the discussion at no.8 for the RUGBY.com.au Team of the Year; that was a two-way discussion that Isi Naisarani was always going to win out over Jed Holloway. Anyway, it’s a small quibble.

    I’ve said a bit of late that while I don’t think it’s been as big a step up in quality from season two to three, season four has definitely been better again; a view fairly widely shared among those covering the competition regularly, and generally agreed by players and coaches.

    I was sceptical of the move back to the traditional points-scoring system this season, but I needn’t have been.

    In 2016, there were 301 tries scored in 31 games at an average of 9.7 tries per game. The home side took a slight advantage, winning 17 games to 14, at an average score of 36.3 to 34.9, 5.0 tries to 4.7.

    James Tuttle Queensland Country NRC

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    In 2017, there were 397 tries scored in 39 games at an average of 10.2 tries per game; a figure that remained pretty constant across the eleven weeks. The home side enjoyed more success, winning 23 games to 15 (with one draw). The home side again averaged 36.3 points per game, to 30.4, 5.5 tries per game to 4.6.

    Over the last week, but especially since the final, the comment has been made that the NRC has been better to watch than the Australian Super Rugby derbies. Aesthetically, it’s probably hard to argue with this, but it’s also the kind of judgement that can be safely handed down knowing it can never be proved or disproved.

    Either way, it’s an intriguing comment; it doesn’t just recognise the quality of rugby on show during the NRC, but it also reflects a growing legitimacy about the competition as a now-crucial part of the development pathway.

    And that’s probably the best part of the 2017 NRC above all else. A brilliant season has genuinely been seen for its on-field brilliance.

    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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