So Melbourne have been locked in as a semi-final host for a little while already, and that’s no real surprise, but the Round 8 action did at least thin out a few mid-table contenders.
Coming into the penultimate round of the NRC, one win separated five teams between third and seventh position on the table.
With a couple of those teams losing, and with Greater Sydney having the bye in Round 9 this weekend coming, we have a much clearer idea of likely finalists.
We know Melbourne will host one semi. You would think NSW Country or Brisbane City are in the box seat to host the other.
The final spot is still up for grabs, with four teams theoretically still in with a sniff. Realistically, it’s a race of two between Perth and Canberra, with the highly likely outcome that none of the three Sydney teams will play in the finals.
In news that has brought a smile to the face of a very relieved editor, I’ll be back on deck for Thursday’s Round 9 preview, where I’ll outline the final round scenarios for the teams still with actual and mathematical chances of qualifying for the top four playoff spots.
North Harbour Rays 26 lost rather heavily to Brisbane City 77, at Brookvale Oval, Sydney. Crowd: 1852
Brisbane found themselves out of the top four for the first time a good few weeks coming into the Thursday night game, and in real need of a statement game to ensure their surprise loss at the hands of the Rams the week before was an anomaly.
And it really didn’t take them long. Fullback Matt Feaunati scored their first try in the second minute of the game, and they went at a point-a-minute for the first 32. The Rays hit back just before halftime, to make it 32-8, but it was already apparent that this wouldn’t be a question of whether City would win, but rather by how much.
In the end, it became a bit of an opposed training run for Brisbane, and I can certainly see the point of those suggesting post match that 70-plus point scorelines and 10 tries against four doesn’t really do much in terms of entertainment, nor the competition’s credibility.
Brisbane City got what they needed out of the game. Quade Cooper got through 80 minutes with no issues, and a 9/10 goal-kicking record. City got to try out some set plays, but also got to work on their set piece combinations and lineout calls.
North Harbour got yet more confirmation that they’re a pretty limited side, with a handy forwards pack and a useful counter-attacking game, but unable to fire many shots on first phase. They’re a mathematical chance, but even if they make the semis on the back of three wins from eight games and other results falling their way, their reward – if you’d call it that – would be to play the Rising in Melbourne.
Worthy mentions: Brisbane flanker Michael Gunn and hooker Andrew Ready were both superb, centre Samu Kerevi was back to his destructive best, and there were signs that Cooper is becoming more comfortable playing again. Inside centre Malie Hingano was a handful at times for the Rays.
Canberra Vikings 37 lost to NSW Country Eagles 42, at Viking Park, Canberra. Crowd: 1500 (estimate from the ground)
This was another one of those games the Canberra should really be winning, given the calibre of their squad, but such has been their form in this competition that a pretty comprehensive loss also feels about right.
And I deliberately say it was a comprehensive loss, because even though the scoreboard shows a five-point margin, Country had this contest comfortably in hand 15 minutes from time, when they led 42-21.
While the Eagles showed why they have consistently been one of the better NRC teams going, the Vikings were busy confirming why they have been one of the competition’s disappointments.
Opportunities butchered, basic skill errors, poor choices; they littered the Vikings’ game as they have all season. The most frustrating part of it is that the Vikings had the dominant scrum throughout the match.
There was novelty factor in this game, with Wallabies Josh Mann-Rea and Nic White turning out in Country gold against many of their Brumbies teammates in Vikings red, and both played pretty well in the time they were on the field.
Worthies: Andrew Kellaway became the NRC’s leading try-scorer with another double, taking his tally to nine. Sam Windsor was strong again, while White was instrumental in the Eagles getting out to the 21-point lead before Canberra’s late reply. Nigel Ah Wong, and Matt Hawke playing the slightly unfamiliar position of fullback, were the best for the home side.
Greater Sydney Rams 40 lost to Melbourne Rising 58, at Pirtek Stadium, Sydney. Crowd: 1324
This might just have been one of the more entertaining NRC games so far, a rollicking back-and-forward battle between two sides that will have surprised most people watching, given Melbourne’s dominance of the NRC and the Rams’ inconsistency over their previous outings.
When veteran fullback Ben Batger scored the Rams’ fifth try, in the 73rd minute, the score was back to 45-40 in favour of the Rising, and was a fair indicator of both sides’ ability to hit back whenever the other one established a lead.
Melbourne had leads pegged back three times in the first half, and the Rams in fact led by three at the break. The lead changed hands another three times in the second half, before the Rising were able to get out to an arms-length lead.
From 45-40, fullback Jonah Placid scored two tries in the last four minutes to blow the score out, but this might be the win Melbourne recognises as the one they worked hardest for. Whereas NSW Country tested them through their defence in Orange a few weeks ago, the Rams’ counter-attacking game exposed a few concerns in Melbourne’s own defensive re-alignment.
Worthies: The Rams’ flankers, Chris Alcock and Hugh Perrett, were very good for the home side, while Placid and Jack Debreczini showed their class all game for Melbourne. I thought Luke Jones had a really strong game at blindside, too.
Queensland Country 53 defeated Sydney Stars 29, at Mike Carney Toyota Park, Townsville. Crowd: “2500-plus”, according to Queensland Rugby
The ground name might be a mouthful, but it was great to see Country playing in regional Queensland finally in the NRC. And though the first half was fairly hard-fought, it was all one-way traffic as the home side piled on six second half tries to ice the contest.
Though Sydney would score two converted tries in the last 10 or so minutes, it was a completely dominant display from Country, where by the end of the carnage they seemed to be lining up to make breaks through the Stars defence.
This will be a bittersweet win for Country, though, because it showed precisely the sort of game they’ve been capable of playing all season, while also highlighting how their execution has really let themselves down in several of their losses.
For the Stars, this again proved that they just don’t have the personnel or the fitness to run with teams in the NRC. And the surprise of that, in this particular game, is that Country was essentially comprised of Brisbane club rugby players. If Sydney University players can’t stick with Brisbane club players, then it asks more than a few questions of how they thought they could largely stand alone in this competition.
Worthies: Country number 8 and skipper Ben Adams was outstanding until he went off, while Reds outside back JJ Taulagi was very good. And I’m starting to see why young centre Campbell Magnay has been getting the press he has, with a really strong game at outside centre. He’ll be a handful when he properly grows into both his body and his game. The Stars had hardly any ball in the second half, but Andrew Leota was probably their best.
Perth Spirit had the bye.
NRC ladder after Round 8
Melbourne Rising 35, NSW Country Eagles 23, Brisbane City 21, Perth Spirit 16, Greater Sydney Rams 16, Canberra Vikings 13, North Harbour Rays 12, Queensland Country 11, Sydney Stars 3.
Last week, I wrote that I was calculating my table positions based on the assumption that the NRC was using the same tie-breaking methods employed in Super Rugby.
The NRC operations team confirmed for me during the week that for this season at least, they’ll be employing the somewhat traditional method, whereby points for-and-against is the first point of differentiation, regardless of the number of wins.
Full and official table can be viewed here.