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Hard to believe, after what transpired in the aftermath of the Wallabies’ narrow loss to New Zealand, but there was in fact a round of the National Rugby Championship played over the weekend.
The final round, in fact, and though it took until full time in the final game of the round, the NRC semi-finalists have now been confirmed.
On Friday night, NSW Country will host Brisbane City, in what should be an absolute cracker of a game at Central Coast Stadium in Gosford. On Saturday afternoon, Melbourne Rising will host Perth Spirit in Melbourne.
Fox Sports will cover both semis, with the second semi preceding the ITM Cup final on what should make for a nice afternoon of rugby on the telly.
Here’s what went down in Round 9, before Australian rugby delved to all new depths.
Sydney Stars 49 defeated North Harbour Rays 40
Leichhardt Oval, Sydney
Crowd: not many
The Stars finally broke their NRC duck with a well-deserved win over the Rays, who looked like they’d spent much of the lead-up calculating the different ways they could make the finals.
That’s not to say they played as if the required bonus-point win was a foregone conclusion, certainly not. Rather, North Harbour looked completely confused in their play, to the point that even though they led at halftime, it wasn’t convincing.
The Rays scored straight after the break, which put them 14 points clear, but the Stars kept their composure to score twice and regain the lead, only for the Rays to take it off them shortly after.
A converted try and a well-thought penalty goal put the Stars back in front, and from there their scrum dominance sealed the win with a penalty try.
Nevertheless, this game will be remembered for the ‘own try’ awarded to the Stars in the first half.
Hooker James Willan was credited with the try officially, but he was nowhere near the ball when Rays prop Mitch Lewis thought he was doing the right thing by placing the ball back on his own line, even if it meant giving up a five-metre scrum. The look on Lewis’ face when the try was awarded was priceless.
And any publicity is good publicity, right? After the NRC had been largely ignored by the mainstream media and TV news bulletins, by Friday night the TMO bungle was all over the nightly news, and had even been picked up by rugby outlets around the word.
Mind you, after Saturday night’s events, the ‘own try’ is now so last Thursday…
Worthy mentions: young Stars flanker Jake Wainwright had a really strong game, and scrumhalf Jake Gordon was superb in leading the second-half comeback.
Harder to pick a ‘worthy’ from the Rays though, as they all looked a bit off the pace, save for the odd flash of brilliance.
Brisbane City 37 defeated Canberra Vikings 16
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Crowd: 13,700! (as at fulltime)
It was a must-win game for City, whereby a slip-up from NSW Country in Dubbo could’ve seen them hosting the first semi this weekend coming. And win they did, in a polished performance as the curtain raiser before the Bledisloe Test in Brisbane.
Buoyed by the inclusion of Wallabies Jake Schatz, James Hanson, and Will Genia coming off the bench, it didn’t take long for City to have the game well within their grasp.
As has been the case for the entirety of the NRC, Canberra started far too slowly and didn’t fire too many shots in the first half.
Even though the Vikings would score shortly after halftime from a scrum pushover to bring the margin back to five points, Brisbane’s defence denied the visitors any further points until the least ten minutes of the match. By then, they’d put on two converted tries themselves to set up the win. Genia finished off a great team try that he initiated, to complete the bonus point win.
It was just about the perfect hit-out before the semis for Brisbane, allowing them to build the pressure on the field and post points when given the opportunity. It will be interesting to see how many players they lose for the Wallabies’ spring tour.
For Canberra, it was just another game in a disappointing season. It’s arguable whether they strung together a complete half, let alone 80 minutes, and even in this last game it was clear they struggled for combinations across the park.
Worthies: Both Nick Frisby and Genia were impressive in their respective halves, while Schatz and Dave McDuling were really good all game.
However, Jake McIntyre was my pick, putting in an outstanding performance to remind everyone that City have more than one flyhalf worth watching.
Jarrad Butler was again strong for Canberra, while young opensider Rowan Perry in his first start confirmed that his impact isn’t limited to the last 30 minutes of games.
One other worthy mention is the crowd. Brisbane City sent me some details yesterday, with Suncorp Stadium confirming there were around a thousand people in for kickoff and 3516 by halftime, meaning more than 10,000 people came into the ground during the second half. It’s a great result, and should ensure the curtain-raiser idea is retained for future NRC seasons.
Melbourne Rising 47 defeated Queensland Country 26
AAMI Park, Melbourne
With top spot already sewn up, Melbourne could’ve been excused for taking this last game easy, but you could see that wasn’t going to be the case when they got out to an early 13-0 lead.
After going to sheds up 18-5, Rising posted two tries to Country’s one, to lead 33-13 as yellow cards started affecting the outcome. Though Country couldn’t capitalise on Sean McMahon’s enforced rest, Rising made hay when young Country centre Campbell Magnay took over from McMahon in the naughty chair, with Jonah Placid scoring out wide.
McMahon scored himself, and Country also posted two tries in the dying stages to confirm the 47-26 scoreline, and Melbourne’s eighth bonus point win from eight games.
Worthies: Rising skipper Nic Stirzaker again led from the front, while late starting team inclusions Lloyd Johansson and Pom Simona earned coach Sean Hedger’s praise post-match.
JJ Tualagi was again a standout for Country, with Ben Adams and Matt Brandon also prominent.
NSW Country 40 defeated Perth Spirit 34
Apex Park, Dubbo
Another game with a major bearing on the finals, NSW Country got out to the best possible start to lead 24-0 after as many minutes. Perth were able to get on the scoreboard before the break, but the real drama didn’t arrive until the second half.
The Spirit posted the first try after the break, to bring the margin back to 11 points, and the sides basically went try-for-try for the next 25 minutes, by which stage Country led 40-28. Perth then scored another converted try three minutes from time, swooping on a Country lineout overthrow, to bring the margin to six points.
Perth ripped straight back into Country territory from the restart and built the phases, only to cough up a turnover inside the Eagles’ 22 as the siren sounded.
Worthies: really difficult to judge from sporadic tweets and match reports, but young Eagles opensider Will Miller would have to be up there after a first half double that put Country out to a big early lead. Lock Brent Murphy won the raps for Perth.
Greater Sydney Rams had the bye
Final NRC standings
(Full and official table can be viewed here.)
Melbourne Rising 40
NSW Country Eagles 27
Brisbane City 26
Perth Spirit 17
Greater Sydney Rams 16
Canberra Vikings 14
North Harbour Rays 12
Queensland Country 11
Sydney Stars 7
Friday night, 7:35pm AEDT: (2) NSW Country Eagles v (3) Brisbane City; Central Coast Stadium, Gosford.
Saturday afternoon, 3:35pm AEDT: (1) Melbourne Rising v (4) Perth Spirit; AAMI Park, Melbourne.