The third round of the National Rugby Championship looms as a belter of a weekend with four matches that could genuinely go either way.
But within the four matches, the backrows on either side will face off in great little contests that will create intriguing subplots of their own. Unquestionably, the four breakdown battles will determine the outcomes of all four games.
The attacking focus of the NRC means that a strong attacking breakdown is paramount to holding onto possession. Hold on to the ball, build the phases, quick recycle, gain line metres, metres after contact; they all have their origin at the quality of the ball provided by the attacking breakdown.
Equally, the attacking focus of the NRC also means there is more opportunity to contest at the breakdown. A team only needs to be half a second off the mark and a pilfer can be won or a turnover forced, and a counter-attack launched.
You only need to watch the Fijian Drua for the classic highlight reel examples of this.
Within the four games this weekend, there’s no shortage of backrow talent ready to shape the breakdown contest in favour of their side. It’s going to great to watch.
In Mudgee, the idea of NSW Country and Waratahs opensider Will Miller and hard-working no.8 Sam Ward piling in against Melbourne’s double-team of Angus Cottrell and Richard Hardwick is mouth-watering. Throw in a couple of big-bodied ball-carriers in Jed Holloway and Tom Staniforth for the Eagles, and Isi Naisarani for the Rising, and it fast becomes a must-watch game.
Up in Mackay, the question mark will be on the fitness of young Queensland Country no.7 Liam Wright, but even if he’s missing, Angus Scott-Young and no.8 Tai Ford – Queensland Premier Rugby’s Player of the Year this season – will still have plenty to say around the breakdown contest.
They’ll be up against a couple of the most dynamic flankers in the competition in Fijian Drua pair Peni Raidre and Mosese Voka. The two are your very typical Fijian ‘hard nuts’; tough to move over the ball, seemingly made of steel when they make contact, but then with an incredible turn of speed when its needed.
The Drua make plenty of headlines for the long-distance tries, but take a closer look at the breakdown and watch these two going at it.
In Sydney, all eyes will be focussed on whether Round 3 marks the comeback of Wallabies and Waratahs flanker Jack Dempsey from his lengthy injury spell. Dempsey, only in the last few weeks indicated that he was very close to a return. He suggested that if it wasn’t the Rays first game (it wasn’t; he missed the Canberra Vikings game at Concord), he’d “definitely” be right the week after. The Rays should name their side today.
Dempsey aside though, I was really impressed with the backrow trio last week of Lachie Swinton, Jack Heyson and Patrick Sio. Against a Canberra Vikings backrow that had all had some degree of exposure to the Brumbies program, the three held their own, and got through a mountain of work.
They’ll face a Brisbane City backrow that is not dissimilar; young guys working their way through the age pathways and clubs ranks in Pat Morrey, Fraser McReight, and Matt Gicquel – and with skipper and Reds flanker Adam Korczyk in there as well, even if he plays lock again.
To finish, it’ll be a ripper on Sunday, with Canberra’s trio from last week of BJ Edwards, Michael Oakman-Hunt and Ben Hyne facing off very evenly with the Western Force’s Tevin Ferris, Chris Alcock and Brynard Stander.
Both the Vikings and Force have strong packs laying the platform from some pretty talented backs out wide, but those backs will simply be finishing off the hard work started in the dark areas of the breakdown.
That backrow contest on the field will be as mouth-watering as the Viking Park steak sandwiches off it.
NRC Round 3:
NSW Country v Melbourne Rising – Glen Willow Sports Stadium, Mudgee; 1.00pm, streamed LIVE on www.foxsports.com.au
Queensland Country v Fiji Drua – BB Print Stadium, Mackay; 1.00pm, streamed LIVE on www.foxsports.com.au
Sydney v Brisbane City – Woollahra Oval, Sydney; 3.00pm, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Canberra Vikings v Western – Force Viking Park, Canberra; 3.00pm, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Fiji 10, Western Force 9, Queensland Country 8, Canberra 5; Melbourne 1, NSW Country 0*; Sydney Rays 0*, Brisbane City 0.
(* Sydney Rays v NSW Country Eagles to play their Round 1 match on Wednesday 19 September).
Four really – really – hard games this weekend. The kind of round that makes you regret offering tips a fortnight ago. So I’m just going to rip the band-aid off here and give it no thought whatsoever.
Saturday: all the home sides – NSW Country, Queensland Country, and the Sydney Rays. Not really sure why.
On Sunday, a Canberra win would confirm suspicions of how good they should be, but it’s really hard to see how the Force are getting beaten at the moment.