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Another great NRC season, but we know it could be better

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Expert
10th October, 2018
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The final round of the National Rugby Championship is upon us, and once again, it’s been another belter of a season, with some incredible tries scored, some wonderful rugby played and entertaining matches throughout.

Heading into Round 7, there’s still more teams in playoff contention than there are playoff spots available, and that’s always a good thing. Furthermore, four of the five teams can still claim a top two finish and the home ground playoff advantage that brings.

But like every NRC season to date, there’s always little things that could make the competition better. In fairness, I don’t even mean the actual rugby itself, which in 2018 has again been excellent. But for not very much outlay, a few little tweaks and some smart thinking could make the overall NRC product that much better again.

Standalone games
It sounds obvious, but again this season we’ve had games overlapping or going head-to-head on the same day. Of the six rounds played, three of them have had games played simultaneously. The worst of if was Round 3, when for about twenty minutes we had two simultaneously streamed games concluding while a third game started on TV.

In some cases, I absolutely understand that ground availability, and integration with local grand finals and rep days, as well as late broadcast changes created clashes that weren’t there previously.

Matt Gordon of Brisbane City

Matt Gordon of Brisbane City in action in the NRC (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

I get that a lot of the idea of spreading games around the country is to encourage people to go to games live. This is certainly valid, but it’s also just as valid that making viewers not in those cities or regional centres have to choose which game they watch doesn’t always end well.

Like the Old El Paso ad, the answer should – obviously – be, ‘why can’t we have both?’ And of course, we can. We can still encourage people to go to games – and cheap or free entry does work – just as we can encourage fans to watch games they can’t get to.

Streamed games on TV
Have you ever noticed the Fox Sports More channel on your Foxtel box, or on the Foxtel App? It’s their extra channel that they use for extra sport that they can’t fit onto any of the other six 501-506 channels, particularly on weekends.

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This weekend coming, my guide tells me it will have women’s basketball, ODI cricket from Sri Lanka, superbike racing, and surfing from France – all live. I’ve seen Test cricket and Test rugby there in the past, and it’s even been used for NRC games, too.

For four seasons now, I’ve been asking the question of the NRC powers that be if they will lobby Fox Sports to show the live streamed games simultaneously on Fox Sports More (or via the ‘red button’ as it known originally).

It’s never happened, but I know it can be done. Fox have done it in the past with FFA Cup games covered by their lower-cost live stream crews both online and on Fox Sports More.

Mosese Voka of the Fijian Drua

Mosese Voka of the Fijian Drua (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

So why not for NRC games, too? Fox Sports have paid for the broadcast and digital rights, but why not make it as accessible as possible for their customers? Why do we need separate accounts for TV and the Fox Sports website to watch the same competition? Why make it harder for people than it needs to be?

They use footage from the streamed games on Fox Sports News as it is, so clearly there’s no issue with the quality of the video. Why not get that footage in front of as many people as possible?

Interestingly, I managed to ask this question of Fox Sports people at a rugby event late last year, and they told me they’ve been pushing for the same thing for years, too. After all, they want their product seen by as many people as possible. One even said if they had their way, the streams online would be free and open.

So what’s holding us back still, after four years of this arrangement? Who knows. My guess is a bunch of accountants want return on investment, but surely accountants would know that they’ve already got the subscription money paid – forcing people to need a second account, or making access harder than it needs to be doesn’t actually bring in new money to them.

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So why not make it easier for everyone?

Prime-time final rounds
I made the point on Twitter that last weekend’s Round 6 and Round 7 this weekend come at a time when there is virtually no live Australian sport being played on a Friday and Saturday night. And given the NRC Final on October 27 will switch to a night time game – to maximise the TV audience – then why wait?

Why not cash in on the available air time and maximise the TV audience now?

Even better, down the track, if Rugby Australia does manage to have The Rugby Championship schedule tweaked so that the Wallabies play most of their home games later in the tournament and in that same post-AFL and NRL air, then why not create NRC-Test match double headers where possible?

Quade Cooper

Quade Cooper of Brisbane City (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Remember social media passwords
For a competition that’s run on an oily rag, and with an overall marketing and promotion strategy is based heavily on social media and an online existence, and where the clubs themselves were very good in the early seasons, the standards have really slipped in 2018.

Realistically, your only reliable source of team info and match reports and live score updates have been the rugby.com.au channels, and of which I’ll again declare my small involvement. If you tried to follow a game via one of the clubs themselves, you’ll often have been disappointed.

In fairness, some clubs are significantly better than others. I will concede that. But the ‘others’ have been disappointing. Things like team announcements and basic game info should be easy, yet it’s often overlooked. Or it’ll be posted on one social channel, but not online – or vice versa. Or on some, but not all social channels.

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The sad thing about many of these points is that they’re not new. Indeed, there are updated or just outright copy-and-pasted paragraphs in here from similar columns written in past seasons.

None of these tweaks involve huge changes or even huge increased costs, but they’re all simple things that could have an impact in the competition becoming stronger off the field to match up with the quality on the field.

There’s plenty of things that would be great to have but which would involve a major injection of funds that just don’t exist. So why not get the most out of the funds that do exist?

NRC table
Fiji 23, Western Force 22, Queensland Country 19, Canberra 18; Brisbane City 17, Melbourne 8, NSW Country 6, Sydney Rays 1.

NRC Round 7
SATURDAY

NSW Country vs Queensland Country – Scully Park, Tamworth; 3.00pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Western Force vs Fijian Drua – McGillivray Oval, Perth; 2.00pm AWST/ 5.00pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS ** Horan-Little Shield decider for 2018.

SUNDAY
Melbourne Rising vs Sydney Rays – St. Patricks College, Ballarat; 1.00pm AEDT, streamed LIVE on www.foxsports.com.au
Brisbane City vs Canberra Vikings – Easts Rugby Club, Brisbane; 2.00pm AEST/3.00pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS

TIPS
I think Queensland Country and the Western Force should be too good on Saturday, though both NSW Country and Fiji will put up plenty of fight. This will give the Force the Horan-Little Shield for a second straight year and well-deserved home ground advantage through the finals.

Melbourne should beat Sydney comfortably, yet very little Melbourne has done this year has be comfortable, strangely. And though they’re at home, I don’t think Brisbane City’s defence will be as good as Canberra’s, meaning the Vikings will claim the fourth and final playoff spot.

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