Before the National Rugby Championship kicked off for 2018, and as the squads started trickling through in the weeks before the season began, it looked on paper at least that there were four pretty obvious standout sides.
Those four – Fiji, Queensland Country, the Western Force, and Canberra – are now through to the semi-finals this coming weekend. On that front, it’s a solid case of intuition being accurate for a change.
Melbourne Rising looked promising, but I wondered about their bench. Brisbane City and NSW Country looked like they’d have good nuisance factor about them, but I wasn’t sure they could be consistent enough. And I’m sorry to say the sheer weight of silence as to possible big-ticket playing personnel meant that I didn’t have a lot of faith in the Sydney Rays at all.
In truth, I had Queensland Country and the Western Force as favourites.
Country’s squad remaining largely intact from last year, and with minimal Wallabies call-ups likely of their core playing group, they just loomed as a side ready to go back-to-back.
The Force were the first side in NRC history to come into a season with actual recent playing form under their belts. Just the benefit of established combinations and time together as a squad meant they had to be there.
Fiji and Canberra looked dangerous, but I felt they would need a few things to go their way to finish top two. Fiji lived up to the danger rating and then just made things go their way, whereas Canberra were forced to work for all but one of their five wins.
And that’s not to say none of the other three sides still in action didn’t have to work for wins, but simply that the Vikings were forced to dig deep more often.
They’re all through to the semis now though, so how many wins they needed to get there becomes largely irrelevant from this point anyway.
But the way they played, and the numbers they compiled might give us a hint as to who gets through to the NRC Final on October 25.
For starters, away sides won 15 games to the home teams’ 13 this season, so there’s some hope for Force and Vikings supporters straight off the bat. And ironically, the Force and Vikings were the only teams to play from a single venue in 2018 (though both lost one from three home games anyway).
Fiji, as it happens, were the only side to keep an unbeaten record at home, winning two games each in Nausori and Lautoka, where the semi-final will be played this Saturday.
In attack, it will surprise no-one to learn that Fiji made significantly more metres (5319m) than any other side. They made nearly 50 per cent more than the next closest side, NSW Country. The Force (3069m) ranked fourth, but Queensland Country (3014m) and Canberra (2742m) were the sides to make the fewest metres.
Fiji again topped the carrying stats with 931, but again, Queensland Country (771), Western Force (762) and Canberra (666) all ranked in the bottom four. It’s starting to become clear why the Vikings feel like they haven’t had much ball in 2018.
But maybe that’s because they kicked it away and preferred the territory game?
Except that they didn’t, really. The Vikings ranked sixth for kicks out of hand with 103, with only Fiji (79, eighth) of the top four teams below them. the Force (133) and Queensland Country (117) ranked first and third, respectively.
But it’s not about how much ball you have, but what you do with it, right?
Sort of. Fiji had the most carries, made the most ground, and guess what: they top all the attacking metrics, too. The Drua made at least twice as many clean breaks as any other side, beat the most defenders, and offloaded the most, too.
The Force, Country and Canberra all rank in the bottom five for clean breaks, and all with less than half as many as Fiji. Country and the Force rank top four for defenders beaten, but the Vikings again rank eighth. Country (59) finished with less than half the number of offloads as Fiji (112), while Canberra (39) and the Force (26) came in seventh and eighth.
The Force’s support game wasn’t great. They ranked fourth for both clean breaks and defenders beaten, yet offloaded the least off all sides in the competition.
Country (47), Fiji (46), and the Force (42) topped the tries tally, with Canberra (31) coming in equal fifth.
Defensively, unsurprisingly, the Vikings (987) made 137 tackles more than the Force in second (850), with Fiji (771) and Country (743) ranking fourth and sixth, respectively. If accuracy is a better guide, then Canberra are the more efficient of the top four: 84 per cent tackle accuracy to Fiji’s 82.3 per cent, Country’s 82.1 per cent and the Force’s 81.6 per cent.
So yeah, Canberra spent all their time tackling, attempting 134 more tackles than the Force (1175 to 1041), 238 more than the Drua (937), and 270 more than Queensland Country (905). That’s an incredible spread. Interestingly, the four sides are within four turnovers won of each other, averaging just over six each per game.
And though the Vikings did concede the fewest tries with 26, the top four teams are again all within four of each other: Fiji 27, Western Force 30, and Queensland Country 31.
Sadly, I don’t have any set piece numbers to drill into, though it’s fair to say Canberra’s scrum copped a hammering from both the opposition and referees in several games, including Brisbane City and Damon Murphy on Sunday.
I’m quite sure some of them were unjustified, but perception is everything, and by that stage the damage was done. The Vikings have had five players yellow carded this NRC, and three of them are front rowers.
On that front, Fiji are both the most penalised (99) in the comp and equally most carded of the top four sides, with five yellows. Country ranked third for penalties conceded and fifth for yellow cards (77 and three), while the Force were the NRC referee’s angels: just 48 penalties conceded and one yellow card (Jack McGregor against Sydney in Round 5, thanks for asking).
So if these numbers are any guide, Canberra’s best chance against Fiji on Saturday will be to control the pace of the game, make Fiji make a lot of tackles themselves, and pull the game into the same tight, muddy and wet breakdown contest they survived in Brisbane on Sunday. But the Vikings know this, because that’s exactly how they got themselves back into – and nearly won – their Round 6 matchup against the Drua just ten days ago.
The Force can beat Queensland Country away from Perth. They did it on the Gold Coast in Round 4, and they did it in Ipswich in the last round last year to win through to the 2017 finals.
Both wins required a late shot at goal, but the Force will know – and be confident – that the sides are well-matches, with the numbers showing they just have to stick with Country to grind out a win.