Tuesday’s stats dump for the four National Rugby Championship finalists was interesting to compile – and to read when all put down on paper.
If nothing else, it highlighted how differently the Fijian Drua play the game – which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, I’ll concede – and how close Queensland Country, the Western Force, and the Canberra Vikings are.
So what will the four teams’ approaches be this weekend? And what can’t they afford to do?
Quite obviously, Fiji will want to maintain the fast-tempo game, and look to maximise the number of bodies in motion to ensure their support and offload game remains the very obvious strength it is. Though they do plenty of attacking from their side of halfway, most of their clean breaks are up through the middle and not out wide, so they’ll be looking to get the ball in behind Vikings defenders one way or another.
They don’t want to play set piece rugby. They’ve got some big boppers, for sure, but they don’t have the best scrum, which even with Canberra’s pack being pinged all over the park last week will still be a target area for the Vikings. At least four Canberra lineout jumpers will be reason not to kick the ball out.
Canberra, just as obviously, will be wanting to do the complete opposite. They do want to play a set piece game, and they do want to play it at their own pace. They’ll want to commit the Fijians both to a tackle contest and into the breakdown, so as to create the room out wide for own their speed men.
But they also need to stay connected in defence and make sure there is no opportunity for the Drua to offload. Stop their offload, and you go a long way toward slowing them down and drying up their supply of broken play ball.
They don’t want to get sucked into playing catch-up rugby, dare I say ‘Fijian’ rugby, from the outset, because they last time they did this, they found themselves down 33-7 shortly before halftime.
If they’re going to kick, they need to make sure they find touch, and even then it needs to be aiming for the benches and the ball kids to ensure no possibility of a quick throw-in. The Vikings need to set their pillaging tendencies aside; speed will not be their friend in Lautoka.
Queensland Country have a great ability to flick the switch between defence and attack, and it won’t surprise anyone to see Jock Campbell and Jordan Paia’aua in the top six try-scorers this season. Country also have one of the more balanced games in the NRC this season, and a couple of mid-season losses were probably a sharp reminder that they can win just by playing to their strengths.
So their dos and don’ts are pretty simple. They don’t really want to change much, and they don’t really need to.
They do want to kick and kick-chase well, to close down Rod Davies’ space. They probably should avoid a lineout battle with a couple of old heads in Jeremy Thrush and Leon Power, but will find themselves well suited to a breakdown battle if that’s required. 18-year-old Tom Kibble has been a superb replacement for 20-year-old Liam Wright, and will match up well against Chris Alcock despite the experience difference.
If Hamish Stewart and Duncan Paia’aua have strong games in the midfield, Country will be well placed.
On the other hand, the Western Force won’t really want to change much. They’ll know from experience in their two most recent must-win (and did win) clashes with Queensland Country that they just had to stay within reach and be prepared to play the game to the very end.
With the exception of two comfortable wins over the NSW sides, the Force haven’t blown teams away but nor have they been thumped themselves. Their biggest loss was the ten-point margin to Canberra in Canberra, and though that game was essentially decided by second half scrum penalties, it remained scoreless for the last 12 minutes.
If the Force can stay within touching distance, or even hold a small lead, they’ll back their grinding ability from there.
Certainly, they’ll want to limit Petaia’s opportunities, and Filipo Daugunu’s too, which in turn will dry up the chances for Campbell’s excellent support game to click into gear. Midfield pressure on Stewart and Paia’aua can bring benefits, and their set piece is well-tuned to giving it to the young Country pack.
Then if they can find some space to put Davies away in, he doesn’t get run down too often, even these days.
I’m really looking forward to these semis. We had two cracking games last weekend, but I have a sneaking suspicion they’ll both be topped this weekend.
Final NRC table
Fiji 27, Queensland Country 24, Western Force 23, Canberra 22; Brisbane City 18, Melbourne 13, NSW Country 6, Sydney Rays 1.
Fijian Drua (1st) v Canberra Vikings (4th) – Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji; 4.00pm FST/ 3.00pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Queensland Country (2nd) v Western Force (3rd) – Bond University, Gold Coast; 2.00pm AEST/3.00pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Despite home ground advantage not counting for much of an advantage this season – home teams have won 13 of 28 games played to date in 2018 – I think finals time is when you really want it, and both Fiji and Queensland Country are well placed to take advantage.
Both sides are playing their particular game well, and that won’t count for nothing this weekend.
If any two teams are capable of pulling off an upset semi-final win this season, it’s the Western Force and Canberra. The Force have already beaten Queensland Country this season, have already beaten Queensland Country at Bond Uni this season, and Canberra came within one dropped pass of beating Fiji in Fiji, too.
Both sides did it by controlling the second half and playing the game they way they needed to play it, and they’ll both be confident they can do that again this weekend.
Therefore, we’re looking at a Fiji-Queensland Country Final. Or a Western Force-Canberra Final.
Conclusion: NRC 2018 has been difficult to tip…