With just one game remaining this National Rugby Championship season, while some things – such as the qualified finals teams – have stayed the same, a lot have changed.
Here are my five takes from the year.
The rise of Melbourne
Following an average 2017 for the Rebels, the Rising simiarly crashed last year, winning just one game to finish last on their ladder.
This season is better on both fronts for Melburnians: while neither the Rebels or the Rising made the playoffs, both were well and truly in the mix, with the Rebels coming right down to a last-round game to decide whether or not they’d be playing finals footy.
The Rising weren’t as lucky, but you could only seriously rule them out after about eight rounds, leaving with two wins, but three losing bonus points – awarded for going down by seven points or less – suggesting they were only marginally outplayed in most games.
My namesake, Tom English, was an absolute beast this year, and critics of Michael Cheika’s selections will call for his inclusion in the Wallabies.
It must be said, Test rugby is a whole different level from the NRC, but with nine tries in the seven games played – including a remarkable haul of five in Round 3 – you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s too easy for him.
World Series Rugby is the perfect warm-up
Love it or hate it, Andrew Forrest’s brainchild proved the ideal preseason for the NRC – if nothing else.
With the fast, positive-minded rugby that was on display in Perth throughout the year, albeit a level below Super, the West Australians were only ever going to be ultra ready for this year.
Being fully professional won’t hurt either, and for the entirety of the season, I was almost expecting the Force to win this year’s NRC.
A loss to the Drua last weekend, which denied them a home semi, won’t boost their chances, but rule them out at your peril.
Brynard Stander (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Drua at home will prove gruelling, if not impossible
Heading over to Fiji to play the minor premiers hardly sounds ideal, but that’s what the defending champs Queensland Country are tasked with this weekend.
Last year, the Fijians started with two home wins, but dropped away after that with a loss to Perth, and then a disappointing submission to the Rays.
This year all their home wins have been so convincing, only one team has lost by less than 23 – the Vikings, by five in Round 6 and by seven on the weekend, in the semis.
Combine the potential heat with a large and loud home crowd, a minor-premiership-winning team playing at twice the normal pace of a rugby side, and you get a huge ask.
Will the media please stand up?
As someone who doesn’t subscribe to Fox Sports, thus not having to deal with faulty streams on a weekend, the constant dropping out of online broadcasts is one of the least relatable things that NRC fans complain about.
But the general lack of media attention is frustrating.
It’s been pointed out, but unless Quade Cooper is showing off his backyard cricket skills with a superb ‘boundary line save’ before a round-the-back pass showcases his rugby prowess, the NRC has little to no presence or traction on social media.
In mainstream print or online, it’s non existent, and with Fox Sports deciding that the Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand is more important to Australian rugby fans in terms of scheduling, it seems like we will be stuck with streams for now.
Bring back the Rams – Sydney needs them
In a thoroughly underwhelming couple of months for NSW teams, Roarer Johnny Football’s prediction that the Sydney Rays would go winless proved spot on.
I’ve whinged extensively about Greater Sydney’s culling, sounding like a broken record – or even a Force fan – but given they were cut for the very reason that Sydney apparently couldn’t support multiple teams talent-wise, this season is egg on the faces of the NSWRU.
The Rams’ attendances seemed to be well up on their NSW rivals in 2017, beating the Rays and Eagles in the first two rounds, and finishing ahead of the former.
If NSWRU are serious about having a footprint in the west, bringing the Rams back is a good place to start.
My biggest criticism of the comp is that there’s no continuity from season to season, with the number and presence of teams changing every year except one, making it incredibly hard to get behind a team, for fear they get dropped.
In fairness, 2018 has been another top-notch season, with some very close games and outstanding performances, with crowds appearing to be rising throughout the year – boosted in no small way by the fanatical home fans of the Force and Drua.