Five rounds through Australia’s inaugural National Rugby Championship (NRC) and the finals are starting to shape up. With four rounds left of the regular season, how is your team shaping up and what are their chances of making the finals?
As the 2014 NRC leaves the halfway mark behind, reflection demonstrated a new competition that has been unbelievably entertaining. The first five rounds (of nine) have featured 171 tries, a draw, match winning kicks, upsets, whoppings, try-fests and emerging stars.
There are still four rounds remaining in the regular season, however a number of teams are already shaping up for finals contention and only a few teams appear out of the race to claim the first NRC championship.
The Melbourne Rising remain undefeated and the only team basically assured a finals berth, while the Sydney Stars are winless from four games, leaving their run into the finals all but impossible. Brisbane City remain hot and cold, the North Harbour Rays are making an attempt the emerge from the bottom half of the ladder and the Greater Sydney Rams have seemed to lose their hard earned confidence.
Here are the current odds for each team in the hunt for the championship.
2014 NRC Championship Odds
1st- Melbourne Rising $1.50
2nd- NSW Country Eagles $6.00
3rd- Brisbane City $7.00
4th- Canberra Vikings $11.00
8th- Perth Spirit $26.00
5th- Greater Sydney Rams $34.00
6th- North Harbour Rays $34.00
7th- Queensland Country $34.00
9th- Sydney Stars $101.00
Odds sourced from Sportsbet.com.au on the 22nd of September, prior to round 6s Thursday night match.
The Melbourne Rising are the team to beat after five rounds and the oddsmaker’s have distinctly highlight them as strong favourites to chase the inaugural championship.
After five games, the Rays were topping the points scored (260) with 117 more points than the second highest scoring team the Eagles, highlighting their deadly attack.
The Rising started their season strongly and have only been improving week to week. Their most recent results demonstrated their strength of depth as they overcame injuries to three key-players Toby Smith (knee), Sefanaia Naivulu (hand) and Jonah Placid (knee) to beat NSW Country. The injuries didn’t loosen their grip on the minor premiership, as the weakened side fought out a comprehensive win.
On Thursday night, they yet again annihilated another top four team, the Vikings, opening up the first half of the match scoring 26 unanswered points before the Canbarrians realised it wasn’t a training drill. In the final 60 minutes the Viking had all the ball but the Rising’s defensive structure proved to strong, taking out the match 34-13.
Young gun Jack Debreczeni has overcome an injury blighted start to his first Super Rugby Season in 2014 with the Melbourne Rebels, to emerge a steady hand and massive boot for their NRC linked club. He has also proven his ability to link with scrum half and captain Nic Stirzaker to direct a fiery backline, filled with Super Rugby players Inman, English, Veainu and Placid.
The dominant forward pack has been led around by the hard hitting Lopeti Timani, boasting Super Rugby players in each position with the likes of ex-Leinster and Rebels’ hooker Tom Sexton largely remaining on the bench.
The run home:
Round 6- Canberra Vikings (won 34-13)
Round 7- BYE
Round 8- Greater Sydney Rams
Round 9- Queensland Country
With only two games remaining, the Rising are likely to walk away with another two wins and therefore take the minor premiership and enter the finals undefeated.
Form: W, W, W, W, W, W
Play-off Chances: The Rising have surely done enough to lock in a maiden finals berth and so far it would be surprising if they don’t take the cake on offer at the end of the play-offs.
NSW Country Eagles
The Eagles kick-started their campaign with three early wins against the fifth, sixth and seventh placed sides. In their most recent two rounds, they have fallen to the table topping Rising and third place Brisbane City, who sit two points under the Eagles after one less game.
The Eagles faced their stiffest competition in weeks four and five, falling 8 points short of Brisbane City before losing comprehensively to the table topping Rising. NSW Country’s most recent loss against the Rising was without the service of Steven Hoiles, who sat out nursing a shoulder issue, while the impact of backline aces Brendan McKibbin and Andrew Kellaway impact were reduced as they entered the game off the bench.
Andrew “The Fire” Kellaway has set the NRC alight. The 19 year old winger is a player to keep your eyes on throughout the season and next years Super Rugby tournament as he will surely make an immediate impact for the Waratahs. Earlier this year he equaled the IRB Junior World Cup try scoring record and he has been touted as Australia’s best schoolboy prodigy since Kurtley Beale.
The run home:
Round 6- BYE
Round 7- Sydney stars
Round 8- Canberra Vikings
Round 9- Perth Spirit
The Eagles face two teams sitting on the bottom of the table during their run home, as well as the mid-table Vikings. At least two victories should be on the cards when assessing current form, whilst a third against the Vikings would almost certainly assure a home semi-final.
Form: W, W, W, L, L
Play-off Chances: With three games remaining, the Vikings posing the largest threat on the run home. NSW Country will make the play-offs but will fall short of the minor premierships.
Prediction: 3rd (or 2nd)
Brisbane City are shaping up as the most likely team to knock the Rising off their pedestal, come playoffs.
The third-placed City, who is enjoying the bye in round five, now awaits Country, with the Queensland stable-mates to do battle on Sunday week in an encounter that is set to pique the interest of Reds fans.
Samu Kerevi has to be one of the best finds of the NRC. His hard hitting tackles and wrecking ball runs have been some of the highlights of the competition so far. If this form carries into the Super Rugby season next year, the Queensland Reds backline will be unstoppable.
The run home:
Round 6- Queensland Country (Andy Purcell Cup)
Round 7- Greater Sydney Rams
Round 8- North Harbour Rays
Round 9- Canberra Vikings
The third-placed City will launch the second half of their season this week, after a bye in round five. Their remaining four matches demonstrate a mixed bag of challenges, however the Rays and Rams pose a few possible banana peels.
Form suggests another notch will be added to the bed post this weekend, as City take on ‘little brother’ and stable-mates Queensland Country. Their toughest remaining challenge will likely be in the final round, if they come up against a full-strength Vikings outfit.
Form: W, W, L, W, B
Play-off Chances: If Brisbane City manage to repeat the first half of their season and grab three wins in the final four round they will be more than likely to host a home semifinal against the Eagles.
Prediction: 2nd (or 3rd)
The Canberra Vikings are filled with Super Rugby players, appearing as a Brumbies B side rather than an NRC franchise.
Standout forwards include Jarred Butler and Fotu Auelua, while the backline are filled with the likes of Robbie Coleman and Jesse Mogg, whilst Christian Lealiifano has joined the Wallabies in their tour of South Africa and Argentina.
The Vikings lost their first game since round one on Thursday night, after a slow start against the Rising. They seemed to lack the penetration that the Rising showed with every touch of the ball. Some positives did however emerge from the game, with reserve Rowan Parry demonstrating his ability at 7, drawing similarities to a poor mans Michael Hooper.
The run home:
Round 6- Melbourne Rising (lost 13-34)
Round 7- North Harbour Rays
Round 8- NSW Country Eagles
Round 9- Brisbane City
With three games remaining against the second placed NSW Eagles, third placed Brisbane City and finals contenders the Rays, the Vikings face a tough run home.
Form: L, W, W, D, B, L
Play-off Chances: The Vikings chances of a play-offs berth are still alive however they aren’t necessarily well.
A win against the Rays next week is a necessity, whilst a win against either the Eagles or City will likely be needed to secure a spot in the top four. Slip up against against the Rays and two wins may be needed in the final two games, which seems unlikely with current results.
Prediction: 4th (or 5th)
Greater Sydney Rams
The Greater Sydney Rams have proven to be the true mixed-bag of the competition. Each week the supporters arrive not knowing which Rams side they will be cheering for; the dominant Rams who can attack from anywhere on the field, or the fractured side who play rugby distinguished by errors.
The ‘Horned Army’ have made a name for themselves this season, as the most enthusiastic and loud support group of the NRC. They turn up wearing budgie smugglers, in a sea of orange rams horns, chanting support and banter such as:
Horny, horny, horny.
Horny, horny, horny for tries.”
They are a unique part of this entertaining competition and i look forward to see their growth, as well as the emergence of other supporters groups in the NRC.
Dane “Chisel Chips” Chisholm has been developing each week, demonstrating why their has been hype surrounding his transition from the NRL. His agility and ability to beat the first (second, third etc ) defender is remarkable, while he appears right at home on the wing or at fullback.
The run home:
Round 6- North Harbour Rays
Round 7- Brisbane City
Round 8- Melbourne Rising
Round 9- BYE
The Rams have a tough run to the finish line, facing three teams in finals contention. A win against the Rays will be essential to keep them in the competition, while an upset against City or the Rising will be needed to earn a top four finish
Form: L, L, W, W, L
Play-off Chances: The Rams finals hoped to a massive hit last week, conceding a loss to the previously win-less Queensland Country. If the drive and commitment is there, they have all the pieces to pull together a play-off position, however it wont come easily.
It is essential for the Rams to claim a win against the Rays in round six, while at least one win against City or the Rising will be necessary give them a chance of making the knock-out stages.
Prediction: 5th (or 4th)
North Harbour Rays
The North Harbour Rays started the season slow, losing their first two games before turning on two strong performances, earning wins against Queensland Country and Perth Spirit.
The Rays sit mid-table and their results over the next four weeks will dictate if the inaugural season has been successful or not.
Five-eight Hamish Angus sits second on the highest point scorer table, only behind the fine of the NRC Jack Debreczeni. His kicking has proven the difference in both the Rays wins, converting four from four each game to win by three points. His form on the boot will need to continue if the Rays are to remain alive for play-off contentions.
Cam Crawford is another man who will have to perform in the back end of the season. The ex-Waratahs winger fights for game time in next years Super Rugby season, making a move to the Melbourne Rebels after a quite 2014.
The run home:
Round 6- Greater Sydney Rams
Round 7- Canberra Vikings
Round 8- Brisbane City
Round 9- Sydney Stars
The run home includes teams from all over the table, however none of the games will be won easily. This weekend Sydney derby against the Rams, followed by the Vikings match next weekend, are both make or break matches for the season.
Form: L, B, L, W, W
Play-off Chances: The Rays will have to overcome mid-table rivals the Rams and Vikings in succeeding weeks, followed by a win out against City or the Stars. An upset against City is a big ask, so the Rays will set their heights high and aim to claim the pudding in the other three matches.
The chance of a play-off is possible, however it certainly is not probable.
The boys from the Queensland bush are back in town, claiming their first win of the season in round five.
Captain Beau Robinson is setting his sights on the Andy Purcell Cup this weekend, hoping for a win in the first Queensland derby of the NRC. Their is a lot of history behind the match-up as Queensland Country and City have faced off since 1902, while the cup is named after the late Queensland player and Rugby Union vice-president, who passed away last year.
The most recent Country performance saw an improved and dominant scrum against the Rams, while their defensive structures shut down the normally lethal Rams backline. The result would have been a relief for the Country boys, however there is a lot of room for improvements.
Former Wallabies tighthead prop Greg Holmes will need to continue to anchor their set-piece, while the experience of Beau Robinson and Anthony Fiangaa will be need to continue the strong defensive efforts. Jamie-Jerry Taulagi has also been demonstrating his dynamic ability to attack from kick return or via injecting himself into the backline. The 21 year old fullback is a great prospect for the Queensland Reds, who will have a fresh faced backline next year with the added signings of James O’Conner and Carmichael Hunt.
The run home:
Round 6- Brisbane City (Andy Purcell Cup)
Round 7- Perth Spirit
Round 8- Sydney Stars
Round 9- Melbourne Rising
The run home provides Queensland Country with a chance to earn some respect in the NRC. They are unlikely to reach play-offs, however they have the opportunity to walk away with some silverware, the Andy Purcell Cup, if the beat Brisbane City this weekend.
Round seven and eight are the best chances for Country to add to their win tally which kicked off last weekend.
Country will enter their final round against the Rising all guns blaring. The Rising should be a class above the Queenslanders, so they will likely enter the final round as rank underdogs.
Form: B, L, L, L, W
Play-off Chances: With four games including two of the NRC’s toughest teams, the hopes of reaching the play-offs are fast fading. A tremendous lift would be need as well as some major upsets.
The Perth Spirit haven’t earned a victory since round one against the Canberra Vikings.
The Spirit side has been splintered through injury and Wallabies selection. Pek Cowan, Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman are all away on national duties and will be unavailable for at least the next two rounds.
Their round six lineup looks stronger than ever with an all Force backline including Kyle Godwin, Junior Rasolea and Luke Morahan. They will look to draw on Super Rugby fitness to play at high intensity from hooter to hooter, something that has been absent from a number of their games.
The six changes in the backline will provide more unpredictability than previous weeks, while their Western Force combinations will be more noticeable. They will have a red hot go against the Stars and will appear a different team in the remaining half of the season.
The run home:
Round 6- Sydney Stars
Round 7- Queensland Country
Round 8- BYE
Round 9- NSW Country Eagles
The fresh backline will provide a lot of professionalism and power against the Stars this weekend, giving them an edge. They will then have another opportunity to gain a W when they play another wooden spoon contender Queensland Country the following round.
The final round will be the Spirit’s hardest remaining challenge as they come up against a NSW Country side who be eyeing a home semi-final.
Form: W, L, L, L, L
Play-off Chances: A miracle remains the only chance for the Spirit to make the play-offs. Three wins from three remaining games would be necessary as well as a number of bonus points. Even then, a lot of other results would have to swing their way for there to be any hope.
The Sydney Stars earned themselves a hard fought draw against a stronger Vikings side last weekend, the first draw of the competition.
Round five was their most promising performance to date. They never lost touch with their opposition and played to the final whistle, scoring in the dying seconds to grind out a draw. Will Skelton added a lot of size to the pack, continually getting his side on the front foot, while Stu Dunbarg provided great service to the backs outside him.
The Stars desire for a victory will be rejuvenated from their result last week, look to see a strong starting Stars outfit come Sunday.
The run home:
Round 6- Perth Spirit
Round 7- NSW Country Eagles
Round 8- Queensland Country
Round 9- North Harbour Rays
The run home for the Stars presents a number of chances for the Sydney boys to snatch a win or two. The matches against the Spirit and Queensland Country will dictate the competitions first wooden spooners, while there is nothing stopping the Stars from beating play-off contenders the Rays.
Form: L, L, B, L, D
Play-off Chances: Hope for a finals spot will be all but lost for the Stars. They will look to end the season in similar fashion to how they started their first 30 minutes of the NRC, dangerous with ball in hand. They have nothing to lose and I wont be surprised if they gain a few wins in the back half of the season.
Predicted End of Season Table (current position)
1st- Melbourne Rising (1st)
2nd- Brisbane City (3rd)
3rd- NSW Country Eagles (2nd)
4th- Canberra Vikings (4th)
5th- Greater Sydney Rams (5th)
6th- North Harbour Rays (6th)
7th- Perth Spirit (8th)
8th- Sydney Stars (9th)
9th- Queensland Country (7th)
Finals Week 1
(1st) Melbourne Rising v (4th) Canberra Vikings- Rising to progress
(2nd) Brisbane City v (3rd) NSW Country Eagles- City to progress
Finals Week 2
(1st) Melbourne Rising v (2nd) Brisbane City- Rising to lift the trophy
Current Top Try Scorers
Telusa VEAINU (Melbourne Rising)- 8 tries (six games)
Andrew KELLAWAY (NSW Country Eagles)- 7 tries (five games)
Dillyn LEYDS (Perth Spirit)- 5 tries (five games)
Tom ENGLISH (Melbourne Rising)- 5 tries (six games)
Lopeti TIMANI (Melbourne Rising)- 5 tries (six games)
Current Top Point Scorers
Jack DEBRECZENI (Melbourne Rising)- 90 points (six games)
Hamish ANGUS (North Harbour Rays)- 44 points (four games)
Sam WINDSOR (NSW Country Eagles)- 44 points (five games)
Telusa VEAINU (Melbourne Rising)- 43 points (six games)
Jake McINTYRE (Brisbane City)- 38 points (four games)