I may have mentioned once or twice or pretty much every week how quick this NRC season is. It leaves absolutely no margin for error nor for teams trying to work their way into the tournament, as Brisbane City found out.
So here we sit, on Semi-Final eve once again. And it’s a little déjà vu – or at least déjà vu-adjacent. Last year we had the Vikings hosting the Perth Spirit (ie the Western Force) while Queensland Country hosted the Drua. Twelve months (ish) down the track and those same four teams have finished atop the ladder albeit with a little bit of shuffling.
In season 2017 it was the Vikings who finished on top of the log with QLD Country nuzzling at their neck. Meanwhile the Drua came in third while the team from the west broke into fourth spot on the back of a last round win over QLD Country. This year the Drua have claimed their first Minor Premiership creating a challenging away trip for whomever wants to win the title.
The Vikings secured their finals’ position with a tough win over Brisbane City and will now travel to the islands to try to become the first team to beat the Drua at home this season. Meanwhile the Force will head east to the Gold Coast to take on QLD Country whom they have never lost to. All in all it promises to be a fascinating couple of matches.
FIJI DRUA v CANBERRA VIKINGS(LIVE ON FOX SPORTS)
Saturday 20 October at Churchill Park (Lautoka). Kick-off 4:00pm local time (3pm East Coast Elite Time)
REASONS NOT THE MISS THE MATCH:
- Just a couple of rounds ago, when these two teams last met at this very same venue, it looked like the Drua were going to do a return serve on the Vikings in revenge for their 2017 encounter. You see back last year, the Vikings clinically routed the visiting Fijians in a 60 point drubbing in Canberra. After about 30 minutes of their Round 6 encounter this season, the Drua were cruising along at about a point a minute and roles were most definitely reversed. Except the Vikings don’t roll over and ended up leading with 20 minutes to go. In the end Fiji did what Fiji do and ran the length of the field to score the winning try. But was it enough to give the Vikings a wiff of confidence, a similarly a dose of doubt for the Drua, as they enter Saturday’s clash?
- The Force were most effective last week when they shut down the Drua’s possession and that is what the Vikings must do this weekend. Naturally that needs to be a whole of team focus, but when it comes down to it the generals must stand up. Joe Powell and Wharenui Hawera must be the conductors in the orchestra as they run their teammates through the game. Hawera was wonderful in wet conditions last week and guided his team to victory despite the Quade Cooper skills opposing him. Powell, fresh from his Wallaby snubbing, must marshal his pack to counter any Drua punch and patiently control the pill before snaffling any pointscoring opportunity that arises.
- Drua captain Mosese Voka has taken the mantle last year’s skipper, John Stewart, in his lead from the front play this season. I’d suggest he has been marginally less effective since moving from openside to blindside a few rounds ago, as his running game seems to have been nullified somewhat. It has, however, opened a spot up for the brilliant Jone Navori in the 7 jersey. Putting aside his impact as a player, it will be Voka’s calm leadership that will be most needed should the pressure of finals play impacts his team. They’ve proven they can come back from big margins as long as they stick to their game plan. That needs to be Voka’s message throughout Saturday’s semi.
Fiji Drua: W W L W W W W
Canberra Vikings: L W W W W L W
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED:
1. Joeli Veitayaki, 2. Mesulame Dolokoto, 3. Benji Makutu, 4. Peni Naulago, 5. Albert Tuisue, 6. Mosese Voka (c), 7. Jone Navori, 8. Eremasi Radradro, 9. Frank Lomani, 10. Alivereti Veitokani, 11. Aporosa Tabulawaki, 12. Cyril Reece, 13. Apisalome Vota, 14. Levani Kurumudu, 15. Apisalome Waqatubu
Replacements: 16. Ratunasisa Navuma , 17. Eroni Mawi, 18. Luke Tagi, 19. Tevita Naqali, 20. Johnny Dyer, 21. Peni Matawalu, 22. Eele Malele, 23. Lepani Raiyala
1.Vunipola Fifita, 2. Josh Mann-Rea, 3. Tom Ross, 4. Rory Arnold, 5. Darcy Swain, 6. Rob Valetini, 7. BJ Edwards, 8. Ben Hyne (c), 9. Joe Powell, 10. Wharenui Hawera, 11. Andy Muirhead, 12. Jordan Jackson-Hope, 13. Len Ikitau , 14. Lausii Taliauli, 15. Tom Banks
Replacements: 16. Connal McInerney, 17. Sione Taula, 18. Max Bode, 19. Blake Enever, 20. Peter Samu, 21. Ryan Lonergan , 22. Noah Lolesio, 23. Irae Simone
TIP: The Vikings are the team most likely to beat the Drua I feel but I just feel the Fijians are too much into a groove at the moment and will back themselves despite any mid-match deficit. Drua by 12
QUEENSLAND COUNTRY V WESTERN FORCE (LIVE ON FOX SPORTS)
Sunday 21 October at Bond University (Gold Coast). Kick-off 2:00pm local time (3pm East Coast Elite Time)
REASONS NOT THE MISS THE MATCH:
- The last two NRC Champions (QLD Country in 2017 and the Western Force, as the Perth Spirit, in 2016) face of on Sunday with quite the disparity in performance. While they each share a championship title, the team from the West have never lost to the QLD Country lads through the history of this competition. Given the Queensland team’s standard of play in the first three years of the competition, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. However even at their best, this last two years, the win has yet to come. The Spirit kicked a last minute penalty to get up last year in Ipswich and scored late again this year, at Bond University, to snatch the chockies again. It will take some sort of performance to break to hoodoo for Country
- Brynard Stander has been almost revelatory for the Force in 2018. While his quality has been clear for a number of years, his importance to the Force performances have never been more obvious. He carried the load when Chris Alcock missed weeks through injury and has maintained his standards since his return. No one in the Force pack poses the attacking thread that Stander does and while their halves are more distributors than dangers, the physical number 8 is central to the Force’s impact up front. If Country can stem his effectiveness, it will go a long way to securing victory.
- Queensland Country skipper Duncan Paia’aua needs to fire on Sunday to get his team into the Grand Final the following week. Last year Paia’aua was simply sensational through the NRC and earnt a Wallaby call-up because of it. This year we’ve only seen glimpses of this class, and it remains a joy to watch, but we haven’t seen as much. The playmaker has disappeared too often from matches leaving the playmaking up to the inexperience inside and outside of him. His defensive frailties have also hurt his side and he sits on top of the tournament missed tackles list. Captains need to step up in big games so it will be interesting to see how Paia’aua does as much on Sunday.
Queensland Country: W W W L L W W
Western Force: W W L W W W L
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED:
1. James Slipper, 2. Effi Ma’afu, 3. Kirwan Sanday, 4. Harry Hockings, 5. Angus Blyth, 6. Angus Scott-Young, 7. Tom Kibble, 8. Caleb Timu, 9. James Tuttle, 10. Hamish Stewart, 11. Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12. Duncan Paia’aua (c), 13. Jordan Petaia, 14. Filipo Daugunu, 15. Jock Campbell
Replacements: 16. Richie Asiata, 17. Harry Hoopert, 18. Jake Simeon, 19. Rob Puli’uvea, 20. Harry Wilson, 21. Tate McDermott, 22. Tom Lucas, 23. Patrick James
1. Harry Lloyd, 2. Heath Tessmann, 3. Kieran Longbottom, 4. Fergus Lee-Warner, 5. Jeremy Thrush, 6. Tevin Ferris, 7. Chris Alcock, 8. Brynard Stander, 9. Ian Prior (C), 10. Andrew Deegan, 11. Rod Davies, 12. Rodney Iona, 13. Henry Teafu, 14. Brad Lacey, 15. Jack McGregor
Replacements: 16. Feleti Kaitu’u, 17. Cameron Orr, 18. Chris Heiberg, 19. Leon Power, 20. Henry Stowers, 21. Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, 22. AJ Alatimu, 23. Clay Uyen
Tip: I get the sense that Country are just cruising through without the killer instinct of last year. I expect the Force to be too clinical for them this Sunday. Force by 2.