After a fantastic first round of NRC action that saw bumper crowds in Fiji and Brisbane and quality games played throughout, all teams will finally enter the fray with the introduction of the two NSW teams.
First off, today we start with the team that has, in my opinion, the toughest task of all eight teams in the competition this year, the Sydney Rays. Why, you may ask?
There is a real sense, particularly over the last two or three seasons of this great little competition, that fans are really starting to come round to the teams, rugby and what the competition represents. Crowds are up, as is viewership. But it’s what the teams are doing that’s even more impressive.
The Vikings are reaching out and beginning to embrace the capital’s Kookaburra heritage, the Queensland teams have been winning Toast Racks left, right and centre and gaining more support along the way, (as evidenced by the nearly 5,000 who turned out to the City-Force match). The Drua are, of course, representing an incredibly proud rugby nation.
The Western Force/Perth Spirit have been absolutely embraced by a resilient rugby public in WA, seeing the teams as a way of getting back at those running the game in the East, and the Rising have been incorporated very well into the Rebels system, and is now very much a focal point in improving the club competitions in Victorian rugby.
If there is anywhere this comp has really struggled up until this point, both on-and-off the field, it is New South Wales. No, scratch that. If anywhere, it’s Sydney.
Many felt, after the removal of the Stars in 2015, that a team of the Sydney Rays representing the North Shore and the Greater Sydney Rams in the west was a great balance. However, this year fans in Sydney’s west were left reeling, with the Penrith Emus being cut from the Shute Shield and the Rams being cut from the NRC.
So that just leaves the Rays, who have an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of rugby folk here in Sydney. Not only will they be coming up against rugby folk who have been already slow to come round to the idea of the NRC, but they also have to win over a lot of angry fans in Sydney’s west who see the removal of their team as another further example of incompetance from the powers that be.
Even though the Rams had many off-field issues and were the only team to never make an NRC finals series, their impressive on-field performances and passion won over a lot of fans in the west, and they could draw a crowd. You only have to look at our interview with Nick Pfitzner to see how much that team meant to folks.
But, this is where the Rays come in. For all the politics, the Rays aren’t (to my knowledge) responsible in any way for what happened to the west. But here they are, and they are faced with a daunting challenge, but also, a fantastic opportunity.
Because, in all honesty, if the NRC is a true indication of the talent in Australian rugby, then the side representing Sydney has to be a heavyweight in the competition. That’s why it’s going to be a tough season for this outfit. If the Rays are to win over fans, there’s no buts about it: this year has to be a success.
The Coaching Staff
With a big job on hand, the Rays have certainly started off on the right foot. First of all, it’s good that NSW Rugby is now on hand to help out both NSW clubs, with the duties previously falling solely on the Shute Shield teams. It’s been good that the governing body is now more on board, and indications are (from our chat with SRU President and NSW Rugby Board member David Begg), that will be more efforts in future seasons to incorporate the Rays better within Sydney’s rugby framework.
The usage of Sydney’s traditional Blue jersey and the restoration of the City-Country rivalry to bring back a sense of history was a great move. So too was to bring the girls program on last year, making the club the only one that has a team in the AON Uni Sevens and the NRC. This is already starting to pay dividends, with the Rays girls (Raylettes?) picking up silver in the first round this year.
But another addition is the coaching staff the Rays have brought on. The club struggled in it’s first two years of the NRC, but in 2016, with now Waratah Assistant Coach Simon Cron, made it all the way to the semi-finals.
This year, Chris Whittaker, the first player to ever earn 100 caps for NSW, takes the reins over from Julian Huxley. With Whittaker primed to be an Assistant coach under Daryl Gibson in 2019, it goes to show how much there is riding on this season. In addition, it goes to show how much NSW Rugby want this team to do well.
The selection of the Rays squad is also critical for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’ve got to compete with the heavyweights in Qld Country, the Western Force, the Fiji Drua and more. Secondly, if you’re going to get all fans onside, you need a team that represents all of Sydney. You needs Waratahs, quality Shute Shield players, and players from the west.
The squad has a decent chunk of talent returning from last year’s squad, with a lot of Waratahs including Cameron Clark, Curtis Rona and Mitch Short. Lock Nick Palmer is also back in the side after a year in New Zealand. There is also a decent amount of Randwick and Shute Shield winners Sydney University talent on display, which will heavily beef up the squad.
While there is only a few former Rams who made their way across in Stu Dunbar and Lalakai Foketi, the inclusion of exciting West Harbour back Enoka Muliufi is a good find, and one of several Western Sydney prodigies sprinkled throughout the squad.
The selection of Damien Fitzpatrick as skipper for a second year is an encouraging start, with the Waratah bringing some essential consistency to the team. Having been around the outfit for a while, he should continue to grow into the role this year.
The young gun to watch out for is Pama Fou. Coming off a belter of a year with Eastwood, Fou has proved to be a handful for defences throughout the Shute Shield season, and his inclusion will cause many a defensive headache for opposition backlines.
Cameron Betham, Rory O’Connor, Matt Sandell, Shambeckler Vui
Damien Fitzpatrick (c), JP Sauni, David Vea
Ryan McCauley, Nick Palmer, Connor Vest
Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, Jack Johnson, Maclean Jones, Josh Kemeny, Hugh Sinclair, Lachlan Swinton, Michael Wells
Nick Duffy, Mitch Short, Theo Strang
Stu Dunbar, Will Harrison
Harry Burey, Lalakai Foketi, Curtis Rona, Pama Fou
Cameron Clark, Latu Latunipulu, Enoka Muliufi, Guy Porter, James Ramm
Tim Clements, Tyson Davis
The Rays will have a favourable draw, with four home games and three away games. Making use of the advantage, they will be spreading their games out, playing in the inner city at Lierchardt Oval and Woolhara Oval, before heading out to the inner west for two matches at former Rams fortress, Concord Oval.
They’ll spending the entire first half of the season at home though, so winning a lot of these games will be vital. They’ll be diving straight in this weekend though, playing at Concord against heavyweights the Canberra Vikings. Following this, home matches against Brisbane City and their delayed round one game against NSW Country Eagles will follow, before finishing their home fixtures with a tough match at Concord against the Fijian Drua, one that is sure to draw a big crowd.
Following this, the Rays will have a tough second half to their season, heading over to WA to face the Force, then to the Gold Coast to face Qld Country, before finishing down in Ballarat against the Rising.
It’s simple for the Rays: they have to win those home games. That fortnight away against the Force and Country will be a tough ask, so there’s no other ways around it.
With the NRC, you either hit the ground running or lose. The Rays have a very favourable draw to ensure they can hit the ground running, and the talent and coach to be able to do it. Frankly, if there’s any season for them to have to show up, it’s this one.
While I think the likes of the Force, QLD Country and the Drua will probably prove too much come semi-finals, I predict the Rays will squeeze in to fill that fourth place. But who knows? It’s a strange comp, the NRC is.