In a match that more than lived up to the hype and showcased everything good about NRC (and Australian) rugby, Perth Spirit claimed the NRC trophy for 2016 against NSW Country Eagles, winning 20-16 at Scully Park in Tamworth. In a gripping arm-wrestle from start to finish, the Spirit produced one of the most impressive defensive efforts ever seen in the competition’s history (or, for that matter, in any match I have seen), which proved the difference between the sides.
There was an aura to this game. Finals footy? In the country? That sure raised an eyebrow or two. But, as this season has shown, the NRC isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill rugby competition. For a competition focused on developing rugby talent, it seemed somewhat appropriate. NSW Country Eagles spruiked this match all week to the country folk, yet, one was expecting a bigger crowd compared to the one that packed into Scully Park for the match. That crowd, however, would not be disappointed with the match they got.
The Country Eagles and Tamworth volunteers did a wonderful job with the set-up, playing the Bledisloe matches on the big screen in the lead up to the game. It was a somewhat awkward start to the final, with players being brought out one-by-one and the national anthem was barely audible due to technical issues. But those brief, sheepish moments were put to the side immediately once the match kicked off on a pitch that looked an absolute treat.
It has been so common for us to see the massive try scoring extravaganzas the NRC has become known for. But even the NRC detractors would have been taken in by this match. While both teams seemed awkward off the kick-off, within the first ten minutes it became very clear what kind of match we were in for: a gritty, brutal war of attrition between two evenly matched sides. NSW Country were at their usual, entertaining best, but tonight they came across something different: The Perth Spirit defence.
There was an aggressiveness to the Spirit tonight, something I have never seen in them before. They were up for the challenge. They were focused. And that defensive line meant business. From the get-go, the Spirit were producing hits reminiscent of the ‘Blue Wall’ that the Force had back in 2014. NSW Country were throwing everything they had at them, but that wall stood strong. However, when the Spirit came up with the ball, the Country boys produced several hard hits of their own. And so, the war of attrition begun.
For 30 minutes, the Eagles and Spirit beat the living daylights out of each other, with neither side being able to find the line. Tempers flared up several times. There was passion. Both teams wanted this win bad. It took a mistake from the Eagles to bring the scoreboard to life, with Spirit player Luke Morahan leaping on the ball to score the first try, 6-0.
The Spirit then put scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens away to double their score, but NSW Country were not going to go away quietly. It took their tried-and-trusted try scoring machine, Sam Figg, to get them back in the game with a brilliantly orchestrated try. Both teams traded blows as the game returned to an old-fashioned war of attrition, before referee Nic Berry blew the halftime whistle with the Spirit ahead 12-8.
The second half continued much in the same vein as the first. The battle at scrum time was aggressive, and defence would prove to be the deciding factor in who would win the game. The Spirit got on the board with Louwrens going over for his second try off the scrum, and the men from the west were out to a 20-8 lead.
Then followed what was one of the most impressive defensive efforts I have ever seen. Channeling the Wallabies against Wales in the World Cup last year, the Spirit repelled barrage after barrage of Eagles attack, and were camped inside their 22 for over 10 minutes. Both teams had players sent to the bin. The Eagles were beginning to realise that it was now or never, and emptied their tank in an endless barrage of attacking phases. But the more attacking methods they tried, the more the Spirit were able to come up with the answers. Their defence was disrupting the ball and relentlessly slowing it down. Jake Gordon was shut out of the game by swarming Spirit players. Even Andrew ‘The Fire’ Kellaway could not find a way through. When Perth Spirit skipper Heath Tessmann managed to win back possession, a major moral victory had been achieved.
By this stage, any sense of self-preservation had gone out the window. The Country Eagles were desperate, and it took a special effort in the final ten minutes by Tom Hill to crack the stubborn Spirit defence and get the Country Eagles back to a 4 point margin with 5 minutes to play. How many times have we been in this situation this year? It only seemed fitting that it the Grand Final mirrored it.
But, as they did to the Rams two weeks ago, the Eagles found themselves being ground out by the Spirit defence. When the men from the west forced a turnover, it was all over. And I must say, with all the talk about the fragility of WA rugby, if there was any definitive way to answer those critics, then this was it.
For the Eagles, it was a heartbreaking loss, and the looks on the players faces showed much it meant to them. But in what has been a landmark year for NSW NRC rugby, the Eagles can be proud of their efforts. They gave everything they had and made the Spirit work for that victory. I’m a diehard NSW Country Supporter myself, and I could not have asked for any more from the boys. That was a performance that made me proud to be a NSW Country Eagles supporter. Despite the loss, watching games like this (especially when the Wallaroos and Wallabies got beaten hours before), reminds me (and hopefully, many others) of why we love rugby. The respect shown between both skippers in the post-match speeches was evident of the quality of the game.
But, congratulations to the Spirit. Their giant killing season has come to an end and they more than deserved to have their name on that Toast Rack. Now, that Toast Rack is officially heading to the west for the first time ever! The Piggies are victorious and bring home the bacon! (In all seriousness, can we actually change the Spirit’s name to the Perth Pigs? It’s such a good name!).
If there is any negative to be had, it’s that we now have to wait another ten months before we get to see the NRC again. Bugger.
This was a match that, to me, summed up the NRC and Australian rugby in general. Yeah, the national anthem was a fail. Yeah, the NRC signage fell down during the presentation. Yeah the crowd was not as big as expected. But no one could deny what they saw was something that restores the faith for many an Aussie rugby fan. The NRC is the walking definition of a battler completion. Yeah, it hasn’t got the money, but you cannot deny the big heart the players bring to this competition.
Over the course of this season, I have been personally blown away with how many people in the rugby community have hoped this competition would fail. Maybe it is to do with the angry mindset directed towards the ARU by those in club rugby, who knows? In this last week, the divisions within Australian rugby have really been placed front-and-centre. To see so many people squabbling about the future of our game is tough to see.
But tonight (as it has all season), the NRC once again showcased its value in the Australian landscape. Players need the experience playing against their interstate counterparts provides. Players need experience playing with Super Rugby and Wallaby experience. Players need this competition to survive. Within the Aussie rugby landscape, the NRC stands as a shining example of what can come about when club rugby and the ARU work together.
The Game Changer
The Perth Spirit defence. In the 47th minute the Eagles went for a scrum, hoping for a pushover try. The Spirit scrum held firm. This begun 10 minutes of ruthless attack and even more ruthless defence. With players being sent to the bin, whoever won this battle would turn out to be the winner of the match. When Spirit skipper Heath Tessmann pounced on the ball for a turnover, the Spirit achieved a moral victory that ensured they won the game.
The GAGR MOTM
Who else? Richard Hardwick for the Spirit. A man of the match performance that capped off what was an impeccable performance by the Piggies forwards. A close second was Country Eagles skipper, Paddy Ryan. All week, Ryan spoke about how the game would be won in the forwards, and he wasn’t wrong. But he led with grit and determination, and kept the Eagles in the game. To round out the Top 3, it must go to none other than Billy Meakes, who grabbed the second half by the scruff of the neck in a defensive performance that would make the Chiropractor proud. He is a solid find for the Force next year, and has really come into his own since moving to the west.
OZ BaaBaa Watch
In all honesty, every single player stepped up this game, so to single one out is a huge disrespect to the rest of the players on the field. But, seeing as I have to, the first I must recognise is Ryan Louwrens from the Spirit, who had an awesome game at scrum-half, grabbing a double for his efforts and being an important link in the Spirit’s wall of defence. For the Eagles, Sam Figg continues time-and-again to impress, and has had two impressive NRC seasons on the trot. Someone, get this man a contract! For god sake! Someone!
NSW Country: 16
Deegan (1/1) 37'
Adams (1/1) 75'
Louwrens (2) 33', 44'
Tapuai (1/1) 45'
Perry 43' – YC
Cowan 48' – YC
Stander 64' – YC
New South Wales Country Eagles: 1. Paddy Ryan (c), 2. Folau Fa’ainga, 3. Sam Needs, 4 .Rohan O’Regan, 5. Tim Buchanan, 6. Sam Figg, 7. Rowan Perry, 8. Sam Ward; 9. Jake Gordon, 10. Andrew Deegan, 11. Alex Newsome, 12. Kyle Godwin, 13. David Horwitz, 14. Reece Robinson, 15. Andrew Kellaway. Replacements: 16. Luke Holmes, 17. Jed Gillespie, 18. Cam Betham, 19. Ryan McCauley, 20. Tom Cusack, 21. Mark Baldwin, 22. Tayler Adams, 23. Tom Hill. Coach: Darren Coleman.
Perth Spirit: 1. Pek Cowan, 2. Heath Tessmann (c), 3. Jermaine Ainsley, 4. Kieran Stringer, 5. Onehunga Havili, 6. Ross Haylett-Petty, 7. Richard Hardwick, 8. Brynard Stander, 9. Ryan Louwrens, 10. Jono Lance, 11. Semisi Masierewa, 12. Ben Tapuai, 13. Billy Meakes, 14. Marcel Brache, 15. Luke Morahan. Replacements: 16. Anaru Rangi, 17. Laione Mulikihaamea, 18. Shambeckler Vui, 19. Grayson Knapp, 20. Kane Koteka, 21. Michael Ruru, 22. Ian Prior, 23. Eric Vasukicakau. Coach: Dwayne Nestor.