History was made on the weekend with the Fiji Drua becoming the first non-Australian team to win the National Rugby Champion. Impressively they achieved this in just their second year. Unimpressively they are the only non-Australian team, so the odds were in their favour.
Putting that all to one side it was a fitting end to the season and it was a fantastic cap on a wonderful season to see the best team, playing the best rugby, defeat last year’s champions in front of a large and loud home crowd.
I was on the verge to suggest it was the best ever season of the NRC but, despite what I saw as an increase in both interest and standard, the performance of the two NSW teams were so poor it impacted the legitimacy of the competition. But more of that later.
I honestly don’t know the future of the NRC. There’s talk of new Pacific Island teams, which I think would be fantastic and could take a few years to materialise. The status of the Western Force is still a massive question mark, in the context of World Series Rugby. I guess, by extension, with a Fiji team rumoured to be a part of WSR, does that call to question the Drua’s future?
Let’s put that behind us for the time being and enjoy the season we had. Here’s my traditional rambling effort to wrap up NRC #5!
Team of the Season
15 Jack McGregeor (Western Force)
14 Filipo Daugunu (QLD Country)
13 Jordan Petaia (QLD Country)
12 Jordan Jackson-Hope (Canberra Vikings)
11 Levani Kurumudu (Fiji Drua)
10 Alivereti Veitokani (Fiji Drua)
9 Ian Prior (Western Force)
8 Brynard Stander (Western Force)
7 Mosese Voka (Fiji Drua)
6 Sam Figg (NSW Country Eagles)
5 Darcy Swain (Canberra Vikings)
4 Albert Tuisue (Fiji Drua)
3 Ruan Smith (Brisbane City)
2 Anaru Rangi (Melbourne Rising)
1 JP Smith (Brisbane City)
I must say I reckon three quarters of that team is pretty straight forward. My biggest bones of contention was the make-up of the backrow, hooker and probably fullback. The challenge with hooker was the number of games the contenders played. The Vikings and Drua both went through hookers like they were Charlie Sheen.
I didn’t think I’d find room for any NSW player in the team, but the more I considered the options the more I couldn’t overlook the work of Sam Figg. If I had to list the players, not-selected, who came closest it’d be Apisalome Waqatubu, Rod Davies, Tom English, Duncan Paia’aua, Ben Hyne and Eremasi Radrodro.
My Player of the Season award would go to Veitokani who was, quite frankling, unbelievable. You can read more of my (and others’) thoughts on him here. In the end he needed to be unbelieveable because there was some very good 10 play this year from the likes of Quade Cooper, Hamish Stewart, Andrew Deegan and Wharenui Hawera.
I never like naming a bench for this teams of the year, but if I were to name a bench player of the year it would be the Drua’s Johnny Dyer. He started just the one game for Fiji, but EVERY time he came off the bench he made a huge impact in attack or defence and at the breakdown.
Game of the Year
There were plenty of high quality matches this year with some memorable matches in 2018 with both high scoring extravaganzas and low scoring battles on show. In the end I went for the last round matchup when the Drua travelled to Perth to take on the Force. The Force had run up some huge scores at home thus far, albeit the bottom two teams in the competition. A last round win over the Drua would seem them keep the Horan-Little Shield and secure a favourable semi-final run.
The lads from the west were composed and clinical and held a 14-0 lead for much of the first half. A try to Fiji just before half time closed the gap, but the Force would have been satisfied that they were doing what they needed to do to secure the win. However the tide turned quickly as the Drua scored the next two tries to give their team the momentum to go on and score a decisive victory. It was a win that assured home finals and gave them the confidence to go on and secure their first title.
Performance of the Year
This is clearly a Drua-heavy review so let’s keep it going that way. For this ‘award’ I can’t go the performance of the Fijians in their Grand Final win. With no bonus points on offer in the big one, the pressure of a home crowd and up against the reigning champions, it was all against the Drua on Saturday. Throw in the wet weather and an early QLD Country try and it all could have gone pear-shaped for the home team.
Coach Senirusi Seruvakula has focussed his team on consistency of intent season-long and his team adhered by remaining composed and playing the match situation superbly. Sure there were some brilliant flashes of skill, the type of which we’ve come to over the last couple of years. But their methodical approach to fighting their way back from the early try, and then shutting QLD Country out of the game completely, was outstanding.
Each and every forward made more metres than their opposite number, and by no means were they by flying down the wing like hooker Mesulame Dolokoto. They grinded their way through the young pack of their opponents, muscling their way closer and closer to the inevitable try. It wasn’t an approach we come to expect from the Fijians but it was one that was eye-catching in its simplicity and success.
Shame of the Year
The biggest story of NRC 2018, from well before the competition kicked off in September, was around the NSW teams. As previewed in our story on the draw here it was announced that the Rams were ditched and there would be now two stream-lined teams being the Rays and the Eagles. Apparently NSW were going to step up and oversee the two teams ala the QRU has done since the completion started (with three wins in five years).
NSW Waratahs General Manager, Tim Rapp, even said that talent would be shared across the two sides.
“We want to see our best players in all positions representing our teams, which will not only add to the competition for selection amongst players but also help the coaches play the strongest match 23 every week,” Rapp said.
But here’s what actually happened.
The stubbornness of Sydney Rugby meant that the Shute Shield Grand Final was on the same weekend as the NRC Round 1. It meant that the Rays and Eagles didn’t play their Round 1 game, until a few weeks into the tournament.
A former NRC player, and fringe Super Rugby player, wrote an astonishing account of the involvement of NSW Rugby and the Tahs including imbalanced squad selection, Super Rugby contracting timing, and the perceived low value of the competition.
In the last round the NSW Country Eagles announced their team via their regular press release with the statement “..there are a number of changes with the Waratahs withdrawing several players from the final game to put them in cotton wool in preparation for next years [sic] Super Rugby Tournament.” Waratah players missing from that last Eagles game included Alex Newsome, Jed Holloway, Will Miller and Harry Johnson-Holmes.
The Sydney Rays finished the season as the first team ever to lose every match of the tournament. The NSW Country Eagles won only one game – against the Rays.
All up the season was an absolute non-event for NSW Rugby. I was going to use the phrase “unmitigated disaster” but that would probably indicate that they had skin in the game, and I am not convinced they really care. As it was, given the status of their promotion of the NSW games, most rugby fans probably didn’t even realise the dire performances that were happening.
Ok, so having just given it to NSW and all things their involvement in the comp, there were some rays of sunshine. One that caught my eye was the Rays young flyhalf Will Harrison. Harrison is the type of player mentioned in the above blog post by “Johnny Football” as being a colt player with limited (if any) first grade experience. And boy did it show in that first game against the Eagles.
I’m becoming increasingly pained when reading negative rants on individuals’ performances on the field, and some of the comments towards Harrison were very harsh. It was as if he bore the brunt of all the frustrations of the NSW teams. The teenager could easily have dropped his bundle but he seems made of sterner stuff. He’d go on to feature in all but one game for the Rays and his development through the competition was significant. He’s not pushing for a Waratah start just yet, and there’s no doubt he’d benefit from a season in the Shute Shield next year, but his resilience and rugby instincts were enough to suggest we’ll see plenty more of Harrison in years to come.
Super Rugby Statement
Canberra Vikings lock forward Darcy Swain looks to have all the credentials of a Super Rugby lock. Clearly the Brumbies have some awesome depth there at the moment, with Wallabies Sam Carter, Rory Arnold and Blake Enever being joined by experienced Murray Douglas. Despite this it would not surprise me if Swain is starting by the end of the year’s Super Rugby season. The 21 year old, 2m plus lock, boasts physicality as one of his strong suits. I reckon he’ll form a bloody good combination with Arnold.
Sticking in Canberra, if the Brumbies thought the signings of Irae Simone might be the tonic to stimulate Tevita Kuridrani to raise his game, then the impact it may have had on a couple of young bucks is icing on the cake. Jordan Jackson-Hope has put his hand up for the Brumbies #12 jersey while his centre partner Len Ikitau will be snapping at the heels of the K-Train after an eye-catching finish to the NRC season.
He’s Back (and then Gone) Award
Last year former Eastwood flyer John Grant was a surprise call-up for the Rams having moved to country NSW to live on his family farm. This year Sam Figg, a long time Eagles stalwart, who was the returning hero. Figg spent the ‘off-season’ with the Glendale Raptors in the USA’s Major League Rugby competition, Figg found his way back into the Orange jersey and it was like he had never left.
Ever the professional, Figg was an absolute stand out for NSW Country and never flinched in the face of the battle his team faced throughout the competition. Despite his clear abilities a professional contract seems unattainable for whatever reasons and it seems that Figg will now be lost to rugby as he takes the step into the corporate world.
By no means in the same league as a ‘out of nowhere comeback’, there was a lot to like about the return stories of Quade Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper. If there was no NRC there would have been no avenue for these three to show their wares post-Super Rugby season, beyond a few weeks of club season. Each were exceptional in their attitude and performances on the park with Cooper and Slipper securing new Super Rugby contracts as a result.
You don’t know me … yet
It’s not the whole premise of the NRC (note the above players) but as an avenue to showcase young, new talent, this competition is of the highest value. In the spirit of that wonderful TV ad for the 2006 version of the event (the Australian Rugby Shield), here are some players to keep an eye on. These are a handful of players per team featuring in the NRC for the first time, or with very limited game time previously. With all due respect to the Drua, I’m focussing solely on the Australian teams.
Brisbane City – Sam Wallis, Tautalatasi Tasi, Matt Gicqel, Fraser McReight
QLD Country – Jock Campbell, Efi Ma’afu, Tom Kibble, Harry Wilson, Jake Simeon
Western Force – Cameron Orr, Fergus Lee-Warner
Melbourne Rising – Archie King, Esei Haangana, Trevor Hosea, Iafeta Luamanu
NSW Country – Jaline Graham, Emmanueal Meafou, Jack Grant, Chris Talakai
Canberra Vikings –Noah Lolesio, BJ Edwards, Tom Ross, Vunipola Fifita
Sydney Rays –Will Harrison, Tyson Davis, John Folau, Jack Hayson
There seemed a lot more support for the competition this year than previous seasons. Accordingly I expect there will be more people with their own thoughts on the above and their own highlights / lowlights of the season. Let us know your thoughts below. All comments and opinions welcome but if you ever want to step up and write your own opinions for the site rather than an occasional snipe in the comments, just get in touch. We’re always on the hunt for new contributors.
Main photo credit Getty Images