Rays and Spirit battle for grand-final berth

by Marty Cambridge

The NSW Country Eagles are already in the final but today we find out who will join them in this year’s Buildcorp NRC decider. 

The Sydney Rays and Perth Spirit go head to head for that privilege at Pittwater Park from 3pm after both sides finished comfortably inside the top four. 

Like the Eagles, the Rays have had just the one loss in 2016 and defeated Perth by 20 points in wet conditions at North Sydney Oval back in Round Two.

Damien Fitzpatrick has signed a two-year deal with the Waratahs. Photo: Karen WatsonCoach, Simon Cron rested a number of players in the final round of the competition but has an almost full-strength first XV for the sudden-death semi-final.

Skipper, Matt Lucas will again start at scrumhalf, along with new Waratahs signing and hooker Damien Fitzpatrick.

Super Rugby veteran at both the Blues and Waratahs, Angus Ta’avao had his first 80-minute run for the season last weekend and will be expected to again lay a solid platform up front for the skillful backline. 

“He (Ta’avao) had some dominant ball carries as well as connecting perfectly in our defensive structures,” Cron said.

The backline boasts some of the competition’s most exciting talent, including Irae Simone and returning Australian Men’s Sevens star, Con Foley, in the centres. 

“Con has made a huge impact since arriving in the NRC. His ability to break the line and open up his outsides is a massive asset to any squad and I see him being a Super Rugby player in the near future,” Cron said.

Con Foley has impressed in his return to the 15-man format. Photo: Karen Watson

Perth will be looking to make their second NRC grand-final in three seasons and have been the dark horse so far in the competition.

Dwayne Nestor’s men come into the do-or-die clash off the back of two big wins over defending premiers Brisbane City and the Super Rugby-littered UC Vikings. 

“Making it to this stage was one of our goals at the start of the season because I knew we had a quality squad,” he said. 

Perth had five wins and two losses during the regular season. Photo: Getty Images“Finals footy is such a great experience and where we start playing for sheep stations so the team is really looking forward to getting out there.”

In a massive loss they will be without last year’s Buildcorp NRC Player of the Year and skipper, Jono Lance, who has been ruled out due to a hamstring injury.

Instead, Western Force regulars, Ian Prior and Ryan Louwrens will partner in the halves for the first time this season.

Ryan Louwrens will start at scrumhalf. Photos: Getty ImagesHowever, they are boosted by the return of speedster Luke Morahan from Wallabies camp, who has been in great try-scoring form for the side when available. 

“It’s awesome to have a player of Mozza’s (Luke Morahan) quality back in the side because he brings such confidence to the players around him but he’s also such a great team man,” Nestor said.

“If you look at those two attributes, his skills and his leadership he will definitely bring a lot to the team.”

Sydney Rays

Starting 1-15: Ezra Luxton, Damien Fitzpatrick, Angus Ta’avao, Connor Vest, James Brown, Jack Dempsey, Chris Alcock, Michael Smith, Matt Lucas, Angus Sinclair, Harry Jones Irae Simone, Con Foley, Lochie Creagh, Josh Turner/Jonathan Malo.

Reserves: James Hilterbrand, Rory O’Connor, Alain Miriallakis/Lawrance Hunting, Adrian Hall, Harry Bergelin, Dewet Roos, Sam Lane, Jonathan Malo/Seb Wileman/Richard Woolf/Dennis Pili-Gaitau.

Perth Spirit

Starting 1-15: Pek Cowan, Heath Tessman, Jermaine Ainsley, Kieran Stringer, Onehunga Havili, Ross Haylett-Petty, Richard Hardwick, Brynard Stander, Ryan Louwrens, Ian Prior, Semisi Masirewa, Ben Tapuai, Billy Meakes, Marcel Brache, Luke Morahan.

Reserves: Anaru Rangi, Laione Mulikihaamea, Shambeckler Vui, Grayson Knapp, Russell Burges, Michael Ruru, AJ Alatimu, Eric Vasukicakau

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