The NRC semi-finals wrap up on Sunday, with Queensland Country hosting the Fijian Drua in Toowoomba.
How did the two sides make the final four?
It feels like Queensland Country have been top two favourites since the competition started, and the staggering degree of their turnaround from previous seasons has been obvious from round one.
Country’s 2017 campaign kicked off against the Canberra Vikings in Canberra, and though the sides went try for try to be locked up at 26-all at halftime, two converted tries in six minutes after the break that turned the blow-torch squarely on Canberra and made everyone realise that this was a very different Queensland Country side under Brad Thorn.
They would concede late tries to go down 48-40, but Country had already been marked as a team to watch.
And when they beat their Ballymore training base rivals Brisbane City for the first time ever in round two the fix was in, Country controlling the match played up on the Sunshine Coast, running away 31-12 winners with Hamish Stewart crossing for a double.
A round three bye was followed by an impressive 50-24 win over the Sydney Rays at Pittwater, where country captain Duncan Paia’aua crossed for three tries.
This was the game in which we learned very quickly just how good former Fijian football international Filipo Daugunu could be at rugby crossing for the first two of his NRC-leading 10 tries to date.
This was confirmed the following week on the Gold Coast, with Daugunu scoring three tries in Country’s big win over the Melbourne Rising.
A 40-point second half converted a 14-0 halftime lead into 54-12 bonus point win, with Country claiming a share of the competition lead.
In round six it was the meeting of the cousins on the Gold Coast, with Queensland Country hosting NSW Country, who had just come off a hard-fought win over the Sydney Rays.
Queensland Country ran out 34-31 winners, but they had to work hard for it, having led 31-0 after 47 minutes, before four NSW Country tries in 17 minutes gave Country a big scare.
They headed to Sydney next and led Greater Sydney 26-7 after half an hour, before going on to win 57-31, with Daugunu becoming just the fourth player in NRC history to score four tries in a match.
This was Country’s fifth win of the season, equalling their total number of wins from the previous three NRC seasons, but their finals fate was yet to be determined.
Country headed to Fiji in round eight, with the daunting task of beating the Drua on home turf, something no Australian side had come close to doing so far, but Country were at their hard-defending best in Suva.
Beating the Drua 24-17, Queensland Country had truly stamped themselves as the team to beat.
Young Queensland Reds no.8 Caleb Timu was huge, but halfback James Tuttle’s game management and leadership was top drawer, and you suspect that performance will remain front and centre in the preparations for the second semi against the Drua this weekend.
Country just had to beat Perth Spirit in the final round match at Ipswich to take out the NRC minor premiership, but little in this NRC season has gone to expectation.
Queensland looked well in control at halftime, but an incredible second half comeback saw the Spirit draw level with 15 to play, and Peter Grant’s 80th minute penalty sealed an unexpected win and a final four spot for the Spirit.
Queensland Country’s second place finish was enough to claim a home semi-final in their first ever NRC Finals appearance, a remarkable achievement in itself considering their first three seasons in the competition.
The Fijian Drua have already become the team everyone loves to watch, in their maiden NRC season.
Quickly brought together from the cream of Fiji’s Skipper Cup competition, the Drua are a completely island-based side, and it took virtually no time for NRC fans to realise that the newcomers were not going to be a pushover.
Their NRC campaign began at Ballymore, and they quickly found out about the step up required of them to compete at this level, conceding five first half tries to trail Brisbane City 33-12 at halftime.
A very encouraging second half comeback, however, including a third try to superstar playmaker Peceli Nacebe saw the Drua give City an almighty late scare in winning 45-36. But the Drua were away.
In round two, Drua had their inevitable piece of history, with their first ever NRC win, 45-24 over the Melbourne Rising in front of a big local Fijian contingent that would become synonymous around their games in Australia. Switched to flyhalf, Nacebi was the star again, scoring another two tries and kicking five conversions.
The first home games followed in Rounds three and four, with their 31-14 win over NSW Country marred by Nacebi’s season coming to an abrupt end just ten minutes into the match.
Three converted tries in the second half saw them run away with the game, as the Eagles ran out of puff in sapping conditions in Sigatoka.
The following week saw the Drua really lay down a statement, thumping the Perth Spirit 41-5 in Suva.
Suddenly, it was very obvious that the Drua would take some beating on home soil, and in front of their screaming home crowds.
Reality’s a funny beast in rugby, however, and the Drua got a sharp dose of it in Canberra, losing heavily to the Vikings on a crisp night played at temperatures the Fijians wouldn’t have experienced much previously.
Scrumhalf Frank Lomani scored in the 18th minute, but that was the sole Drua score for the night as the Vikings ran away 66-5 winners, equalling the biggest winning margin in NRC history.
The Drua claimed another piece of history in round six, taking the Horan-Little Shield out of Australia for the first time, after their 57-36 win over the Greater Sydney Rams.
Twenty-six points in the final twenty minutes blew open a game that had been incredibly tight to that point. Fullback Apisalome Waqatabu scored 22 points of his own in a superb performance that once again had the competition on notice.
A bye in round seven was followed by two final home games for the Fijian Drua, and with them, a genuine chance to finish in the NRC top two.
In Lautoka they played one of the games of the season against Queensland Country, a game that remained tight the whole way through, and was locked up at 17-17 with ten minutes to go, before an Eto Nabuli try back on his homeland secured the 24-17 win that suddenly confirmed Country as a title contender.
Their final game of the regular season was therefore must-win if they wanted to snare a home semi-final, but the task would be made difficult by the loss of seven of their best players on international duty, including prop Joeli Veitayaki Jnr, flanker Mosese Voka, and scrumhalf Lomani.
And the Rays, having just inflicted Perth’s first loss at home in two years were in a giant-killing mood, jumping out to a 29-0 lead after 55 minutes, before the home side staged something of a comeback, and with inspirational skipper John Stewart leading brilliantly.
The Rays would hold on to win 36-29, but the Drua had done enough to secure third place on the table, and a maiden finals in appearance in what had been a truly wonderful first season in the NRC.