Sydney derbies set to sizzle in '16

by Brett McKay

The first round of the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship has been run and won, and already we’ve seen the reputations of some teams enhanced, while some other suffered a bit of a dent over the opening weekend.

Beware the wounded favourites

At last week’s launch, half the eight team representatives very quickly nominated reigning and two-time NRC champions Brisbane City as favourites to take out the 2016 title.

But without a host of backline stars – Nick Frisby, Jake McIntyre, Henry Taefu, Samu Kerevi, and Karmichael Hunt were all missing for various reasons – City found the going pretty tough against a willing NSW Country side keen to impress their new Sydney University partners at No.1 Oval.

Injured Melbourne Rising winger Dom Shipperley suggested last week – not even remotely arrogantly, either – that his side should probably start favourites, with the reasoning that they dominated the competition in 2014, and almost certainly took the off the pedal during the 2015 season, perhaps subconsciously thinking that their 2014 form would carry through.
There’s no doubt at all the Rising had the dominant forwards pack against Perth Spirit over in the west on Saturday, and from that dominance, they created plenty of opportunities.

But their execution let them down throughout the game. City suffered a similar fate, though they had a lot more trouble matching NSW Country than Melbourne did matching Perth.

It spells trouble for Western Sydney and Queensland Country, the respective opponents of City and the Rising in Round 2, and with both teams already coming off heavy defeats in Round 1.

What a difference a year makes

This time last year, Jack Dempsey was a really promising young flanker and the Ned Hanigan was a really promising young lock. Both had been signed by the Waratahs, and though they had plenty of raps on them, their potential was still largely unknown.

The 2015 NRC jolted them much further forward in rugby people’s awareness though, and very soon, the performances at this level were matching the talk. Of course, both went on to play for the ‘Tahs in 2016; Dempsey played from the start of the season, and his absence was felt when injuries kept him off the field. Hanigan debuted late in the season and immediately looked at home at Super Rugby level.

Come this season’s NRC though, and both players started the season as one of their respective sides’ key players. And both are well and truly matching those expectations.

Hanigan was superb in NSW Country’s gritty win over Brisbane City, a constant presence in the Country lineout and a threat to City’s, and showed a nice turn of speed when in open space, including crashing over for his side’s first try of the season.
Dempsey, too, reminded everyone of his speed when he ran in a try from near on 60 metres against Western Sydney on Sunday, and got through a mountain of work carrying and at the breakdown.

And yes, both players found themselves in yellow card trouble – twice, in Dempsey’s case, which we might yet hear more about – but it’s hard to find fault in a couple of young guys wanting to rip in.

Twelve months on, these two players have most certainly repaid the faith of those happy to mention their potential last season. Both look primed for big NRC seasons already.

Sydney derbies will be entertaining in 2016

If we learned anything from the Sydney Rays-Western Sydney Rams try-fest on Sunday, it’s that neither team is going to die wondering this season.

Seven tries in the first half followed by another four in the second half blew away any pretentions that the NRC was going to be played differently this season. After both the Saturday games featured only five tries each, the North Sydney Oval scoreboard attendants were jolted into action.

But it’s not like defence was optional in this match. Both the Rams first two tries came from close quarters; a pick and drive and lineout maul right on the tryline, while Rays hooker Damien Fitzpatrick also scored from a maul. Flyer Harry Jones scored from an intercept back near half way. Both teams had to work hard to get themselves into position to score the tries they did.

Add to the equation the evident intent to play from NSW Country, and it already feels like the Sydney derbies will be worth tuning in for this season.

Future of the Brumbies in our midst?

If in a few years’ time the names Powell, Jooste, and Jackson-Hope are the major reasons why the Brumbies are suddenly the darlings of Australian rugby again, it will all have started in red and white jerseys in a game played on the Gold Coast.

Scrumhalf Joe Powell, flyhalf Nick Jooste, and inside centre Jordan Jackson-Hope have been seen as the future of the Brumbies for some time, with Powell and Jackson-Hope both earning starts in 2016 and Jooste being groomed for a likely 2017 debut.

But Sunday afternoon at Bond University was the first time the three of them had played together at this senior level, and with all three prominent in the Uni of Canberra Vikings’ big 58-20 win over Queensland Country.

Powell’s quality has been known for some time, and indeed, he was a shock call-up to the Wallabies training squad for the June series against England.
Jooste was a late season star for Perth Spirit in the 2015 NRC, which was the trigger for the Brumbies to sign him up. His game management twelve months on has clearly benefitted from the tutelage under Stephen Larkham and alongside Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua. And his already good kicking game is better again.

Jackson-Hope has emerged this season as an Under-20s standout, and scored a wonderful try with his first touch in Super Rugby. The socks down and floppy blonde locks have drawn the commentator’s comparisons with James O’Connor, and indeed, Sam Carter was referring to Jackson-Hope as “Rabs” (O’Connor’s nickname) at last week’s launch, in nominating him as the Vikings’ player to watch.

Together, the three of them are already combining in a way well beyond what you’d expect from a bunch of 20-year-olds (Powell is 22, but you get my point). The natural football talent is as abundant as it is exciting, and that’s something Brumbies fans should quickly start paying attention to.

Not just about player development

Former Queensland Reds scrumhalf Nic Berry started refereeing at the start of the 2015 season, and by last year’s NRC, he was thrust onto the national stage while admitting to last August that he knew he still had plenty to work on.

Fast forward a year, and Berry has made his Super Rugby debut and has been used as a fourth official for test Matches. An already meteoric rise only climbs further.

But to his absolute credit, the Nic Berry who refereed the Queensland Country-Uni of Canberra Vikings clash on Sunday looked and sounded every bit like a quality rugby referee, and not just a high-profile converted former player. His handling of the game was absolutely top notch.

His feel for the game is excellent, and his communication with the players is first class. It’s great to see how quickly the transition has been achieved, and we sometimes forget that the NRC is all about the players. The success of Nic Berry will almost ensure more and more former players are tested at this level.