NRC: 2016: The unexpected and deserved champion

by Brett McKay

The Buildcorp National Rugby Championship’s third season has been run and won, with Perth Spirit taking out their maiden title in their second visit to the competition decider.

Their outstanding 20-16 win over NSW Country caps the closest competition to date with plenty learnt at to look forward to ahead of the 2017 NRC season.

Set piece and breakdown still rule, OK?

For all the talk about the NRC being a completely different type of rugby to Super Rugby or Premier Rugby around the country, Perth’s triumph in the Final came on the back of the simple fundamentals of the game.

Simply put, and though the Spirit have a backline brimming with exciting talent – Luke Morahan again gave us a reminder of the kind of counter-attacking magic he’s capable of – they built their late-season momentum on the back of a dominant set piece and good, old-fashioned breakdown ascendency.

Then, just to reinforce the point that hard work is what wins you title, Perth cranked up their defensive efforts and didn’t relent until skipper Heath Tessmann was holding up the Buildcorp NRC Trophy.
 Wallabies lock it down. Tom Robertson and Toby Smith during the Buildcorp NRC Semi Final. Photo: Getty ImagesThrough the seven rounds, Perth averaged four tries conceded per game, but turned those screws right in over the last month of the competition, conceding three, five, three, and two tries in their last four games.

And it even became self-fulfilling; the harder they defended, the more pressure they applied at the breakdown, forcing more opportunities to dominate via set piece.

The old adage is that forwards win rugby games, and that the backs just determine the margin. And it would be a very satisfied group of ‘Perth pigs’ as the 2016 season draws to a close.

Another toppled favourite

In the initial season of the Buildcorp NRC, Melbourne Rising went into the Finals unbeaten through the rounds and were viewed as the shortest of short-priced favourites to take the 2014 title.

It’s history now that Perth knocked them off in the semi-final in Perth, while Brisbane City similarly knocked off the second-place NSW Country Eagles in the other semi-final.
Not to plan. NSW Country captain Paddy Ryan after the 2016 NRC Final. Photo: Getty ImagesOnce again, this season has seen a red-hot favourite beaten in the decider, and on home turf this time, with Perth proving that three west coast to east coast trips in three weeks really hasn’t been an issue because they just haven’t let it become an issue.

But what of the beaten Finalists, NSW Country? Their second visit to the NRC Finals has again come up short, and the Eagles having one of the best records in the competition’s history would be small comfort to Darren Coleman. He would simply see two missed opportunities, and a Final defeat is likely to sting for some time.

NSW team strength bodes well for the future

The decision to reduce the number of NSW sides from four to three for the 2016 season brought some short-term pain with the demise of the Sydney Stars – semi-finalists in 2015, remember – but the gain was felt pretty much from round one as the three remaining sides, the Sydney Rays, Western Sydney Rams, and NSW Country all enjoyed the benefit of increased squad depth.

The Rays enjoyed their best ever season to make their first finals series, and might still be rueing an injury toll over the last few weeks of the competition that became so bad, scrumhalf Matt Lucas was forced to pack down at blindside flanker for the last 25 minutes of their semi-final loss to Perth at Pittwater Rugby Park.
The Rams finished 2016 with a two-and-five record, yet four of those five wins netted bonus points for going down by less than eight points. A few bounces of the ball different here and there during the season, and we could easily have been talking about the Rams’ first Finals Series appearance, too. Western Sydney deserve great credit for the way in which they really embraced the rugby-loving Pacific Island population in western Sydney, too; the sight of people flooding the Pacific Island food stalls at Concord Oval in Round 7 was one of the highlights of the season.

The Eagles will be right in amongst it again in 2017, because even with the sudden inclusion of Sydney University into their partnership, they’re already one of the better-run NRC sides going around.

The strength and success of the NSW sides is crucial for the health of the Buildcorp NRC, and on the 2016 evidence, the competition is looking very good in the coming seasons.

Coaches and referees gain important development, too

The NRC, of course, is about bridging that player development gap between Premier Rugby around Australia and Super Rugby, a gap that despite the insistence otherwise from the diehards, gets bigger by the year.

And with upwards of 50 NRC graduates debuting in Super Rugby after the first two seasons of the competition, and surely more to come in 2017, that major player development box is definitely being ticked.

But we need to remember, the NRC is not just all about finding new players.

Perth Spirit coach Dwayne Nestor took the head coach role for the first time this season, but has been an assistant in both previous seasons, and has been the Junior Elite Pathways coach in the west for a decade. The Rays’ Simon Cron, Brisbane City’s Rod Seib, and Canberra’s Wayne Southwell have all taken the step up to the NRC after success at club level in their respective cities.
Queensland Country’s Toutai Kefu gained his first top-level coaching experience in Australia after many years coaching in Japan, and as the Tongan national coach.

Referee Nic Berry did a wonderful job with the Final on Saturday night, barely 12 months after nervously controlling his first NRC game, which in itself was only six or seven months after taking up refereeing in the first place. Next month, Berry will referee his first International matches in the Cup of Nations in Hong Kong, where Russia, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong will face off.

Jordan Way, Amy Perrett, and Damon Murphy all refereed their first NRC games this season, too.

And it goes further than that even, with administrators, team managers, medical staff all getting their first taste of professional rugby at NRC level.

The players are the main beneficiaries, of course, but the NRC is literally growing the game across the board.

Bula and Welcome Fiji

Maybe the biggest and most exciting piece of the news during this year’s NRC was the announcement in the lead-in to the finals series that a Fijian Warriors side will join the competition in 2017.
Funded by World Rugby’s Oceania development program and the Fijian Government, the addition of the Fijian side will see all teams playing eight games the 2017 competition with a bye along the way.

The Fijian side will play all their home games in Fiji, which will promise a wonderful atmosphere, as well as providing Australian players with a new touring experience that is now part and parcel of modern professional rugby.

The Fijian away games in Australian will be similarly highly anticipated, and it’s fair to say more than a few Australian fans (not to mention Australian reporters!) will looking to dust off their passports next season.