Coming off the back of his most consistent Super Rugby season yet, Queensland Reds inside centre and now Queensland Country skipper Duncan Paia’aua might be better placed than most to extoll the huge benefits of a strong National Rugby Championship.
Lining up for his fourth NRC season, Paia’aua knows first-hand how the competition works as that crucial stepping stone from club rugby up to Super Rugby.
And now he’s in a position to speak from experience, too.
“It’s been very important. It’s a big part of why I am the player I am now,” he told RUGBY.com.au this week.
“It’s given me a lot of experience and leadership, and especially with ‘Thorny’ (Country coach Brad Thorn) giving me the captaincy this year.
"I needed to step up as a player and the NRC has been really good in allowing me to do that.“For the younger boys coming up, I’ll be telling them that if you just stick at it and enjoy your footy, and particularly the NRC competition, it really does help you getting to the next level.”
It’s the ‘getting to the next level’ message that should be heeded by up-and-coming players.
Paia’aua was hardly the first rugby prodigy to arrive on the scene with huge wraps only to find that Super Rugby is actually a really difficult competition to find your feet in.
He almost certainly won’t be the last.
But after a couple of difficult seasons in and around the Reds squad, Paia’aua’s breakout season for the Reds this year has been worth the wait, and the confidence he’s now playing with is obvious.
That confidence means he’s come into this season’s NRC happier than ever.
“It’s a very exciting time for me. Last year I really enjoyed my NRC season, and started enjoying my rugby more, and I think that led into a good pre-season and a good season this year.
"I started every game for the Reds, and I was really happy with the season I had. The NRC’s been a big help."
The inclusion of former dual international and Rugby World Cup-winning All Black lock Brad Thorn as head coach has ensured the young Country squad will be prepared for high workrate rugby, and Paia’aua says his impact has been felt from the first day of their campaign.
“Brad Thorn has been a big influence on us.
"He’s been a winner throughout his career and hates losing, so he’s brought that winning mentality into our group and especially the younger players coming through.
“That’s the difference this year. We just want it more, we’re hungrier, and we don’t want to lose.”
Where Thorn last season, as assistant coach to Toutai Kefu, was happy to sit back and observe, this season he’s enacted a completely different approach built around hard work.
“We did a lot of competitive things. He put us through this thing called ‘Game of Thorns’, and it was a pretty tough session where we’re forced to go into dark places [mentally] and work through it all together,” Paia’aua said, once again referring to Thorn’s unique methods of training toughness into the squad.
“It’s brutal! The boys hate it, but when we get through it, we’re stoked because we’ve done it together as a team.”
The Country players would no doubt be in for a few home truths this week, too, after they allowed a 40-26 lead against the Canberra Vikings slip in the second half down in the nation’s capital.
Three Vikings tries and the competition’s first three-point penalty goal in the last 29 minutes saw the home side triumph by eight.“I think there was a thirty-minute period there where we just switched off a bit and we got out to that lead, I think maybe inexperience just crept in a bit and allowed us to get comfortable with the score,” Paia’aua said.
“I think we thought we had it won and just took the foot off the pedal there and Canberra proved why you can’t switch off at all in games in this comp.”
The chance to redeem themselves this weekend comes with the most effective motivation the Country lads need - bragging rights over their Brisbane City counterparts.
City currently hold the Andy Purcell Cup but the annual grudge match takes on more importance and goes up a level every time Brisbane City and Queensland Country face off.
Paia’aua said it’s easily the most anticipated game of the NRC season for the Queensland teams, who share training facilities at Ballymore.
“Yeah, exactly, as soon as the draw comes out, the boys always look for this game," he said.
"It’s the game we look forward to the most all season, especially since we all know each other, train and play with each other, and we want to get one over them.”Paia’aua said even finals aspirations are put on hold, when locker room supremacy is on the line.
“Yeah, that’s right!” he laughed.
"The City boys walk around thinking they’re the bee’s knees because they won the first two years, and they let us know about it, so the boys are pumped to bring down a peg or two.”
With Country still smarting after their loss in Canberra, coupled with City’s entertaining win over the free-flowing Fijian Drua side at Ballymore, Paia’aua said the local derby this weekend, to be played at the home of the Noosa Dolphins on the Sunshine Coast, shapes as a big test for both sides.
“They’ll be confident after their win, but we can take some good things out of our game as well.
"We know what we need to work on this week.
“We have a really strong forward pack who did a really good job of getting us forward on the weekend.
Being patient with the ball, and discipline will be the big things to work on this week to try and get the win.”