Here’s a pop quiz for you: who was the first player to lift the NRC trophy in triumph, as captain of the Brisbane City side in 2014, and is he still playing in the competition?
It wasn’t Quade Cooper, who is still playing for City. And it wasn’t Liam Gill, either, who lifted the ‘toast rack’ for Brisbane City in 2015, but who is now plying his trade for Lyon in France.
The answer is Dave McDuling, the former Queensland Reds lock, and he is playing in the NRC again this season, for the Sydney Rays.
It’s been quite the round trip to land at the Rays, however, with stints in between in Durban with the Sharks, in Christchurch with Canterbury, and back to his home town of Sydney, where he played for the Waratahs this season.
“Yes, (I went) from Brisbane City and the Reds [at the end of 2014] to the Sharks in Durban, where I played a little bit of Super Rugby but mainly a lot of Currie Cup," he said.
"They also have another competition that runs during Super Rugby that is essentially all the ‘B’ teams of the major franchises plus their smaller unions.
"I loved my time over there, though, and learned a lot. It is a hell of a country; really culturally diverse and they love their rugby."
“I was getting a bit frustrated, opportunity-wise, in Durban and [then Canterbury, now Crusaders coach] Scott Robertson in Christchurch called [in mid-2016], looking for some experience after they’d had a big drop off.
“They weren’t sure how available Luke Romano would be, for example, and he had some good young kids coming through the local Christchurch system, but he was basically looking for someone to bridge the gap for a year.
“I thought the opportunity to play there wouldn’t hurt the playing CV, and I thought it would round off my southern hemisphere experience nicely, but also to try and find out what they do so well over there.
"That was a great experience and I ended up playing a lot of the minutes in the Mitre 10 Cup and winning the final in the end. I was disappointed to see them lose the Ranfurly Shield the other night too, as we won that last year.
“Then off the back of that, the Waratahs had Leon Power go down in the pre-season and I was available and happy to come back to my home city. It was a tough year for the Waratahs, but I was happy with what I put out there personally and contributing the best I could.”
What this all means, is that McDuling is in a unique position. One of the stated goals from the outset of the NRC was for it to become Australia’s equivalent to South Africa’s Currie Cup and New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship, but unless you physically play in all three comps, it’s impossible to know how the NRC compares.
Having gone from the Currie Cup to Mitre 10 Cup to NRC in successive season, McDuling knows exactly how it compares.
“On raw talent, the level of player across all three countries is even. It’s the programs themselves, the difference between semi-professional and full time that is the difference,” he explains.
“In New Zealand, the salary range of a NPC player is $20,000 to $50,000, and that’s only for three months of the year. Because rugby is such a big game over there, bosses are willing to let them go for three months to go and play full time, and they’re not out of pocket.
"Some guys might even earn more playing rugby than their 9-5 job, so that encourages older players to stick around. Even if you don’t make a Super Rugby program, you are still representing your province and getting paid to do it, and that in turn flows into the actual program.
“South Africa is a bit different again, where you are contracted to and play for the one team for 12 months of the year, but it might be in three or four different competitions between the franchises with a couple of other smaller unions thrown in there to make up the numbers. And those smaller unions are professional as well.
“I don’t think it is a talent thing or ability, but rather it’s just giving the players the means to recover properly, prepare properly and work on all sorts of different things [where the NRC currently trails]. Training for only a couple of hours at night when guys are coming after work, you just feel so rushed for time in the NRC.
“It’s no secret that the dollars and cents are a big issue in Australian rugby at the moment, but If we could strive for [a professional set-up] like that in the future, it would make a huge difference.”
The difference between full-time professionals and club players is essentially the story of the Sydney Rays this season, where McDuling, as one of few Super Rugby-contracted players fit or available to play in the NRC, is lining up alongside teammates juggling day jobs.
“I genuinely think we could have won every game we have been in this year, but we just really shot ourselves in the foot,” McDuling said.
“Despite how many contracted players the other sides have, I genuinely believe we were in every game that we have played, and had the opportunities to win them. It’s just that consistency and composure that comes with having played at a higher level, or having teammates that have played at a higher level.
“We know what we are capable of, we have a lot of talent, but when you watch videos back, you can just pinpoint these weak moments that really let the team down. For a side that is predominantly made up of club players it’s a really good learning, how as you go up the grades, how costly little errors can be. You drop a ball here or miss a tackle there, and you are really punished. There’s no second chances there.
That was exactly how last weekend’s game against Brisbane City played out. The Rays started slowly, as they have done in several games this season, but then found another gear in the second half to get right back into the game.
McDuling put it down to allowing City too much gain line advantage, and an inability to cherish possession in the first half; the two issues feeding into each other just compounded things further.
“It was particularly frustrating, but it was a really good fight back from the boys,” he says.
“There is a lot of heart and spirit in the side, we are just not really consistent and lack that composure that comes with experience, to be able to ride out those tough times in the first half without conceding 30 points.”
With the finals series almost certainly out of reach, McDuling says the desire to find the complete 80-minute performance will be what drives the Rays over the remaining three games, starting this Sunday in Canberra against equal-competition leaders, the Vikings.
“The furthest we have travelled so far is Goulburn, and now we’ve got Canberra, Perth and Fiji,” he says, of their tough run home.
“I think we show glimpses, but if we can string together eighty minutes of what we are capable of and have shown in patches, we’ll win a couple of them. It’s just about walking off the field and being proud of what we have done, and not having all these what-if’s and ‘coulda-shoulda-woulda’ type of scenarios which we’ve had every week.
“It will be a real challenge for us to go down to Canberra, but we are looking forward to it. They have that Brumbies mentality, so up front we will have a job to do at set piece no doubt, and across the park they have a lot of talented guys like Tom Banks and so on."
“If we can stay in an eighty-minute game, it’s a bit of a cliché but it really is true for this group, and to start well to build the confidence up against a so largely-contracted squad it will be really important for us to maintain it.”
The Sydney Rays take on the Canberra Vikings on Sunday October 15 at 2:30pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS.