Eliminated players, coaches back Vikings to claim NRC crown

by Brett McKay

For nine weeks and across 20 different venues in Australia and Fiji, the nine NRC teams have been battling out the tightest competition to date.

Now, it has been whittled down to the top four teams.

But now that we’re here, who can go on with the job and take the 2017 title?

Saturday night's first semi-final sees the Canberra Vikings hosting the Perth Spirit, with Queensland Country hosting the Fijian Drua in Toowoomba on Sunday afternoon.Can the Spirit go back-to-back? Photo: Getty ImagesFor one thing, there is now only a one-in-four chance that we'll have a repeat winner in Perth Spirit.

Canberra will be gunning for a second appearance in the NRC final, but Queensland Country and Fiji are both now in uncharted waters.

To find out who stands out as the competition frontrunners, now that we’ve reached the truly pointy end of the tournament, RUGBY.com.au spoke with the five teams who fell short.

Damien Fitzpatrick – Sydney Rays hooker and captain

“Canberra Vikings will take it out, I think, this year.

“If anyone watched our game against them, they may well have played their best game of the year, or they’re just an incredibly good side.

"If they play the way they played against us, they should have the ammunition and the amount of Super Rugby experience to win the comp.Fitzpatrick says the Vikings were the best team the Rays played all year. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley“They’ll play Queensland Country in the final. I thought, watching them play throughout the season, that there was a maturity to their game that was perhaps lacking in previous seasons.

“I thought their 9 and 10, James Tuttle and Hamish Stewart, controlled the game really well and this is allowing their big ball-carrying centres to do their job.

"I think if a team is going to go far, and even win the competition, you’ve got to have a good 9 and 10, and that’s what’s impressed me about Queensland Country this year,

“Everyone talks about their centres, their ball-carriers up front and their set piece, but I think their 9 and 10 has been really commanding in terms of how they play around the field.”

Darren Coleman – NSW Country Eagles coach

“I think the favourites are a pretty safe pick for the final. I just think Canberra have been consistent, and they’re at home.

"Perth have got to get back home, get back over for the game, even getting a few players back this weekend. 

“I think that’s the game most in doubt - if anyone can spring an upset it’ll be Perth, and they’ve shown week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out, that they hang tough.Coleman believes the Spirit have what it takes to upset Canberra. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"The way they qualified is the perfect example of that, the way they upset in the final last year, they’ve got a lot of Spirit, if you’ll pardon the pun.

“I feel as though Fiji have lost their momentum, unfortunately.

"Playing away this weekend, with six or seven of their best players having left to join the national team - Queensland Country will get their fringe Wallabies and their Barbarians back.

“The loss on the weekend gives them a few things to tune up, and maybe even a bit of a reality check, but I think Queensland Country win that one comfortably, and probably Canberra by a nose.

“Home ground advantage then probably evens things up for the final.

For mine, Queensland Country have been the better team all year - and the most dangerous - and have the most to play for.

There’s a lot of young guys there who copped their licks last year, but they’re playing a really exciting brand based of rugby this year based on good defence and good turnover attack.

“I’d say Country win comfortably if they played the inal in Queensland, but if they take some good confidence out of a good win over Fiji, then even playing Canberra in Canberra, I think I’m still tipping Queensland Country.”

Steve Cummins – Melbourne Rising lock

“I think they’re both tight semis, there’s not much separating the four teams.

“In my opinion, Canberra win through, and I’m going to throw a bit of a spanner in the works and call a Vikings-Fiji final, but I think the Vikings go on to take the title.

“I think the Drua will really turn up for this semi, but then they’ll be away two weeks on the trot if they make the final.

“Canberra being the Australian side least affected by Wallabies selections and all that, I think with their key guys available in key positions for them again, they will go two on the trot and take it all out.”

Mack Mason – Greater Sydney Rams flyhalf

“My pick’s probably Canberra, once they get Tom Banks and Sam Carter back.

"They’re a well-structured team, and it gets a bit unstructured in the NRC at times, but they always manage to bring it back to what they’re good at. So I think Canberra win the first one.

“And then I think Queensland Country – my old team! (laughs) – they’ll get up over Fiji, I think they’ve just got too much class, especially in their backline, but even in their young forward pack.Queensland Country will be without star flanker Liam Wright, who is on the Spring Tour. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"I think they’ll miss Liam Wright, though.

“I’m thinking Canberra for the title, if it comes down to it.

"They managed to play a sort of gritty style, and I think in a final, especially in the NRC like we saw last year with Perth, who came out and just sort of bashed NSW Country.

“It was a bit different, a bit of a finals football feel, so I reckon Canberra probably run away with it.”

Mick Heenan – Brisbane City coach

“Oh, you’d have to say Canberra in the first semi.

"They’ve had a pretty settled line-up all year, they’re at home, and Perth have to deal with the travel factor, so you’d have to say Canberra start favourite in that one.

“And in the other one, again, Queensland Country have been pretty settled all year, and Fiji are now missing six or seven of their best players.

Mick Heenan has backed his fellow Queenslanders to get the job done over the next fortnight. Photo: QRU Media/Meggie Whitchurch“So that makes it a Canberra-Country final.

“Obviously the home ground factor will be significant for Canberra, but I think Country can spring an upset there.

"They’ve been great all year, and they only narrowly missed beating them in Canberra in the first round. They’ve dealt with the travel better than most this season, so I’m going for Country.

“Both teams play a game style that suits them, but I think Country have demonstrated through the season that they’ve been able to go and win away from home - they won in Fiji, they won in Sydney, and they had a pretty good performance in Canberra first up.

“They’re settled, they probably their best players coming back, so I think Country can do it.”