NRC: New champion set for the crown

by Brett McKay

The 2017 NRC finalists have been decided, after a nail-biter in Canberra ended Perth Spirit’s dream, and the wonderful debut season of the Fijian Drua also came to an end in Toowoomba.

A new NRC champion will be crowned

Will Tom Cusack's Vikings notch their first NRC title? Photo: WalmsleyAs soon as the final whistle went in Canberra, confirming the Vikings had ended the unlikely championship tilt of the Perth Spirit, it meant that the 2017 season would see a first-time winner emerge next weekend.

The Spirit’s 2016 title defence was over, leaving the Vikings with the the greatest finals credentials, historically, among the remaining sides, after losing the 2015 final to Brisbane City at Ballymore,with both Queensland Country and the FIjian Drua in their maiden post-season. 

Who starts as favourite next Saturday night, though? Well, that’s far from clear.

We asked the five teams who missed the finals this year, and they narrowly favoured Canberra over Queensland Country, three votes to two. All agreed it’s really hard to separate the two sides.

NSW Country coach Darren Coleman eventually picked Queensland Country, but his take on the showdown is really indicative of how hard picking a winner is going to be.

“I think the favourites are a pretty safe pick for the final. I just think Canberra have been consistent,” Coleman said.

“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.”

Canberra-Perth an instant classic

Vikings coach Tim Sampson had been saying all week that his side’s round two clash with the Spirit was the most physical game he’d seen in the four years of the NRC. By full-time, that match earlier this season had a talking partner.

A 40-35  scoreline doesn’t scream physicality, defence, or forward domination, but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t judge a game by the scoreline. Of the 11 tries, you could really only say that Andrew Muirhead’s try for the Vikings just before half-time was a classic backline try – and even that one was scored from lineout first phase.

Canberra fullback Tom Banks scored in the corner, but that was one pass down the short side from the base of a ruck.

Flyhalf Wharenui Hawera ran his try in from forty metres, but it originated from a short face-ball he threw to put lock Dean Oakman-Hunt into space, before trailing on the inside to finish it off himself.

All five of Perth’s tries, including Richie Arnold’s three, and the Vikings’ three remaining tries all came from close range pick-and-drive plays, or in the case of Anaru Rangi, diving on a loose ball in-goal.

This was a classic forwards battle, exactly the sort of right-up-the-middle bash-fest that you’d expect in the knockout stages of any tournament.

It was more about scrum domination than the lineout, with Canberra’s lineout lacking in the height department without Blake Enever, Sam Carter, and the injured Rory Arnold. Both sides at different points in the game enjoyed the upper hand at scrum time. 

You can’t help but think it will be the perfect tune-up for the Vikings before next Saturday night’s decider. They will know that Queensland Country will bring another physical contest, but they will also be confident within their structures; playing to their strengths has served them so well this season.

The end of a very rough year

The Perth Spirit have been stoic all season. Photo: WalmsleyYou can't help but admire what Kevin Foote, and his Perth Spirit playing and coaching group have achieved in this tournament and over the course of 2017. 

After everything that went down with the Western Force this season – the final nail being delivered just before round two against the Vikings, coincidentally enough – the Spirit could have been excused for going through the motions for the rest of the NRC campaign.

To their great credit, they used it as motivation, determined to finish their time together and defend their 2016 title in style. They were up against it to even make the finals, yet they qualified. They then gave Canberra a hell of a scare in the semi-final.

If not for Kane Koteka’s late yellow card, the last ten minutes could’ve been very different.

Guys will now start going their separate ways. Some guys, sadly, don’t know which way that is yet, and that includes long-serving players with plenty of experience at NRC and Super Rugby level.

It is understood is that Perth Spirit will remain in the NRC next season and beyond. But it’s very fair to say this is almost certainly the last time this playing group run out together.

It's impossible not to admire what they have done.

Queensland Country win through in style

When Country jumped out to a 21-0 lead after half an hour, things were already looking good, and even leading 26-7 at halftime over the Fijian Drua, they appeared to be well in control of the second semi-final in Toowoomba.

The Drua did cross again in the second half, but Country always hit back within a few minutes, ensuring the Drua could never settle and were always forced to play catch-up rugby just to stay in the contest.

Duncan Paia’aua and Caleb Timu had huge games for Country, but even they were forced to take a back seat as Taniela Tupou served up the kind of carnage and destruction that should result in an all-new set of YouTube highlights.

Paia’aua said it best, telling Fox Sports after the win, “When you have someone that big that runs that fast, it's like playing in the under-12s again, just give it to the biggest guy on the park."

In the end, 57-21 was a fair indication of Country’s dominance and comfort levels throughout the game.

Discipline the only stain on an otherwise brilliant Fijian Drua NRC debut

Discipline has been the Drua's downfall, something to which James Slipper's face can attest. Photo: SportographyAnother lopsided penalty count and two more yellow cards highlighted the one area of their opening NRC season where the Drua have struggled: discipline. 

The Drua have received the most cards and with the most number of players receiving them, too, with seven players earning nine cards; an average of one per game in 2017. Props Kalivati Tawake and Eroni Mawi were the culprits in Toowoomba, with Tawake’s his second of the season.

Tawake may yet find himself in further trouble, too, with his card for an alleged punch to the head of James Slipper, who took no further part in the game after his left eye immediately blew up and closed over.

If a camera angle exists to support this rather damning evidence, Tawake will almost certainly have a case to answer.

After charges and suspensions for biting and eye-gouging, and a further allegation of gouging made by the Sydney Rays in the final round match in Suva, it’s the foul play element to the Drua’s discipline that does take some of the gloss off what has been a wonderful first season in the NRC.

In time, all we’ll remember is the highlights and the brilliant tries, but it’s also clear that a quiet word with the Drua might be in order ahead of the 2018 season.

Canberra will host Queensland Country in the decider at Viking Park next Saturday night at 7.30pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS.