NRC 2018: What to expect from this year's squads

by Sam Phillips and Beth Newman

The NRC kicks off on Saturday in Fiji.

That match will be followed up by a grand final rematch in Canberra and a Brisbane City duel with the Western Force.

The NSW sides will name their squads next week with Sydney's Shute Shield grand final to be held on Saturday.

What can we expect from the six sides playing this weekend in 2018?

Canberra Vikings

Last year: Second

Changes: The bulk of the Vikings squad is similar to that of 2017 and the majority of their number comes from the Brumbies squad. It’s off the field where they have had the biggest change with former Wallabies assistant Nick Scrivener coming on as their new coach after Tim Sampson joined the Force.

Key for 2018: Go one further

The Vikings have been one of the most successful NRC teams when it comes to appearing in grand finals but they haven’t been able to clinch a title yet.

One to watch: Rob Valetini

Rob Valetini’s breakout 2017 NRC season put him on the map but the youngster’s Super Rugby year was hampered by injuries. The flanker is expected to be back in the early rounds of the NRC and he will be one to keep an eye on again this year. 

Melbourne Rising

Last year: Ninth

Changes: Just about everything has changed for the Rising this year, with the overhaul a flow-on effect from changes in Super Rugby. They will have a new coach in Eoin Toole and a vastly different squad from their 2017 group. Melbourne fans will have a glimpse of what 2018 might look like as well with Isi Naisarani donning Rising colours along with new prop Mees Erasmus.

Key for 2018: Improvement

The Rising’s season was almost identical to that of the Rebels in 2017, with just one win to their name at the end of the competition. This year they need to show they are improving and winning will do that. Success for the Rising would lay the foundations for the Rebels in Super Rugby as well.

One to watch: The backrow

The Melbourne Rising has one of the most intimidating backrows in the NRC and it's hard to split the trio. Richard Hardwick had a tough Super Rugby year but starred in the Wallabies trial earlier this month at Leichhardt Oval. Cottrell was similarly impressive in that match and will captain the Rising this season as he looks to finally put an injury-riddled history behind him. Naisarani is the final cog in that backrow department and he has torn up the NRC in recent seasons. Look out.

Western Force

Last year: Semi-finalists (as Perth Spirit)

Changes: This is the Force’s first season in the NRC as the Western Force and they will be among the favourites. This is a vastly different looking squad from last year's Spirit team, mainly because of the changes in Super Rugby that changed the look of their top level squad.

Key for 2018: Living up to expectations

The Force should be one of the front runners for the NRC title in 2018. With a season of games played as a team in World Series Rugby, they should be ready to hit the ground running starting in Brisbane. 

One to watch: Jack McGregor

Jack McGregor was a shoolboys star as a flyhalf but persistent injuries curtailed his U20s years. A stint with the Melbourne Rebels ended without a Super Rugby game in a team with immense depth backline depth and the youngster switched over to the Force. McGregor's World Series Rugby outings have caught the eye and he will be looking to prove a point in the NRC.

Fijian Drua

Last year: Semi-finalists

Changes: The Drua haven't made any wholesale changes to their side for 2018 as they look to better their final four finish in 2017. Former Rams backrower Albert Tuisue has linked up with the Drua this time around after moving back to Fiji. Promising centre Eroni Sau will be a big name missing after signing a contract with Perpignan in the Top 14.

Key for 2018: Winning on the road

Fiji has the biggest home advantage of any team in the NRC. From the distance of travel to get there to the passionate crowd, it’s an intimidating place to go. With fewer rounds this year, the Fijian side has to ensure they make their away games count as much as their home games.

One to watch: Frank Lomani

The Fijian scrumhalf is a promising talent and he is already beginning to be noticed by Super Rugby teams. Lomani was with the Rebels on a short-term contract this year when Will Genia was injured and a strong NRC campaign would do no harm to his chances at the next level.

Queensland Country

Last year: Champions

Changes: The core of Country's championship winning squad remains but the main credited with their turnaround - Brad Thorn - is obviously no longer at the helm due to Reds duties. Rod Seib is a capable replacement but whether he can replicate the culture which Thorn built remains to be seen.

Key for 2018: Defence

Thorn put a big emphasis on Country's defence in a competition which isn't typically known for low scoring contests and it worked wonders, conceding the second least points in the competition. If Country are to defend their crown they'll have to emulate those efforts this season.

One to watch: Tainui Ford

Ford was crowned Queensland Premier Rugby's Player of the Year in 2018 and there are some serious wraps on the Bond University star. His stellar 2017 earned a call up to to Reds training squad and there are big wraps on the loose forward.

Brisbane City

Last year: 6th

Changes: Squad consistency. City's team seemingly chopped and changed each week last season but this time around they will have a solid playing base. That will hold them in good stead as they have some star Wallabies in their backline.

Key for 2018: Halves

City coach Mick Heenan has Scott Gale and Moses Sorovi at his disposal at halfback, Quade Cooper and James Dalgleish fighting for a spot at flyhalf. Heenan needs to pick and stick through the short seven game season as the pair he settles on have the potential to steer City back to the top of the table.

One to watch: Karmichael Hunt

Hunt's showings for Souths at the back end of the Queensland Premier Rugby season were the performances of a player still capable of starring at the highest level. If Hunt is to earn a lifeline at another Super Rugby club he must be NRC's most dominant force this season.

NSW’s NRC squads will be announced next week ahead of their season-opening matches.