It’s here - the fifth season of the National Rugby Championship.
Even after a couple of enjoyable seasons with some wonderful rugby played around the country, 2018 already feels like it could top them all.
The move to eight teams, with NSW consolidating further into a two-team Sydney and NSW Country split reminiscent of what Queensland put in place from the outset of the NRC, will see a further deepening of the playing stocks within the Rays and Eagles, and the very real likelihood that some NRC regulars in recent years will be a in a battle to make starting XVs.
The Fijian Drua return, and with them comes all the intrigue (but hopefully not the ill-discipline) of island rugby. The colour and the noise and the flair they added in 2017 was incredible.
And what of the Western Force?
The famed ‘Sea of Blue’ have added another nine weeks of rugby to the season over in the west, with the Force carrying over from their World Series Rugby campaign straight into the NRC in place of Perth Spirit.
The McGillivray Oval hill has had a lot of traffic in the last few seasons of the competition but that might pale into insignificance if those wonderful supporters over in the west ‘fill the hill’ in the same kind of numbers World Series Rugby enjoyed this year.
The Wallabies nursery
A cursory look through the Wallabies squad for the first two Bledisloe Cup Tests shows that a large chunk of the playing group took their first steps toward a gold jersey with a bright yellow Gilbert in hand on the fields of the National Rugby Championship.
Jermaine Ainsley, Allan Ala'alatoa, Tom Banks, Folau Fainga'a, Ned Hanigan, Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks, 'Super' Sefa Naivalu, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Joe Powell, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Tui, and Taniela Tupou all made their mark in the NRC before we knew much about them in Super Rugby.
Some of them - Banks, Fainga'a, Hanigan, Hodge, Maddocks, Paenga-Amosa, and Rodda stand out - made the jump from NRC rookie to Wallaby in little more than 12 months.
Beyond the current Wallabies squad, you can throw the likes Jack Dempsey, Blake Enever, Richard Hardwick, Samu Kerevi, Matt Philip, and Jordan Uelese into the mix of NRC-to-Wallabies graduates as well. There’s likely more, and I can’t technically include Isi Naisarani – yet!
The number of NRC players to have debuted in Super Rugby the following year is around 60 after just four seasons of the competition. Even knowing that that number jumped sharply in 2016, when the Queensland Reds and Western Force were both besieged with injuries, an average of fifteen graduates a season is an excellent return on investment.
Though it wasn’t realised at the time, the demise of the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship – which itself hatched current Wallabies David Pocock, Will Genia, Rob Simmons, and player of the competition, Kurtley Beale – created a gap between club and Super Rugby that the game in Australia is only just starting to bridge now.
Thinking back, the old ARC ran an ad campaign featuring Pocock and Beale, among others, with the brilliant tag line, “You don’t know me… yet”.
That’s the exciting part as we head into a new NRC season. In just nine weeks’ time, we’re going to be talking about a future Wallaby. The next Pocock, the next Beale. In 2016, it was Rodda and Hanigan; last year, it was Maddocks.
Who will it be in 2018? Who don’t we know… yet?
Why should you tune in to round one?
First one is easy: who wouldn’t want to do a long weekend rugby trip to Fiji? The always-entertaining Drua will get the 2018 season underway in spectacular style, and while it’s once again a squad full of names you probably won’t have heard of, there are plenty of returning stars from their debut season last year.
Prop Joeli Veitayaki, former Greater Sydney Rams lock Albert Tuisue, unstoppable backrower Mosese Voka, crafty no.9 Frank Lomani, and the outright speed out wider of Cyril Reece, Aveta Daveta, and Apisalome Waqatabu are all back, and the Drua will rely on their experience from last year.
Melbourne Rising will be much better in 2018, but starting their campaign with a trip to Fiji certainly doesn’t qualify as easing your way into a competition.
Of course, the NRC isn’t just a Wallaby nursery – upwards of a dozen Drua players were called up for the Flying Fijians' Spring Tour in 2017, too.
Secondly: the rematch. Canberra Vikings vs Queensland Country to follow on last year’s thrilling decider by meeting again in Round 1 of 2018, and again down at Viking Park in the nation’s capital.
The Vikings have jumped out early, naming 13 contracted Brumbies and five Wallabies among them in a really impressive-looking side, though Country has a host of quality experience in its ranks as well.
Also, Viking Park steak sandwiches. That’s not the third reason, but it could be; they’re that good.
Finally, the Force awakens. Perth Spirit were one of the eight teams in the 2007 ARC competition, but after one NRC title in 2016 and a lost final in 2014, the black and gold hoops of the Spirit make way for the famed ocean blue of the Western Force.
With a full World Series Rugby campaign under their belt, finishing with a highly-entertaining win over former Wallabies mentor Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights a fortnight ago, the Force are the only side coming into the NRC with a genuine form line, and open their campaign against Brisbane City.
I’ve got the Force pencilled in as favourites in 2018, purely because their established squad and combinations, and I suspect that will all be confirmed come full time on Sunday at Norths Rugby Club.
It’s time to strap in. NRC 2018 is here.