NRC 2018: Early favourites emerge

by Brett McKay

Three really entertaining matches have kicked off the 2018 National Rugby Championship, with some outstanding rugby played across the board and all three winners laying down some serious statements of intent.

Consider the first gauntlets of the 2018 campaign thrown, then.

Drua just pick up where they left off last year

It might have taken them half an hour to post their first five-pointer of the season but the Fijian Drua didn’t take long after that to fall back into their wonderful habit of running in sweet counter-attack tries from distance.

Flanker Fili Seru got us underway with a cheeky upright pilfer and quickly got the ball into the hands of his fast men, with the flying Levani Kurumudu only happy to finish it off next to the posts.

Melbourne Rising had only just scored the first try of the season a few minutes earlier, and were still scratching their head about where the ball went as Kurumudu dotted down.

Once they had the taste of it, the Drua turned it on, with flyhalf Alivereti Veitokani finishing off a long-range effort that will have to feature in Try of the Year discussions, and four more in the second half to finish the Rising off, with 2017 stars Apisalome Waqatubu and Avete Daveta among them.

The Drua lit up the first month of the NRC last season playing this style of brutal defence coupled with lethal counter attack, and already it feels like they’re going to do the same in 2018.

The defending champs will have a say in 2018

When their squad came out, the core combinations remaining from their 2017 championship always meant that Queensland Country were going to be a tough team to beat.

Bringing their backrow combinations and a good chunk of their pack through for another season, plus James Tuttle and Hamish Stewart in the halves and Duncan Paia’aua directing the midfield, Country just oozed class on paper.

Turns out, they ooze class on the field too.

The Canberra Vikings weren’t terrible in Saturday night’s replay of last year’s decider, and even fought hard to get themselves right back into the contest in the second half, but they just looked like a side who had only had half as much preparation time as did their Country opposites.

And that was basically the difference between the sides; Country’s 45-35 win was a decent reflection of the contest, with both sides looking really sharp at times, even scoring tries at will. It’s just that Country had more moments.

The young backrow – Angus Scott-Young, Liam Wright, and Wallabies squad addition Caleb Timu – controlled the breakdown superbly, and that advantage kept them ahead all game.

Canberra will still make their mark on the competition; they’re too good a side not to. But have no doubt about Queensland Country’s ability to go all the way again this season.

Petaia the tackle shredder

Jordan Petaia is going places. Photo: Getty ImagesProdigious Queensland Country outside centre Jordan Petaia will be a Wallaby, of that I have no doubt. He’s already had a taste of the national setup, being involved in training camps just months after making his Super Rugby debut.

Petaia made most of his attacking impact in the first half against Canberra, making four runs and busting the first tackle on all but one occasion. He got an offload away after one of those busts, and was looking for them on the others as well.

And that’s the exciting thing about this kid. It’s what he does after the initial contact that makes him so dangerous, and that was where he caused the headaches for the Vikings defence.

On the stats sheet, he might not be a standout yet. But on the field, you can see Petaia is already a player of genuine quality.

Force confirm favouritism

The thing about the NRC kicking off every year is that the short turnaround between the respective Premier Rugby grand finals around the country means that we’re asking the seven Australian sides to hit the ground running even though some teams have barely been together a week.

Except that this year, the Western Force had the distinct advantage of not only time together as a playing group, but actually having a full World Series Rugby campaign under their belts to build a healthy form line and bed down combinations.

The Force had to start the 2018 NRC as clear favourites. The closest any other teams could come to the Force was the two Queensland sides playing an opposed training trial game last weekend.

And they just underlined those thoughts on Sunday, methodically accounting for Brisbane City with an incredible forwards-led display – highlighted by that magnificent 30-metre rolling maul in the lead-up to replacement hooker Feleti Kaitu'u’s first try.

Flyhalf Andrew Deegan and fullback Jack McGregor were both excellent, too, but we’d have expected this, given they’ve previously starred for NSW Country and Melbourne respectively.

The Force only have three home games this year and the trip to McGillivray Oval is always tough for travelling teams. On the back of the big win over Brisbane City, if they can hold their home games, then four wins should be enough to claim a top four spot.

Quade watch

All eyes were always going to be on Quade Cooper in Sunday’s game, with the current Brisbane Souths and former Wallabies and Queensland Reds flyhalf making his first representative appearance in 2018. So what did we get?

Well… we got the pretty standard Quade Cooper game. Plenty of highlights interlaced with exactly the sort of errors that raise questions about his abilities to perform consistently at the professional levels of the game.

Cooper scored his first ever NRC try, played a major role in a couple of others, and at times was more than a handful for the Western Force defence. But he also bombed a near certain try with an audacious round-the-back pass to Moses Sorovi when a bog-standard right-to-left would’ve done the trick, he sent a pass sailing into touch, and had kicks charged down. He was OK, but a long way from his best.

A Reds recall is unlikely anyway, and it won’t come on the back of a display like that. But he’ll be better next week for the run, undoubtedly.