Another National Rugby Championship finals series is upon us, and two absolutely brilliant semi-finals await us this weekend.
So brilliant that all four teams are genuine threats to make it through to the October 27 final.
That’d be a great reward; the Fijian Drua, Canberra Vikings, Queensland Country and the Western Force have all looked the dominant team in the competition as different points over the last seven weeks.
Canberra and the Force are aiming for their third NRC Final; Queensland Country a second. The Drua are eyeing off a maiden appearance with the added possibility of hosting in Fiji. All of them would deserve it, but sadly, two of them have to miss out.
As we ponder the rather difficult task of tipping the semi-final winner this weekend, it’s also worth reflecting on the guys running around for the last two months hoping to impress those who, for the immediate future, control their rugby destiny: their Super Rugby coaches.
The NRC Rising Star concept kicked off this season, but it’s been great to part of the often-difficult process of wading through the eligible young stars yet to play three Super Rugby games each weekend.
Equally difficult has been ignoring guys deserving of recognition just because they’ve played too many! They’re not quite regulars yet, but they’ve laid down a solid case during this NRC for game time from next February.
Here’s a few to have stood out during #NRC18, and who I think are ready to explode on the next stage…
Vikings inside centre Jordan Jackson-Hope was all set to be one of our first Rising Star nominations, on account of his three Super Rugby appearances, until the small matter of eight previous appearances in 2016 and 2017 appeared on the page.
‘JJH’ has been in the Brumbies program for the last three years, and undoubtedly exposed to it for longer than that, but this NRC has been the one where he’s been noticed further afield than just the ACT.
Many a good judge believe Jackson-Hope could become a Damien McKenzie-type player for the Brumbies, and I have to admit I’ve often wondered if fullback might actually be his position.
But his front-line defence has been just as valuable for Canberra this season as some of his incredible attacking highlights.
Consider this: his centre partnership with Australian U20s centre Len Ikitau – this week’s Rising Star nominee, by the way – has been so good that new Brumbies recruit Irae Simone has been restricted to the bench. There’s a hell of a future Brumbies midfield rotation building in front of our eyes.
Queensland Country backrower Angus Scott-Young fits in here comfortably but that's hardly a surprise.
Son of former Wallabies back rower Sam, Angus Scott-Young has risen from Queensland and Australian Under-20s to the NRC last season, to fourteen appearances including eight starts for the Queensland Reds in 2018, among a backrow unit that has included Wallabies Scott Higginbotham, Caleb Timu, and the great George Smith.
This NRC though, his workrate consistency has really improved, where he is carrying the ball and defending with equal ferocity. The Reds this week added Scott-Young’s Country teammate Harry Wilson to the backrow stable, but it really feels like the ‘son of Sam’ has a long career ahead of him.
Boomy utility back Jordan Petaia is already been spoken of in Wallabies terms, and not as in ‘if’, but when he will pull on the gold jersey. It could yet happen this year, if Michael Cheika adds to his Bledisloe 3 squad for the European leg of the Spring Tour.
He's already capped eight times for the Reds, mainly on the wing before a switch to 13 when Samu Kerevi was injured.
Petaia’s NRC form has been incredible, including stints at fullback and most recently at outside centre.
And that’s going to create the best kind of headache for Brad Thorn, because Petaia’s form at outside centre is so good that it’s hard to see how all of Samu Kerevi, Duncan Paia’aua, and Chris Feauai-Sautia fit in the centres next year.
Already, Feauai-Sautia has had to shift out to the wing for Country.
He’ll be only just 19, but the term ‘World Cup bolter’ looks very applicable for Jordan Petaia in 2019.
Country scrumhalf Tate McDermott has already edged ahead of former Country skipper James Tuttle in the Reds pecking order, and a strong showing in this year’s NRC suggests that is likely to continue next year for Queensland too.
Tuttle, unfortunately, doesn’t really appear to have done anything much wrong in 2018, except pick up a niggly injury mid-season, but that was enough for McDermott to get an opportunity, a result of which mean Tuttle spent to rest of Super Rugby season playing club rugby in Brisbane.
Tuttle started the first few NRC games for Country this year, but once again has been edged out by McDermott, whose speed and ability to sniff out a half-gap makes him incredibly dangerous.
Sydney Rays prop Shambeckler Vui was already an online cult hero by the time he made his Super Rugby debut in Perth last year, by virtue of an Australian Under-20s highlight reel that included one of the great runaway big-man-in-space tries.
Fast forward 12 months, and after switching to the Waratahs this season, Vui has added more try-scoring highlights to the reel during the NRC, and now with some mad aerial finishing to them, as well. I’m a fan of his work; I’m still lobbying for a separate Shambeckler Vui category in the NRC Try of the Year voting.
Importantly, his set piece work is very good, as is his work rate around the park. He can still hit a hole, too, and long may that continue.
Including Melbourne Rising openside Richard Hardwick in this list might be pushing the envelope a touch, given he’s played nearly 30 Super Rugby games for the Force previously and Rebels this year, not to mention a couple of Wallabies caps, but he is an unusual case.
In 2018, Hardwick found himself battling for game time in a Rebels back row unit that has included new Wallabies tourist Angus Cottrell, a former Wallaby in Lopeti Timani, Japanese international Amanaki Mafi, and now departed champion no.7 Colby Fainga’a.
An excellent showing for the Rising this season, where he’s consistently been one of their best, will put him in the frame to make the Rebels no.7 jersey his in 2019.
Rising and Rebels prop Fereti Sa’aga is worthy of a mention here, too, with plenty of good judges believing he’s quickly caught, and maybe even overtaken Wallabies loosehead Tetera Faulkner.
And to finish, Western Force fullback and playmaker Jack McGregor may play World Series and not Super Rugby next year, but he’s another player who just gets better the more time he spends in professional programs. He starred for the Rising last season, and it was no surprise at all that he then excelled when switching to the Force and fullback mid-season.
Since doing making both moves, the Force’s attack has gained more strings to the metaphorical bow, which in turn has made flyhalf Andrew Deegan more dangerous in attack as well.
If the Force win through to a third final, you can be sure McGregor will have played a crucial role.