McKay NRC Column: Grand Final is a tale of two tens

by Brett McKay

Like many of you, I genuinely can’t wait for the National Rugby Championship Final this weekend. 

The Fijian Drua and Queensland Country started the season strongly, and have just gone on with the job from there, to finish the regular season as the best two teams in the competition. 

It’s certainly true that both sides had hiccups along the way; the Drua’s only game lost in 2018 came at the hands of Country, a thirty-point Round 3 thumping in Mackay on the Whitsunday coast. 

Similarly, Country gave up some ground on the table mid-season, losing to the Western Force and Brisbane City in consecutive weeks, but by a collective margin of just 17. 

But, like all the good sides, both Fiji and Queensland Country found ways of quickly getting back into the groove, winning all their remaining games and securing home semi-finals, in which they proved their class last weekend. 

And when it comes to the Final, the respective number tens will be the ones to determine which way the NRC Toast Rack is heading in 2018. 

There haven’t been too many players have better NRC campaigns than the Drua’s flyhalf, Alivereti Veitokani. 

What he gives up in size he more than makes up for in the skills and sheer entertainment departments, and the simple way of illustrating how good and how important he’s been this season would be to go back through any Fijian Drua highlights package you’d care to hit play on, and count how many tries he hasn’t played a hand in. 

Often, Veitokani has played the hand that sparked the movement that led to the breakout try from wherever it broke out from, and if he didn’t throw the last pass, there’s every chance he threw a couple before the last pass. 

As of the semi-finals, he leads the NRC in offloads, assists, clean breaks, and metres made, and ranks highly in carries and defenders beaten too. 

He’s hardly what you’d call a traditional distributing flyhalf, but when he has the ball in his hands, it’s worth watching the speed men filing in around him waiting for half a sniff of possibility that something is about to happen. 

But that’s not to say Veitokani doesn’t fit the flyhalf mould; John McKee wouldn’t have included him in his Flying Fijians squad for the November Tests, where he’s expected to push Ben Volavola for the no.10 jersey.

Undoubtedly, Veitokani’s combination with scrumhalf Frank Lomani and half a dozen other Drua team-mates will be vital to the Fijian’s Spring Tour chances. 

On the other side of the coin, young Queensland Country flyhalf Hamish Stewart finds himself in a familiar contest playing for a familiar goal, having played a key role throughout Country’s run to the 2017 NRC title. 

He hasn’t enjoyed the same headlines as the likes of Filipo Daugunu or Jock Campbell, or whichever young Country backrower you’d care to name, and certainly not Jordan Petaia, who could still yet finish 2018 with a bagful of Wallabies kit. 

But his tactical kicking game and midfield defence has been crucially important for Queensland Country through this NRC campaign, putting them into the right positions on the field, and providing that literal first point of contact in midfield. 

Where Veitokani is the spark for the Drua, Stewart is more the chess master for Country; he plays his game in a way that moves the right pieces into the right places from which to launch the point-scoring attack. 

On this front, Stewart’s ability to compliment scrumhalf Tate McDermott’s running game is as vital as his combination with inside centre Duncan Paia’aua, who himself won the Phil Waugh Medal as Player of the Final last season. 

Beyond the NRC, the large Country representation in the 2019 Queensland Reds squad has fans north of the Tweed excited for what is clicking before their eyes, and what this could translate to in Super Rugby next year. 

After a season learning the ropes in the ever-present shadow of the exiled Quade Cooper, Stewart has emerged in his own right during the NRC, and will have played a major hand should Queensland Country go back-to-back. 

With this all said, there are of course so many other intriguing battles across the park in the Final. 

The tight five contest will be worth watching just for the sheer contrasts, with the Drua doing their best work away from the set piece, while the young Country five are relishing the technical and technique battles of the scrum and lineout. 

The backrow contest could be with the price of admission into Churchill Park, possibly only topped by the prospect of the respective back three units trying to outpace each other. 

Wherever you choose to focus, there will be so many fascinating subplots. 

But none will be more important and more central than that of Veitokani v Stewart. 

Best of luck to both sides in the Final, and may the best team take out yet another memorable NRC decider.