NRC Rising Star Round Two: Connor Vest - NSW Country Eagles

NRC
by Brett McKay

He's hard-working and abrasive, mobile and skilful. And NSW Country Eagles lock Connor Vest is also the Round 2 nomination for the 2019 National Rugby Championship Rising Star award.

Won in its inaugural season by Fijian Drua star Alivereti Veitokani in 2018, the award recognises emerging players with fewer than three games of Super Rugby or fewer than three Tests for the Flying Fijians.

Vest, along with Eagles second row partner Tom Staniforth, were a proper handful for the Melbourne Rising forwards in Adelaide on Saturday, and though there really wasn’t a lot between the two Country locks, the small matter of Staniforth’s six seasons in Super Rugby means the Rising Star focus this week falls deservedly onto Vest.

Still only 25, Vest seems to have been around for a while.

Perhaps it’s the switch to NSW Country this year after three seasons in the old Sydney Rays jersey, along with a Grand Final and a highlights reel full of strong performances for Northern Suburbs in the Sydney club competition, that gives off the impression he’s older than he is.

Maybe ‘mature beyond his years’ is a better way of wording it.

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And he has had some decent rugby experiences along they way, since first debuting for Norths in 2016.

The aforementioned Grand Final and a fairly major ankle injury with the Shoremen, four seasons of NRC rugby, and a couple of pre-seasons with both the Brumbies and Waratahs highlight that he has always been pretty close to taking the next step.

The first two games this year in the orange and black of NSW Country for the northern-NSW Clarence Valley product have been excellent.

To the point that, suddenly, the conversations are already that Vest “wouldn’t look out of place” in a Super Rugby program.


“Connor’s the kind of bloke that’s been building his rugby career for a couple of years now, and you can kind of see the maturity in his game that’s developed,” former Australian Sevens, Norths and NSW Country backrower Sam Figg told me this week, having witnessed Vest’s impact on the Rising first-hand in Adelaide with the RUGBY.com.au/Fox Sports commentary team.

“He’s a large human being, and he absolutely bullied the Rising pack; they couldn’t handle his physicality.

"What I do like about his game is that he’s starting to get more involved around the park, and he’s finding himself in good offload positions. But then he’s starting to work really well in the lineout as well."

Perhaps the best compliment to pay Vest and Staniforth as a combination is to say it looks like they’ve played much, much more than just the two NRC games together.

Their set piece work established forwards dominance for the Eagles early, and with that foundation down early, Vest’s backrow background in particular allowed him to wreak all kind of havoc on the Melbourne pack.

WATCH THE FULL REPLAY OF NSW COUNTRY V MELBOURNE RISING BELOW


“There was a couple of driving maul tries by the Eagles, three of them. Connor managed to steal one of them out of the hands of Aaron Blacklock which would’ve been frustrating for the Country hooker, but it goes to prove just how much he’s improved as a player and how I think the NRC is really helping him push his claim into higher honours,” Figg said.

The difference in Vest’s physicality from previous NRC campaigns to 2019 has been noticeable and Figg says there’s very good reason for that.

“This is actually a line from Simon Cron, and that is that there’s strong people in the world but there’s no substitute for what Simon calls ‘man strength’," he said.

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"I just think Connor’s grown up a little bit and he’s realised how to use his body a little bit more effectively, and exactly for that reason, he’s now that perfect hybrid lock where you know he’s going to get in there and cause damage to other bodies, but if he needs to change into the backrow, you’ve got that option as well.

“If he could find himself in a (Super Rugby) environment, he could do very, very well. He’d match it with the likes of Ned Hanigan other hybrid lock-backrowers in the game today.”

And that perhaps is the exciting part about the timing of Vest’s improvements. The Waratahs will undergo one of the bigger squad overhauls ahead of the 2020 season, and with a irreplaceable amount of experience et to depart after the Rugby World Cup.

There has certainly been a trap in Australian rugby of pushing 19 and 20-year-olds into professional environments well before they’re ready, often overlooking guys who may only be a few years older, but with so many more rugby miles under their belt.

Figg has no doubt that Vest is exactly the sort of modern mobile forward who could shine at the next level.

“It’s just understanding how to use your body in the best way possible,” he said.

“He was always a big fella, but he was also a bit pensive into contact, he wouldn’t impose himself onto matches as much as he does these days.

“He was a scary human being out on that field on the weekend, and never when I’ve played with or against him have I ever looked at him and thought, ‘I don’t want to run anywhere near that bloke’.

“But I think if he can expand that side of his game, he could start being in the same conversation as the likes of Jacques Potgieter and other guys like that who just dominated and enforced themselves on matches.”

NRC RISING STAR NOMINEES 

Round 1: Will Harrison (Sydney)

Round 2: Connor Vest (NSW Country)

Round 3: Announced next week