Super impressive Brisbane City backrower and captain Fraser McReight is the Round 4 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 three games or fewer of Super Rugby or fewer than three Tests for the Flying Fijians.
This has been a big year for McReight. He made his Super Rugby debut for the Reds in Round 6, coming off the bench against the Brumbies, and in truth, it’s his non-appearance off the bench in Round 2 that saves his Rising Star eligibility.
Had he debuted in that first game he was named for, after playing from the bench in Rounds 6 and 7, his final appearance for the year in Round 8 would have tipped him beyond the three Super Rugby game limit that applies for this award. A close-run thing, then!
McReight led the Junior Wallabies superbly well throughout the U20 World Championships, all the way to the heartbreaking loss to France in the final; played in a Queensland Premier Rugby grand final loss with Brothers; and now, still only aged 20, he’s captaining Brisbane City in the NRC.
Martin Lippiatt was on deck at Norths Rugby Club in Brisbane on the weekend, leading the call for RUGBY.com.au, and has seen a lot of McReight’s rapid development as a player this year, calling Queensland Premier Rugby throughout the season, as well as the Oceania U20 Championships on the Gold Coast in late April and early May.
“Despite the meteoric rise, he hasn’t fallen victim to the pressures that can and will swallow other people up who’ve been on the same ship,” Lippiatt told me this week.
“He’s continued to increase and hone his skillsets, and it’s just unbelievable to watch.”
In what is a wonderful sign of his adaptability, the young McReight that I first saw last year was a very promising backrower, but his game has gone to new levels this year for the Junior Wallabies, Brothers, and now Brisbane City when playing on the openside.
"He’s become more aware of what he’s good at, and he’s also developed more skills and he’s honing the ones he’s already got,” Lippiatt agrees
“Take for instance, I don’t think for a second that he wears the bright white and red headgear for no reason. His presence on the field, it’s feared and respected. It’s almost like a brand. If you were the attacking side, and you see that white and red-capped headgear coming in, you’re already instinctively putting more people into that [ruck contest] just to secure the ball.
“And then you add the fact that his structured ball running in tight channels, it’s lethal. His on-the-spot creativity and spontaneous play, it inspires.
"He can offload, too, so he’s a nightmare for defenders. But for the rest of us watching, it’s absolutely sensational.”
His defence and his breakdown work have been where McReight has shone this NRC campaign – he’s the equal-leading turnover winner so far – but he’s also shown a great offload game, and a bit of toe when he does find himself in space.
“He’s honest about (his speed),” Lippiatt says. “He’s not the guy that’s going to break away and run eighty metres, because let’s face it, he’s pretty much in the dollar club (100kg); he’s a big boy.”
“It’s the recognition of the players around him that if Fraser’s ‘on’, it’s their job to get inside on the pocket, let him draw in a few defenders, and then he’s supporting those faster players by letting them do the longer legwork.”
Undoubtedly, this all leads into plenty of excitement for Queensland fans next year, even if it presents something of a headache for Brad Thorn, working out how he fits McReight in among an impressive backrow cohort that includes Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Harry Wilson, Michael Wood, and Liam Wright.
“I think it is really good problem that not too many Australian Super Rugby franchises have had in the last five or ten years, where you’re going to have legitimate competition for starting day spots,” Lippiatt says.
“And as a Reds supporter, it’s exciting to see.”
However it plays out at Super Rugby level will have to wait, as McReight’s focus now is to deliver Brisbane City’s return to the NRC finals for the first time since their unbeaten NRC title back in 2015.
And it’s the seemingly old head on very young shoulders that has City in a good place this season. It was a genuine surprise to him at fulltime on Sunday that their win over NSW Country had jumped them up to second on the table, a sure sign that even at the dawn of a professional career, enjoyment is still a huge driver in McReight’s rugby.
“It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing for Brothers, captaining Brisbane City in the NRC, or playing for the Reds, he’s a really exciting up-and-coming talent, but he’s incredibly genuine,” Lippiatt agrees.
“I believe he’s one of the most fantastic ambassadors that we have for the game for the next few years."
NRC RISING STAR NOMINEES
Round 1: Will Harrison (Sydney flyhalf)
Round 2: Connor Vest (NSW Country lock)
Round 3: Noah Lolesio (Canberra flyhalf)
Round 4: Fraser McReight (Brisbane City backrower)
Round 5: announced next week