McKay column: NRC semi-final match-ups I can't wait for

NRC
by Brett McKay

So then, the National Rugby Championship semi-finals are on us in a flash and they present two really intriguing contests on opposite sides of the country.

On Saturday, minor Premiers the Western Force will host fourth-placed Brisbane City at the picturesque McGillivray Oval at the University of Western Australia.

Then on Sunday, the second-placed Canberra Vikings throw out the welcome mat for defending champions, the Fijian Drua, at the home of the greatest steak sandwich in Australian rugby, Viking Park.

And within each game, there’s a couple of head-to-head battles that shape as truly mouth-watering.

 

WESTERN FORCE vs BRISBANE CITY

The Sevens: Carlo Tizzano v Sam Wallis

Just announced as one of the newest 2020 recruits for the NSW Waratahs, Junior Wallabies backrower Carlo Tizzano has been outstanding on the Western Force openside in the absence of Chris Alcock, but certainly hasn’t looked out of his depth despite being only a few months past his 19th birthday.

Tizzano and fellow WA product Michael McDonald take the Waratahs’ tally to 13 members of the 2019 Junior Wallabies squad, and with six of the seven 2019 NRC Rising Star nominees coming from that super-talented young squad, there is great excitement to be had in the coming years.

But that excitement will have to wait, with Tizzano set to play a huge role in the Force forwards delivering the sort of platform their backs have thrived on through this campaign.

 

Brisbane City’s Sam Wallis relished his move to the open side last week against Melbourne, going a long way to solving the potentially huge problem of losing their skipper Fraser McReight – one of the aforementioned Rising Star nominees – after playing much of his NRC time at No.8.

Like Tizzano, Wallis doesn’t necessarily get the big headlines and the rave reviews, but he’ll be just as crucial to City being able to take the Force on at the breakdown and in turn provide the kind of ball that their speed men out wide are going to need.

The playmakers: Andrew Deegan v Isaac Lucas

There’s never been a better time to be a young Australian flyhalf and the NRC has given us a proper glimpse of some of the young no.10s that we will undoubtedly be seeing in the coming years: Harrison, Donaldson, Lolesio, Kuenzle, O’Shea, Mason. And the two on show on Saturday.

Andrew Deegan is well known at NRC level, steering NSW Country around for a few seasons before jumping at the chance to test himself in a professional program over in the west. And he’s starred, to the point that Dave Wessels jumped at the chance to bring Deegan back to the east coast, where he’ll undoubtedly play Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels next season.

Isaac Lucas's battled against Andrew Deegan will help shape the result on Saturday. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel 

Deegan has had another quality NRC season for the Force, and the presence of their two wingers, Jonah Placid and Byron Ralston in the leading try-scorers speaks to the width of attack that Deegan has been providing from the midfield. It looks to be an edge for the Force in the first semi.

But in Isaac Lucas, Brisbane City might just have one of the hottest young talents in the country and his late-season combination with Bryce Hegarty from fullback has been a major reason why City snuck into fourth.

Lucas is a very different sort of flyhalf to Deegan, with a more instinctive game that sees him only too happy to have a crack at any half gap himself. His City teammates know when to go with him though and his offload and second-phase game is already really strong for someone only 20 this year.

CANBERRA VIKINGS vs FIJIAN DRUA

Up front: Angus Wagner v Joeli Veitayaki Junior

Talk about master versus apprentice! The veteran loosehead Veitayaki has 12 years on the young Viking tighthead Wagner, but the player who emerges the victor from this contest will go a long way to deciding which pack gets on top - and from there which exciting backline is best unleashed in Sunday’s second semi-final.

Veitayaki brings with him the experience of half a dozen Tests between 2016-2017, and has been a stalwart of the Drua pack since they first debuted in the NRC in 2017 as well. And he’s a good barometer of how the Drua set piece will go on any given day; if he’s having success up front, his forwards will go with him, adding another dangerous element to an already dangerous side.

Veteran Drua front-rower Joeli Veitayaki will set the tone for his team. Photo: Getty Images 

The highly regarded Wagner is set to head west and join the Western Force in 2020, and has been rock solid for the Vikings since winning a starting spot a few weeks ago. He’s worked well with hooker Connal McInerney and Junior Wallabies loosehead Bo Abra in recent weeks, and he’s been a huge reason why the Vikings set piece has performed so well as they secured their top two finish.

It shapes as really interesting battle, this literal head-to-head, and there’s no question whichever prop wins this one will be a pointer to how the match player out.

The ball-thieves: Will Miller v Johnny Dyer

While the set piece battle will be intriguing enough on Sunday, the breakdown will be where it’s won and lost. The respective no.7s will be front and centre in that contest, and both have the ability – and the uncanny knack – of pulling a turnover out of nowhere when their team most needs it.

With last year’s skipper Mosese Voka over in Japan with the Flying Fijians, Dyer has become the Drua’s backrow talisman this season, leading the competition for turnovers won by a considerable margin.

At one point last week against Queensland Country, Dyer ripped through clean pilfers out of the hands of Country in the space of about ten minutes, each one of them leading to counter-attacking opportunities that the Drua build their game plan around.

Will Miller takes the ball up for the Vikings. Photo: Getty Images 

How the Vikings stop, or at least slow Dyer’s influence will be crucial and in Will Miller, they might just have the best man for the job.

Miller has had a disrupted NRC, with a niggling injury holding him back in the middle part of the season but the Brumbies 2020 recruit is already having an impact since arriving in Canberra from Sydney at the end of the Super Rugby season.

Miller doesn’t quite have Dyer’s size, instead relying on speed to the ball and just sheer breakdown cunning to find turnovers that didn’t seem possible only seconds previously. Pete Samu has had an impact in this department for the Vikings too and it again feels like it will be an important factor to decide Sunday’s second semi-final.