Is the NRC Final too close to call?
I long suspected that the Western Force and Canberra Vikings would start the 2019 National Rugby Championship season as favourites, and fully expected to see them facing off in the Final.
But now that both teams have won through to Saturday’s season decider as expected, trying to pick a winner has just highlighted how close the two teams really are, and why they were the NRC favourites from the outset.
Here’s how I attempt to work through the two sides.
Both sides have built strong packs around some exciting front-rowers and locks, and with some invaluable experience in there as well.
For the Force, former All Blacks lock Jeremy Thrush has been superb, while if the evergreen Heath Tessmann was fine wine, they’d be constantly increasing the price tag, because he just seems to have got better this season. For Canberra, it’s lock Blake Enever, who has now taken on the captaincy as well with Darcy Swain’s thumb injury ruling him out for the rest of 2019.
But around them, it’s just young talent aplenty.
Force prop Tom Sheminant and lock Fergus Lee-Warner have been great, as has two-metre Vikings lock Nick Frost, who hasn’t at all looked out of place since coming into the starting side since Swain’s injury.
And there’s this fascinating little battle. Force loosehead Harry Lloyd has announced his move back to Canberra to link up with the Brumbies in 2020, while Vikings tighthead is going the other way, joining Tim Sampson’s Force squad next year. Imagine what these two will be carrying on about every time they come together on Saturday!
Brynard Stander is back at no.8 for the Force, with Tevin Ferris dropping back to the bench, and this will go some way to tipping the balance back in the Perth side’s favour against what shaped as a pretty hot Canberra backrow.
But Rob Valetini’s ankle issue that saw him withdraw in the warm-up before last Sunday’s semi-final hasn’t quite come back, meaning Angus Allen will remain at the back of the Vikings scrum after putting in an outstanding shift against the Fijian Drua.
So suddenly, a Force trio of Henry Stowers, Stander, and openside prospect Carlo Tizzano doesn’t like quite so outmatched by the Vikings unit of Allen, forgotten Wallaby Pete Samu, and Brumbies recruit Will Miller.
The Vikings do still an edge here, but the Force will compete well at the breakdown. Whether they can afford to be dragged into a breakdown battle remains to be seen.
Halves and midfield
The halves continue the fascinating evenness of the two sides; Issak Fines and Andrew Deegan for the Western Force quickly establishing a seamless combination at 9 and 10, while Ryan Lonergan and Noah Lolesio know each other’s games inside out, playing club rugby together in Canberra as well as throughout the NRC.
Out wider, we start seeing a little bit of difference in the approach of the two sides.
Sampson has kept his semi-final centre pairing of Nick Jooste and former sevens star Pama Fou together, and both lead the pressure defence of the Force through their midfield rush defence.
Jooste spent some time at outside centre earlier in the tournament and really pushed hard up and in, but from inside centre last week, had some great success forcing Brisbane City wide by just getting up in their faces through the middle. Fou will continue to push up outside him, which opens up intercept and turnover opportunities for the Force’s fast men outside.
For Canberra, Irae Simone and Len Ikitau have very much carried on a similar game plan to how the Brumbies utilised Tevita Kuridrani, with Simone working hard in the centre channel to create space for Ikitau and the Vikings back three, too.
Canberra probably hold a small edge here too, because Simone and Ikitau are very defensively too, and there’s no doubt their ability to shut down their opposites will go a long way to slowing down the width the Force like to play with and Deegan like to deliver.
This little contest could be decisive, as both sides have scored plenty of tries out wide this season.
Much has been made of the try-scoring exploits of the Force wingers, Jonah Placid and Byron Ralston, with nine and seven tries each, but Canberra aren’t exactly short in this department either.
With Toni Pulu ruled out with a hamstring injury picked up at training this week, Nick Scrivener had no hesitation in restoring Mack Hansen to the left wing, and working in conjunction with fullback Tom Banks and versatile speedster Tom Wright on the other flank. And the Vikings back three now has 17 tries between them across the six games: five each for Banks and Hansen and seven for Wright.
Which only highlights the importance of the midfield battle mentioned above. Both teams will want to go wide, and the ability for either side to shut down the supply of ball out to the wings will be huge in the context of the game.
Fill the Hill
The one distinct advantage for the Western Force is undoubtedly the MacGillivray Oval hill there at UWA Sports Park, and even with the forecast top of 28°C on Saturday, the Sea of Blue will be out in force making plenty of noise for their side.
And with good reason. Both sides will be appearing in the third NRC Final (Perth Spirit reached the 2014 and 2016 Final), but only the Western Australians have managed to lift the NRC ‘toast rack’ trophy, when they beat NSW Country in 2016.
Could this be the perfect way for the Force to cap off a near perfect season?
Or is this finally the year in which Canberra deliver on their Brumbies-heavy potential?
I still don’t know. And that’s what makes this year’s NRC Final you don’t want to miss.
The Force take on the Vikings on Saturday, October 26, at UWA Sports Park in Perth, kicking off at 3pm AEDT (12pm local) and broadcast LIVE on RUGBY.com.au, Kayo and Fox Sports.