NRC update, part 2: NSW Country and the Sydney teams

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Krutley Beale may go back to the Rams for a game or two in the NRC (Image: NSW Waratahs)

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Continuing from part 1 to our series of articles on the goings-on behind the scenes for the inaugural National Rugby Championship, kicking off on Thursday August 21.

Today in Part 2 we outline the development of the four New South Wales-based teams.

And as mentioned in the previous instalment, I’ll wrap up the series next week with Part 3, an overall view of the NRC competition development activities with General Manager, National Teams and Rugby Operations for the ARU, Andrew Fagan.

Andrew mentioned to me that live streaming of games not broadcast by Fox Sports remains very much part of their planning, and it’s one topic I certainly look forward to covering.

In the meantime, here’s what the NSW sides can tell us.

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NSW Country Eagles
Coach: Darren Coleman was announced as the Country coach some time ago, and brings experience from time with both the Waratahs and Brumbies academies, and head coach stints at Penrith and Northern Suburbs. Coleman is the current Director of Rugby at Eastern Suburbs.

Home grounds: Dubbo, Orange, and Lismore are locked in for this season, with one other centre to be confirmed. Newcastle, Armidale, and Mudgee all expressed interest in hosting games this year, but will instead work on securing games for next season.

Tamworth and Port Macquarie are possibilities for next season, too. With one more game to be confirmed for this season, and with none of those centres hosting games this year, it possibly only leaves somewhere like Coffs Harbour or Wollongong in the hunt.

It’s also been suggested to me from outside the NSW Country organisation that Randwick’s Coogee Oval might be a fallback option this season if a regional solution can’t be found in time.

Home games confirmed: None confirmed enough to announce, though Country indicated they play the Greater Sydney Rams in the first round. What’s interesting is that Country suggested to me it’s an away game, but the Rams have since confirmed that their first home game is not until Round 2. It will be against Uni of Canberra Vikings, a Fox Sports game on Thursday 28 August.

Fox Sports will not televise any Country home games.

Playing squad expectations: Lots of former country players now playing in Sydney said they were “waiting for the call” once Country were confirmed as a NRC team, and so the expectation is a good mix of club and Super Rugby-contracted players. That said, Country already know there’s a number of eligible players they won’t get, ranging from likely Wallabies in Sam Carter and Ben McCalman, to Super Rugby-contracted players like Beau Robinson who’ll likely be required for a Queensland team.

Pat McCutcheon, as much as he wanted to play for Country, has elected to remain with his club and turn out for the Sydney Stars.

Logo and jersey design/colours: The Eagles mascot and logo was chosen to make the distinction between the NSW Country Rugby Union representative team, the Cockatoos. The Eagles’ management worked carefully and collaboratively with the NSWCRU all the way, with the only proviso being that the NRC entity didn’t use the Cockatoos name, and didn’t pinch NSWCRU’s major sponsor.

However, the Eagles will play in the NRC in the familiar NSW Country colours of black and gold, which might be interesting when they play Perth Spirit.

Major sponsor: A major sponsor as well as a partnership with a “major regional University” is expected to be named in the coming weeks.

Website / Twitter / Facebook : http://nswcountryeagles.com | @CountryEagles | ‘NSWCountryEagles’ on Facebook | the Eagles also have their own YouTube channel, with five informative clips already posted, including one from coach Darren Coleman, and this one from James Grant.

The NSW Country Eagles had their management team established early, led by General Manager and former Wallaby, James Grant. Dave Carter, another former Wallaby himself and father of Brumbies and Wallabies lock Sam, is the Eagles’ President.

Grant told me last week the NSW Country Eagles were established for sole purpose of creating and promoting a proper, professional pathway for up and coming country-based players. The Eagles want to give young players in the country the opportunity to shine on the national stage, and hopefully, be picked up one of Australia’s Super Rugby sides.

Though the Eagles’ squad will comprise a large number of players already on Super Rugby contracts, or ex-country players who have moved to Sydney, the Eagles will have genuine NSW Country players in their squad for the inaugural NRC.

The NSW Country Cockatoos play Queensland Country in a curtain-raiser to the Reds-Waratahs game in Brisbane this Saturday, and from that game around 10 or so players will be then invited to come down and train with the Eagles NRC squad. From there, some will be offered NRC contracts, with Grant telling me “if there were four guys contracted, I’d be very happy.”

In future seasons of the NRC, Grant hopes that number might climb to 10 or 12 country-based players.

The Eagles are already well established – if not prolific – in their online and social media channels, where a lot of information, content and some key announcements will be made in the coming weeks. The Eagles will also feature on Fox Sports’ RugbyHQ program on Thursday 17 July.

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Greater Sydney Rams
Coach: Brian Melrose, who also coached the Western Sydney Rams in the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship. Current and former Eastwood coaches, John Manetti and Stu Woodhouse, will assist Melrose.

Home ground: Parramatta Stadium

Home games confirmed: home games still being finalised, though the Rams do know their first home game is in Round 2 against the Uni of Canberra Vikings on Thursday 28 August. It will be televised on Fox Sports. My understanding is the Rams will play NSW Country in the first round at a venue to be announced.

Playing squad announced/expectations: All still to be finalised, including the status of Waratahs players with ties to the west. Benn Robinson would seem a logical inclusion, given his Eastwood affiliation, but the Rams could call on anywhere up to a dozen current Waratahs. It all hangs on Wallabies representation and current club affiliations. Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale would be ideal ambassadorial Wallabies, but both are currently tied to non-Rams clubs (Uni and Randwick, respectively).

Logo and jersey design/colours: The Rams logo is based on the Western Sydney Rams logo from the ARC in 2007, albeit with some modernised tweaks. The playing strip will be launched soon, but the colours will remain the same orange, blue, and white as worn in the ARC.

Major sponsor: Also to be announced, with three of four potential sponsors currently in negotiation.

Website / Twitter / Facebook: www.ramsrugby.com.au | @Rams_Rugby (Feb 14!) | ‘GSRamsRugby’ on Facebook.

The Greater Sydney Rams have been in the press a bit of late, and not necessarily for the reasons they’d like, with Eastwood’s formal financial withdrawal from the consortium, and uncertainty about Penrith’s involvement.

I spoke to Rams consortium spokesperson Marshall Brentnall while putting all this together, and one of the five or six private investors, too, and while Eastwood’s decision was seen as a negative, it’s been business as usual while the Rams organisation has been “getting our ducks in a row” over the last few weeks.

The investors describe themselves as “passionate rugby people just doing our bit” and who all believe in creating the pathways for rugby in the west and southwest of Sydney.

On that front, the Rams were very happy for me to reveal their slogan for the NRC season: ONE FAMILY.

‘One Family’ is the Rams’ vision to create the most culturally diverse team and fan base in the competition, catering perfectly and deliberately for one of the biggest multi-cultural catchment areas in Australia. Already their potential roster includes players from Indigenous, Pacific Islands, Cook Islands, and Maori backgrounds, and the Rams want to tap into those rich rugby cultures and tell all the stories of the players and their families.

Brentnall told me that despite the financial concerns from Eastwood, and possibly Penrith too, the investors and the five clubs are all “absolutely committed to building an organisation that can provide a pathway for young players on and off the field, grow the rugby brand in Western Sydney, and attract people that want to be part of the Rams family.”

“For the underwriters that means investing financially, whilst the Board and team management build frameworks and processes that allow our fans to gain a sense of community and the creation of a team + culture that they are proud to be part of.”

West Harbour, Parramatta, Southern Districts, and the investors signed a Memorandum of Understanding late last week, and this allowed the Greater Sydney Rams’ participation in the NRC to be approved by the ARU Board, as Andrew Fagan told us on The Roar last week had happened for all nine clubs.

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North Harbour Rays
Coach: Geoff Townsend (current Gordon, ex-Force assistant – assisted by Warringah coach Haig Sare, Manly’s scrum doctor and forwards coach Damien Cummins, and former Rebels flanker and England International, Michael Lipmann, as breakdown and defence coach).

Home ground: Brookvale Oval

Home games confirmed: Somehow, and despite no other clubs publicly discussing their draw, the Rays released their full draw a fortnight ago. They kick off their NRC season in Melbourne with a replay of the ARC Final, and play their first home game in Round 3 against NSW Country, a Fox Sports game on Thursday 4 September (7:30pm kickoff). They will host Perth in Rd5 on Saturday 20 September (5:30pm), Greater Sydney in Round 6 on Sunday 28 September (3pm), and the final home game will be against Brisbane City on Saturday 11 October (3pm).

Curiously, the Rays announcing their games didn’t concern the ARU.

Playing squad announced/expectations: Waratahs Matt Lucas and Rebels-bound Cam Crawford are already known, and featured in the Rays profile on RugbyHQ two weeks ago. A 35-man development squad was announced last Friday, with 13 Manly players, 11 from Warringah, five from Gordon, and four from Norths.

Wallabies and Super Rugby players are still to be confirmed, including the status of contracted players from outside NSW with partner club ties (Pek Cowan, Jordy Reid, for e.g). The Rays four assigned ‘ambassadorial’ Wallabies are likely to include Michael Hooper and Wycliff Palu (Manly), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Norths), and possibly even one of the ex-Warringah Brumbies in Scott Fardy or Pat McCabe.

Logo and jersey design/colours: The Rays will launch an exciting, but traditional ‘harlequin’ style rugby strip in the coming weeks, comprising quarters the blue, white, red, and green of the four member clubs.

Gold features on the sleeves, and all four clubs’ colours are represented on the socks. Already sounds like the most colourful kit in the Australian professional rugby. The Rays logo is very deliberately the same as what was used in the 2007 ARC, save for the name change from ‘Central Coast’ to North Harbour.

Major sponsor: Macquarie University (front of jersey)

Website / Twitter / Facebook: website under construction | @NorthHarbourRay | ‘nhrays’ on Facebook | Instagram coming soon, plus the Rays have their own YouTube channel, including chats with the coaches and footage from their first training session last week.

Going into this exercise, the North Harbour Rays were the one club I felt I already knew the most about, and they’ve certainly been the most active on the information front of all the NRC clubs thus far. Regular news has been coming out of the Rays’ camp every few days now for most of the last month or six weeks – and I know this because I suddenly started receiving press releases!

Gary Flowers, the former ARU CEO who was in charge when the ARC was launched and took place in 2007, was quickly appointed Chairman, and the Rays make no apologies about using existing Rays brand and lessons learned from the ARC.

Their spokesman, Mark Cashman, said to me last week, “we’re the reigning Champions after all!” and it’s great to be able to draw on a known brand, even if it has been dormant.

Manly and Warringah, currently first and third on the Shute Shield ladder, have already supplied the lion’s share of playing and coaching staff. The Rays have been careful to ensure all four clubs are represented, but they are coming into the NRC to win, and will play to their strengths.

The Rays certainly seem to have done the most work on spreading the word of their existence, and that’s great. Even with the amount already known about them though, there is still a lot more to come, so fans north of the Bridge should definitely stay tuned.

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Sydney Stars
Coach: Current Sydney Uni coach, Chris Malone. His assistants were confirmed to me by the Stars last Friday as Cam Blades (forwards), and Peter Playford (backs). Jack Farrar and Matt Dunning were inadvertently named last week on RugbyHQ as assistants, they may serve as support staff.)

Home ground: Leichhardt Oval

Home games confirmed: Home games still to be announced, but their Round 1 clash against Brisbane City at Ballymore on Thursday 21 August has already been reported as the first Fox Sports game.

Playing squad expectations: Sydney Uni-aligned Waratahs players essentially, plus those with current Uni and Balmain affiliations. The number of Waratahs in the Stars squad is still being confirmed, and has certainly been trimmed by one, with ‘Tahs Captain Dave Dennis now out for the season. Pat McCutcheon featured on the Stars’ RugbyHQ profile last week, and he resisted an urge to turn out for NSW Country. Dave Hickey (Uni) and Tipiloma Kaveinga (Balmain) also featured.

stars strip

Logo and jersey design/colours: A bit of a mystery around the playing strip. In April/May, the indicative design shown here was published on the Stars’ Facebook page, but then disappeared about six weeks ago.

The NRC and Asics logos (the new Wallabies kit supplier, also providing kit for all nine NRC teams), along with how it was released suggests to me that this was most certainly an official design, however the Stars tell me that this will not be their playing strip. They would neither confirm nor deny my follow-up suggestion of blue, black, and gold hoops (a decent combination of current Uni and Balmain jerseys), so make of that what you will.

Major sponsor: Talks are said to be well advanced with several companies keen to be involved.

Website / Twitter / Facebook: web in progress | @starsrugby | https://www.facebook.com/sydneystarsrugby

The Stars were another of the NRC of the belief that they really couldn’t say a lot about anything yet, and suggested that they were acting on ARU instruction in staying tight-lipped.

They were even reluctant to confirm their Round 1 game was in Brisbane, despite the fact it had already been reported as such. The fact they didn’t correct what was reported was confirmation enough for this exercise.

The make-up of the playing squad is shrouded in secrecy still, and I couldn’t even get an indication of how many Balmain players were likely to be included in the squad.

Israel Folau looms as one of their ambassadorial Wallabies, despite Folau’s obvious ties to western Sydney and that he hasn’t played much for Sydney Uni.

Is Tom Carter still on the scene?

The Stars already shape as the team Sydney fans especially want to beat, and the Stars seem pretty comfortable with that. Every competition needs a ‘villain’, it seems, and Uni and Balmain’s respective professionalism and brashness make them an obvious choice.

Endnote: though the full NRC draw is still be to announced, and though some sides wouldn’t even say who they were playing in the first round, by piecing together the opening round games other sides were happy to confirm, we do have a complete Round 1 fixture.

We know that Brisbane City will host Sydney Stars in the opening game at Ballymore, on Thursday 21 August, and that it will be on Fox Sports. We also know Melbourne Rising will host North Harbour Rays on Friday 22 August. Then on Saturday 23/Sunday 24 August, University of Canberra will host Perth, and NSW Country will host Greater Sydney Rams at a venue to be announced. Queensland Country will have the first round bye.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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