NRC awards and final: A coin flip in the season’s biggest match

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The fourth National Rugby Championship Final looms as maybe the closest of them all.

    The previous three Finals all had the home side start as fairly clear favourites, but I’m not sure the gap between the Canberra Vikings and Queensland Country this season is anywhere near as big.

    But more on the Final shortly; first, it’s time to hand out some token recognition.

    Team of the year
    It’s pretty hard to go past Queensland Country here, who if not for one late moment of breakdown illegality ten days ago would be hosting the Final on Saturday night.

    It’s worth remembering that most of this playing group have been involved in Queensland Country campaigns for several seasons – and for the key players like Taniela Tupou, James Tuttle, and Duncan Paia’aua, they’ve been there since the first NRC season back in 2014.

    The combinations have been building over time, and now with a bit more maturity – even with them all being pretty young, still – this was a team ready to make their mark. They just needed someone to pull the right rein.

    Tongan Thor on the charge

    (Image: Sportography)

    Coach of the year
    And the man holding that rein was Brad Thorn, who as assistant coach (and teammate!) last year, knew full well what this playing group were capable of. He’s taken all the abundant talent, added starch to their defence and grit to the work ethic, and then served it hot on the rest of the competition. It’s been an incredible turnaround.

    Credit to Tim Sampson and Kevin Foote, too. Sampson, for bringing the best of the ACT Premier Grade, the Brumbies Under-20s, and the non-Wallabies Brumbies together, and gradually built up a Canberra Vikings team that deservedly finished first overall.

    And the way Foote has kept the Perth Spirit team up and firing in 2017 when they all could’ve been excused for phoning their NRC campaign in has been outstanding. And to think how close they were to playing in the Final!

    Player of the year
    I reckon I’ve changed my mind on this at least four times over the last ten weeks. Spirit lock Matt Philip was outstanding for the first month, and then teammate Isi Naisarani took over. Then Country inside centre Duncan Paia’aua’s form became so irresistible that he was rewarded with a Wallabies jersey against the Barbarians.

    But I reckon the guy who started well and got better as the season went on was Vikings backrower Rob Valetini. He started at no.8 and was really good, but since switching to blindside after Canberra lost Ben Hyne, he’s been simply outstanding. And he’s only just 19!

    The NRC Player of the Year will be awarded on Saturday night, and it’s already known that it will be a player in the final. If it’s not Valetini, it’ll have to be Paia’aua.

    The final

    Saturday
    7.30pm AEDT – Canberra Vikings v Queensland Country; Viking Park, Canberra – LIVE on Fox Sports 505

    Entry into Viking Park is FREE, after the Vikings decided the best way to get a big crowd to the biggest game in the club’s history is to throw the gates open. I can’t urge you enough to get to the game if you can, and if free entry won’t do it, then the lure of the greatest steak sandwiches on the face of the earth should.

    James Tuttle Queensland Country NRC

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    Where it’ll be won
    At Viking Park, in Canberra.

    Sorry, always wanted to do that. Obviously, this is going to be another forwards-led battle with both sides trying to find an edge. Queensland Country had the Fijian Drua pretty well covered at set piece last Sunday, but the Canberra-Perth contest was a lot harder to split.

    Canberra did well to cover for the loss of Blake Enever with backrower Dean Oakman-Hunt last weekend, but with Country likely to bring four genuine jumpers into the game, the Vikings will be hard up against it in the lineout. At scrum time, it will be a lot closer between two pretty coordinated packs.

    The midfield battle is intriguing. Paia’aua and Chris Feauai-Sautia are the form centre-pairing in the competition, but James Dargaville isn’t far behind him for Canberra and ACT under-20s centre Lenny Ikitau has stepped up nicely in the last few weeks since Andrew Robinson’s season was cruelly cut short by injury.

    There have been 148 different try-scorers in 2017, scoring 383 tries all up (plus four penalty tries). 22 players have crossed the stripe five times or more; five of them are from Canberra, four of them are from Queensland Country, including co-leaders Paia’aua and Filipo Daugunu, with ten each. There’s no shortage of strike power in either side.

    The Vikings have had 20 players score their 59 tries, while Country have needed just 15 to score their 58.

    Both sides are well-served on the goal-kicking front. Wharenui Hawera has kicked 36/46 (78%), including 34/44 conversions for Canberra, while James Tuttle has landed 35/50 (70%) for Country, all but one of them conversions.

    Both sides scored well over 350 points for the season, at better than six tries per game, while both conceded fewer than four tries per game in defence.

    In short, and if it wasn’t already obvious, there’s nothing between these two sides. Now, hand me that coin…

    Tip
    I got both finalists right last week, but I was also right in suggesting there might only be a converted try separating Canberra and Perth. As it turns out it was less than a converted try!

    I’m finding the final really hard to pick. The home ground advantage can never be underestimated, but there are so many other factors involved in this game that could easily decide it.

    For one thing, Country will have a distinct advantage at lineout time, which was an area Perth attacked the Vikings last week. Canberra will hold a slight scrum advantage, I think, so that’s the set piece pretty even.

    The Vikings have probably the best-performing and most consistent backrow through the NRC season, but then I reckon Country have a clear midfield advantage. There really isn’t much between the two sides at all, which makes sense, with both of them coming into the final with seven wins and two losses.

    So really, that just leaves home ground advantage, and therefore, a tip for the home side to lift the NRC Toast Rack.

    But again, there won’t be much in this at all. Extra time, anyone?

    Enjoy the final, it’s going to be a ripper.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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