Rugby in 2017: Around the club scene and a new NRC Champion

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    With all bar a few Australian Sevens players now settling into a summer buffet of Ashes cricket action around the country, The Roar have asked me to wrap up the year in Australian rugby over the month of December.

    In this, the first of four parts, we’ll wrap up 2017 Premier Rugby around the country, as well as reflecting on the fourth edition of the National Rugby Championship, won for the first time by Queensland Country.

    The coming weeks will see comprehensive reviews of the five Super Rugby sides, as well as a look back at what has been another up and down year for the Wallabies.

    So, let’s get into it, with club rugby around the country to lead us off.

    Premier Rugby

    In Brisbane, University of Queensland finished runaway minor premiers with 15 wins from their games of the home-and-away rounds, well ahead of GPS on 12 wins and with Sunnybank (8 wins) and Wests (9 wins) filling out the top four. Sunnybank, despite one less win, finished three points clear of Wests by virtue of eight bonus points.

    2016 Premiers Brothers finished outside the top four, seven points behind Wests, and just two points clear of Easts in sixth.

    A Radike Samo-led GPS stunned Uni in the first semi-final, securing their spot in the grand final with an impressive 42-24 win in the first of the Ballymore double-header, two weeks after ‘Jeeps’ inflicted Uni’s first loss of 2017 in Round 17. In the other semi, Sunnybank escaped with a 24-22 win over Wests with a pushover try after the bell.

    In the GF, Uni and GPS went back and forward for 70 minutes in front of more than 6000 people at Ballymore, taking what rare opportunities presented, before lock Patrick Morrey barged over for his second try, giving UQ a 23-14 win and their fourth Hospitals Cup in the last eight seasons.

    Warringah claimed an emotional Shute Shield Premiership in Sydney after a 30-25 win over Northern Suburbs, with skipper Sam Ward lifting the Shield only months after his younger brother Lachie died while playing a fifth-grade match.

    Minor premiers Manly were stunned in the first week of the Finals, beaten 40-34 by sixth-placed Eastwood, while second-placed Southern Districts and fourth-placed Randwick were eliminated under the new finals format, beaten by Norths (5th) and Warringah (3rd) respectively. The Rats then knocked off Manly 27-17 in another northern beaches classic to reach the grand final, while Norths also ended Eastwood’s giant-killing run, winning through 42-32.

    North Sydney Oval was heaving for the Premiership decider, and Ward’s try helped Warringah to a 13-12 halftime lead. The two sides traded second-half tries throughout the second half, and Norths held possession and territory to mount a late raid trailing by five, but a handling error brought it all undone. The win gave Warringah their first Sydney Premiership since 2005.

    Rugby Union ball generic

    (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

    Canberra club Royals claimed their second ACT John I Dent Cup Premiership in three years, going through the 2017 season undefeated. Royals finished with 14 wins and no losses to claim the minor premiership by 11 points from Tuggeranong in second. Wests and Queanbeyan claimed third and fourth respectively, with eight wins each.

    After Royals beat Tuggeranong 34-26 in the major semi-final, Wests accounted for Queanbeyan 24-8, setting up a preliminary final showdown against the Vikings. The Lions survived losing two players to yellow cards within a minute of each other in the first half, and a disallowed Tuggeranong try, to win through to the decider 23-16.

    But come the grand final, it was all Royals, who kicked away with three second-half tries to win 28-12. Tom Cusack scored in a man of the match Performance, as Royals became the first side to go through a season undefeated since 2004.

    In Melbourne, the Harlequin club won their fourth Dewar Shield in five seasons, with a convincing 38-20 win over the Melbourne Unicorns to cap an undefeated premiership. Harlequin jumped out to a 26-3 lead at the break after a dominant first half, and through the Unicorns hit back after halftime to narrow the margin to 13, Quins were able to kick away.

    2016 Premiers Melbourne won through to the GF after beating Box Hill 30-27 in the preliminary final, after Quins also beat the Unicorns in the major semi. Box Hill finished the season only two points back in third place, and beat fourth-placed Footscray in the minor semi. Footscray scraped into fourth on the back of their final round win over

    Endeavour Hills coinciding with Harlequin beating Melbourne University.

    Over in the west, Wests-Scarborough went back-to-back in Perth Premier Grade, with a 27-15 win over Associates. Wests-Scarborough finished second on the table, five points behind minor premiers Palmyra, who were stunned out of the finals 21-20 by fourth-placed Associates. Wests accounted for third-placed Nedlands 32-29 in the second semi to win through to the decider

    In the Final, ‘Soaks’ jumped out to a 15-0 lead before Wests scored 27 unanswered points over the next hour to complete their 2016 Premiership defence with three second-half tries.

    In Adelaide Brighton took out the South Australian Premiership with a 34-21 win over Burnside, while in Tasmania Devonport avenged their semi-final loss with a 33-20 grand final win over the previously undefeated Hobart club, Taroona.

    National Rugby Championship

    As you’d expect in the early years of a burgeoning tournament, it was another huge step forward for the National Rugby Championship in 2017. Another new winner, another new Queensland winner, and once again, anyone watching even just a few games quickly reached the conclusion that the competition had yet again gone to new levels.

    Queensland Country NRC Grand FInal

    (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

    Over the course of the eleven weeks of the NRC, four different teams were seen as the team to beat. Perth Spirit emerged as an early favourite, with their form over the first few rounds making a successful defence of their 2016 title very possible.

    But after the newly-added Fijian Drua beat last year’s finalists, NSW Country and Perth, in successive weeks and in handsome style, the realisation was clear that the new boys would take some beating if they could snare a home final. Then the Canberra Vikings thumped the Drua in Canberra, and they assumed the favouritism before swapping it back and forward with Queensland Country over the final rounds as those two teams battled for top spot.

    Canberra, Queensland Country, Fiji and Perth – surprisingly, after a final two rounds full of drama and upsets – met at the knockout stage, with the top two winning through to the Final in Canberra.

    With a new Champion assured, but nothing much really separating two very well-performed teams, it was the Brad Thorn-coached young Country side who lifted the NRC toast rack trophy, with a superb second half securing a 42-28 win at Viking Park in the Nation’s Capital. Duncan Paia’aua was outstanding, claiming the Phil Waugh Medal as the player of the Final.

    With so many of the Country side graduating along with Thorn from the Queensland Under-20s side earlier in the year, their success gives Reds fans much to enthuse about over the summer, particularly since a few prominent halves have been rather spectacularly moved on in the last week.

    Aside from the Country title, the highlight of the season was no doubt the addition of the Fijian Drua, an initiative of World Rugby at the encouragement of Rugby Australia. From their first match, the Drua added a new type of attacking flair to the NRC, and added new degrees of outright physicality. Their discipline did let them down as the competition went on, but they added so much to the competition both on and off the field.

    Nic Stirzaker Melbourne Rising NRC

    (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

    The move back to the traditional points-scoring methods proved to be no impediment at all to the attacking intent of players and coaches, with three-point penalties more common, but still used sparingly. That seems an outright contradiction, but the point remains; teams overwhelmingly preferred to kick for the corners and go to set piece.

    2017 was the first NRC Finals series without a NSW-based side, with a combination of patchy form and horrific injury tolls condemning the three sides to the bottom half of the table. That alone shouldn’t be reason to drop another side, but there is no doubt at all NSW Rugby and the Waratahs need to re-engage with the NSW NRC teams at every level.

    Next week: the first of two parts to the Australian Super Rugby year in review.

    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.