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We’re two rounds out from the 2016 National Rugby Championship semi-finals, and things are certainly hotting up among the teams in contention for the top four.
The competition has been wonderful this season, without any shadow of a doubt the closest of the three seasons played to date. The performance of the NSW sides – all three winning on the weekend was a first in the comp’s history – well and truly justifies the decision to shed the fourth side this season, and all have been boosted by stronger playing stocks.
And like the previous two seasons, once again the talent has shone through. You could quite easily work your way through 1 to 15 and come up with several names for each position. I’m not going to do that today, but here are five names worth remembering for the future.
Shambeckler Vui – Perth Spirit tighthead prop
It’s worth remembering this name just because it’s a name you won’t easily forget, but 19-year-old Vui has shown in just over a month at this level that he’s got an enormous future.
The former Queensland and Australian schoolboy, and Australian and Western Force Under-20s player this season – he’ll still qualify next year as well – came off the bench in Round 1, but has started every game since and acquitted himself very well both at set piece and around the ground.
The Perth scrum is neither the best or the worst in the NRC this season, but as he’s got used the competition, he’s started having some success in recent weeks. He definitely held his own against Queensland Country a fortnight ago, and then gave NSW Country and Waratahs prop Paddy Ryan more than a few issues this weekend just gone.
His ball-carrying has been really impressive too, and the stats tell me he’s average nearly three metres with every carry. And he doesn’t mind a bit of clean air, either, as this viral clip of him at the U20s World Champs back in June showed.
Taniela Tupou is the young tighthead getting the headlines – and he’s going well this season, too, don’t worry – but it certainly can’t hurt having more than one young no.3 on the rise.
Isireli Naisarani – Brisbane City no.8
While Wallabies fans lament the lack of big, burly, ball-carrying, wall-smashing no.8s in Australian rugby, the NRC has unearthed a couple this season: Tyrone Viiga from Western Sydney, OJ Noa from Canberra are another couple.
Isa Naisarani was the big winner from the Queensland Reds answering English Premiership side Bath’s desperate call for help, with Leroy Houston’s short term return to ‘The Rec’ opening the door for the 21-year-old Fijian from the Souths club in Brisbane to carry his strong Premier Rugby form through to the next level. Since moving from blindside to no.8 two games ago, he’s exploded into life.
After finding the line nine times for Souths this season, Naisarani already has three for City in the NRC and is actually their leading try-scorer currently. And at 195cm and 110kg, there’s plenty of size to go with the mobility.
Young lock Lukhan Tui’s barnstorming runs early in the competition might have set the trend, because in recent weeks Naisarani has been incredible, carrying the ball in big numbers and averaging 5.5 metres per carry!
A genuine lineout option, too, there is plenty to like about this guy. And the Force definitely know that, because they locked him in for 2017 before the NRC started.
Jake Gordon – NSW Country Eagles scrumhalf
You might already know Jake Gordon’s name, and he has been part of the Waratahs set-up in various capacities for two seasons now. Gordon was more than useful for the Sydney Stars last season in their run to the semis, but this year with the Eagles, he’s gone to a new level again.
For a scrumhalf, his pass is his ‘craft’, and importantly, Gordon’s pass is good. But what’s really impressed me has been his vision and his ability to spot an opening. And then once he does spot that opening, his acceleration is top-notch.
But what I really like about his game this season has been his support play. His three tries on the weekend were all products of that, and I’ve always had a thing for scrumhalves who can support line breaks up the middle corridor. Five tries in his last three games suggests Gordon has a bit of a thing for it, too.
Mack Mason – Queensland Country flyhalf
They’ve had a rough time of it, the young Queenslanders, but the no.10 in the white headgear has been worth watching. Mason will benefit hugely from training alongside Quade Cooper at the Reds next season, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he leapfrogs Jake McIntyre in the pecking order.
A former understudy of Cooper Cronk at the Melbourne Storm, Mason has a really nice kicking game and strong pass, and has shown great maturity in steering the Country side around this season. Not yet 21, Mason just seems to have time with the ball, a desirable feature in a playmaker.
His partnership in midfield with Duncan Paia’aua – himself enjoying his best NRC campaign to date – has been really strong, with the big winner there being Izaia Perese, who has superstar written all over him.
Irae Simone – Sydney Rays centre
The Shute Shield rookie of the year appears to be one of those players who gets better with every step up in level, not unlike last year’s Rays inside centre Reece Hodge, who just run out onto whatever stage it happens to be and looks comfortable.
Simone started the season at outside centre, but has moved into 12 in the last few games, and from there the carnage has flowed.
He scored the two tries that put the Rays back on track against Brisbane City on Sunday, and was prominent in a couple of others, too, including putting flanker Jack Dempsey into space on the stroke of halftime.
Simone joined Northern Suburbs this season after a couple of years with Souths in the NRL, and his talent has already been recognised by the Waratahs for 2017, with coach Darryl Gibson reportedly a big fan.