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

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, 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

    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…

    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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    The Crowd Says (79)

    • November 9th 2017 @ 6:56am
      Train Without A Station said | November 9th 2017 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Brett just a note, unless you are excluding Timu, then Country will bring in 5 genuine jumpers.

      Tai Ford who is playing 7 is quite a good line out exponent also. Used a lot for Bond Uni and was used a few times last weekend by Country.

      • Columnist

        November 9th 2017 @ 7:55am
        Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 7:55am | ! Report

        Funnily enough TWAS, it was actually Ford who I wasn’t necessarily thinking of as a primary jumper!

        That just underlines that point now, doesn’t it..

      • Roar Guru

        November 9th 2017 @ 8:13am
        John R said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:13am | ! Report

        Get Timu in the WB’s squad. Dude is a beast

        • November 9th 2017 @ 8:17am
          Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:17am | ! Report

          Between Timu, Valetini and Naisarani along wiht returners from injury like RHP, McCalman and Higgers the Wallabies will have some very good 6/8 options next year.

          It is hard for me to see how a lighter, smaller guy like Dempsey (or Cusack) will get back into the 23, despite how well he was playing.

          Surely Hanigan and Timani are going to be out at the very least.

          Good times ahead for Australian rugby?

          • Roar Guru

            November 9th 2017 @ 8:22am
            John R said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

            There’s some heavy hitters coming through aye, so good to see.

            Hanigan’s talented, but he doesn’t have the frame for test rugby aye. Timani on the other hand, surely he can see this stock pile building up, and if that doesn’t motivate him, then well…..

            • November 9th 2017 @ 8:34am
              Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

              Well I suspect he won’t start for the Rebels next season and we will see 6. RHP, 7. Faingaa/Hardwick and 8. Mafi.

              If Hardwick signs then Timani could be fighting for even a bench spot.

              That will either motivate him to get back to his top form or it will motivate him to find a contract overseas.

    • November 9th 2017 @ 8:00am
      Onside said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:00am | ! Report

      Do Q C R players come from outside the metropolitan area, and selected because of good form playing for country clubs. Or is it a country team in name only.

      • November 9th 2017 @ 8:08am
        Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:08am | ! Report

        Is that a serious question or is it a political agenda posing as a question? I suspect that due to the lack of a question mark at the end of your sentence it is the latter.

        • November 9th 2017 @ 12:04pm
          Onside said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:04pm | ! Report

          Serious question Fionn. Which clubs do Country players play for when not representing Q C R .

          • Columnist

            November 9th 2017 @ 12:07pm
            Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

            • November 9th 2017 @ 12:30pm
              Onside said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

              Thanks Brett. appreciated.

          • November 9th 2017 @ 12:08pm
            Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

            Well then I apologise. From what I’ve been reading from people like Sheek who are critical of the NRC it seems that a lot of country players for both QLD and NSW do not play for country teams. I unfortunately think that the reality of professionalism is that country teams will not usually be able to compete with the city teams any longer.

            That all being said I could be mistaken as I have heard this off of others. Brett?

            • November 9th 2017 @ 12:33pm
              Onside said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

              Hi Fionn, I can see how my post could easily be read as ‘smart alec ‘.

              • November 9th 2017 @ 12:59pm
                Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

                No, mate, it was my mistake. I’m sorry.

            • November 9th 2017 @ 6:47pm
              sheek said | November 9th 2017 @ 6:47pm | ! Report

              So Fionn,

              What are you saying? Are you suggesting I’m guilding the lilly?

              Onside’s question was quite apt.

              It doesn’t matter that many of the QC players were born in the country. The fact is they are playing mostly for Brisbane premier district clubs. They are not selected from current QC clubs.

              The NSWC team is even more bizarre, drawing their players from an even wider net, from Queensland down to SNSW (ACT) as well as Sydney premier district clubs. They are not selected from current NSWC clubs.

              Which is why the Cockatoos won’t be associated with the Eagles.

              You guys dream of this comp one day being the national domestic comp. Yet it is so structurally flawed.

              Neither QC nor NSWC draw barely any current players from country clubs.

              Call it what you want, but it’s an illusion, a mirage, a figment. You & the ARU are promoting a myth as the substance & future of Australian rugby.

              I can’t believe supposedly sensible people can be so stupid.

              • November 10th 2017 @ 11:00am
                Fionn said | November 10th 2017 @ 11:00am | ! Report

                Sheek, I’m not suggesting or implying anything.

                I was simply stating that I personally did not know where the Queensland Country players came from, but that I had heard from you that most of them played for clubs in the city.

              • November 10th 2017 @ 11:11am
                Fionn said | November 10th 2017 @ 11:11am | ! Report

                I apologise if I came across as offensively, I did not mean to be critical of view or your views in any way, as much as I personally disagree regarding your negativity of the NRC (that being said, of course it could be improved, I would like to see the ACT Kookaburras playing in the traditional colours every round)

      • November 9th 2017 @ 9:00am
        Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        Are any of the Canberra players actually Vikings?

        • November 9th 2017 @ 9:39am
          nutter said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

          Pretty sure you’re just stirring but Ryan Lonergan, Andrew Muirhead, Ben Johnson, Tom Cusack and Joe Powell are all ACT players.

          • November 9th 2017 @ 9:53am
            Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:53am | ! Report

            Yep I was taking of the pillage and plunder type of Viking 😉

            • Columnist

              November 9th 2017 @ 9:56am
              Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

              They do play pretty hard on the ball, Dave! 😀

              • November 9th 2017 @ 10:08am
                Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 10:08am | ! Report

                Yes but isnt pillaging going to be referreed differently under the new rules 🙂

              • Columnist

                November 9th 2017 @ 11:02am
                Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 11:02am | ! Report

                True, but as long as the arriving marauders stay on their feet….

        • November 9th 2017 @ 10:16am
          AndyS said | November 9th 2017 @ 10:16am | ! Report

          Absolutely right Dave, a joke of a competition when neither the bloke named Johansson nor the one nicknamed Thor actually play for the Vikings….

          • November 9th 2017 @ 11:35am
            Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 11:35am | ! Report


            • Roar Rookie

              November 9th 2017 @ 12:21pm
              piru said | November 9th 2017 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

              To be fair, very few of the Perth players are actual ghosts

      • Columnist

        November 9th 2017 @ 9:29am
        Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        I reckon this is a sign of the NRC growing in stature. When criticism is really only superficial like this, the competition itself is going pretty well…

        • November 9th 2017 @ 9:56am
          Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

          Indeed Brett, and it’s an interesting lesson in marketing – all the promotional techniques may or may not work, but a quality product eventually sells itself.

          Anyone who doesn’t want to see players of this quality running around, in whatever jersey, just isn’t interested in rugby.

          • Roar Guru

            November 9th 2017 @ 10:31am
            Machooka said | November 9th 2017 @ 10:31am | ! Report

            Excellent point Dave_S… and anyone who considers themselves a rugby supporter should have this comp now dialled in to view/ follow/ support. It’s a quality product.

        • November 9th 2017 @ 6:49pm
          sheek said | November 9th 2017 @ 6:49pm | ! Report

          Ohhh Brett…..

    • November 9th 2017 @ 8:09am
      Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:09am | ! Report

      Cheers, for the article, Brett, and another good podcast performance on GAGR based on the first half that I’ve listened to.

      Out of interest why isn’t Rob Valetini used as a line out jumper more?

      • Columnist

        November 9th 2017 @ 9:32am
        Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Fionn, that means you’re only 50 minutes in!!! 😆 Kind of got away from us…

        More of a technique thing for Valetini, and ditto Fakaosolea. Plus they both take a lot of lifting!

        • November 9th 2017 @ 9:37am
          Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:37am | ! Report

          Naisarani is a line out target and according to the online stats Valetini is only 3kg heavier than Naisarani.

          I feel like Valetini should be working on his line out technique as much as possible if he wants to be really be a longterm 6/8 for the Wallabies. If he can nail that and become a line out target then he and Naisarani could, between them, really stamp their authority on those 6 and 8 jerseys in the next couple of years.

          I’ll get to the end of it eventually 😛

          • Columnist

            November 9th 2017 @ 9:43am
            Brett McKay said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:43am | ! Report

            Let’s remember though, he’s only two months past his 19th birthday. He’s a long way from being the finished product…

            • November 9th 2017 @ 9:44am
              Fionn said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:44am | ! Report

              ‘Let’s remember though, he’s only two months past his 19th birthday. He’s a long way from being the finished product…’

              I know, and how exciting is that?! Especially as a Brumbies fan 😀 . Future Owen Finegan??

    • November 9th 2017 @ 8:25am
      ncart said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      They are all playing in metro area but many come from regional areas – Duncan P for instance is from Central Qld, Hamish Stewart went to school in Toowoomba. As the Reds run the two Qld teams they are making sure that players are distributed between the 2 teams which makes sense.

      • Roar Guru

        November 9th 2017 @ 4:34pm
        ThugbyFan said | November 9th 2017 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

        Unlike the three NSW teams. It’s a dogsbody down here, seriously stuffed! LoL

    • Columnist

      November 9th 2017 @ 8:40am
      Geoff Parkes said | November 9th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

      Cheers Brett. Vikings for me off the back of their defensive organisation and home ground, but absolutely… nothing much in this.

      Good call on Valetini for player of the tournament. Obviously an impact player but his work-rate has been excellent too for such a young guy.

      Let’s hope there’s a decent roll-up, worthy of a final.

    • November 9th 2017 @ 9:04am
      Dave_S said | November 9th 2017 @ 9:04am | ! Report

      Bang a gong and bring it on!

      This is going to be a cracker, and (if it were needed) justification enough for the continued support and development of the NRC comp.

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