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

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (125)

    • December 5th 2017 @ 6:47am
      Not so super said | December 5th 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

      NRC is burgeoning? Mmmm

      • December 5th 2017 @ 8:13am
        Dave_S said | December 5th 2017 @ 8:13am | ! Report

        Is that you, Aunt Selma?

    • Roar Guru

      December 5th 2017 @ 6:54am
      Diggercane said | December 5th 2017 @ 6:54am | ! Report

      Thank you Brett, nice to get a summary across the board.

      • December 5th 2017 @ 7:32am
        rebel said | December 5th 2017 @ 7:32am | ! Report

        Agree, a good wrap, almost Geoff-like.

        • Roar Guru

          December 5th 2017 @ 9:53am
          Machooka said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:53am | ! Report

          Agree, a good wrap, but Greig-like for mine! 🙂

    • December 5th 2017 @ 7:21am
      Selector said | December 5th 2017 @ 7:21am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett for a great year of articles and coverage. Particularly being the voice, or keyboard of the NRC.

      My Favourite things from this year (NRC)
      – Watching the best NRC competition yet. It is fast catching up to the ITM cup in terms of skill and entertainment.
      – Watching Rob Valetini and Tom Cusack put their hands up for what is going to be the most hotly contested backrow in SuperRugby
      – Watching the Tongan Thor become a man out on the field. If this were the comics. This year would of been the moment he was first able to pick up Mjölnir.
      – Watching the Fijian’s play, particularly the first half of the season. They were immense and brought another level to this competition. Thank you to Rugby Australia and Fiji Rugby for making that happen. The number 10/15 who started the season for the Drua, before being cut down with injury was becoming my favourite player of the tournament.
      – Watching Qld Country become a well rounded Rugby team with just the right amount of flair and hardnosed rugby. It gave me very high hopes for Thorn’s coaching next year (The last couple of days excluded)

      • Roar Guru

        December 5th 2017 @ 8:26am
        Train Without A Station said | December 5th 2017 @ 8:26am | ! Report

        I was actually pretty disappointed with the Fijians.

        They played good in patches and if anything were only let down by their lack of access to professional players and coaches from Super Rugby teams that the Australian teams had.

        But their consistent thug-like actions were pathetic.

        I don’t know what club rugby in Fiji is like, but that’s not acceptable in the NRC. A dog shot in the Semi Final saw James Slipper, a player pushing for a Wallabies return then miss the final and rest of the year with an eye injury.

        That’s in addition to the biting and the eye gouging.

        If they can’t leave their thug antics at home, they don’t deserve to be in the competition.

        • December 5th 2017 @ 9:24am
          Cynical Play said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:24am | ! Report

          That Slipper incident was disgusting. Common assault. Carozza level thuggery.

          • Roar Guru

            December 5th 2017 @ 9:36am
            Train Without A Station said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

            What I found humorous was that a few members of the side wanted to throw punches at blokes like Slipper who didn’t want to fight, and wanted to put late shots on other blokes.

            But when Timu and Tupou were willing to run at them at 100% all day, they didn’t want a bar of those two.

        • December 5th 2017 @ 9:31am
          Selector said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

          I agree that those incidents were the lowlights for the competition and the sport. The Ready and Fiangaa incidents were horrible too.

          Ultimately it was thier disipline that cost them the competition, but I enjoyed watching them play and compete.

          • Roar Guru

            December 5th 2017 @ 9:50am
            Train Without A Station said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

            Maybe I’m biased because I was never thrilled about their inclusion anyway. Didn’t see it as a negative, but just didn’t see it as the amazing positive everybody else did.

            On the plus side they were WR funded. They were also a top 4 team so helped to increase the quality of the competition.

            On the negative in 9 games they had 3 major Red Card worthy offences.

        • December 5th 2017 @ 9:44am
          Gepetto said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:44am | ! Report

          No one expects to be punched in like Slipper was in modern rugby. Retaliation by Australian players would harm their careers. Biting, eye-gouging thugs – They are a disgrace to Fiji.

        • Columnist

          December 5th 2017 @ 2:36pm
          Brett McKay said | December 5th 2017 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

          I certainty get and appreciate that point of view, too, TWAS.

          I’m quite sure there will have been a quiet reminder of standards and the presence of cameras in post season debriefs with the Drua, for the very reasons you outline…

        • December 6th 2017 @ 12:38am
          andrewM said | December 6th 2017 @ 12:38am | ! Report

          I can’t believe it..I agreed with twas.. 🙂

        • December 12th 2017 @ 1:36pm
          kaiviti said | December 12th 2017 @ 1:36pm | ! Report

          We have quite a way to go as far as good quality refs who can stamp their mark. Fijians play rugby because they just love to run that ball, however as you rightly point out there is to place for thuggery. We sincerly hope that the ARU and the NZRU would consider conducting more coaching clinics in the island so as to enable our boys to fully understand the rules, and in particular the no, no’s of the game. We collect more yellow cards in 15’s as well as 7’s than any other team, and it’s not doing us any good.

      • Columnist

        December 5th 2017 @ 2:32pm
        Brett McKay said | December 5th 2017 @ 2:32pm | ! Report

        Peceli Nacebe, I think, is who you’re thinking of Selector. Just when he was about tour rip the competition apart, injury ripped him from the competition. Though I understand he would almost certainly have been picked for Spring Tour Test squad if fit, so we may never know what sort of impact he could ve had…

        • December 5th 2017 @ 3:14pm
          Selector said | December 5th 2017 @ 3:14pm | ! Report

          That’s him, thanks Brett. Hopefully he comes back next year better than ever.

          I would also love to know if any Drua NRC players ended up getting a contract with any teams as a result of this comp.

          • December 5th 2017 @ 5:22pm
            Bakkies said | December 5th 2017 @ 5:22pm | ! Report

            Vasiteri had a contract with Connacht ripped up after he was suspended for eye gouging.

    • December 5th 2017 @ 8:23am
      Dave_S said | December 5th 2017 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      Morning Brett.

      “The move back to the traditional points-scoring methods proved to be no impediment at all to the attacking intent of players and coaches …”

      No bad thing to see try-scoring intent, of course, but I recall that a criticism (at least in the NH) of the early years of SR was that it was a bit light on for defence. That seems to have settled down now.

      At present, with a strong sprinkling of rookies, NRC defences are less organised and experienced.

      If the NRC causes the player base to expand and become more professional (as hoped), I wonder if the NRC will tend towards fewer trys and more penalty kicks over time?

      • Roar Guru

        December 5th 2017 @ 8:28am
        Train Without A Station said | December 5th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        Dave, it’s always been my view that the defensive weaknesses in teams in the NRC has been due to less conditioned club players being in the team – meaning not that tackles are missed, but players struggle to get into the line to make them.

        So based on that, I certainly agree with what you are wondering.

        • December 5th 2017 @ 10:28am
          Dave_S said | December 5th 2017 @ 10:28am | ! Report

          Yes, good point TWAS, conditioning would explain the gaps that encourages more open field running.

      • Columnist

        December 5th 2017 @ 2:37pm
        Brett McKay said | December 5th 2017 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

        It certainly possible Dave. Time will tell, I suppose…

    • December 5th 2017 @ 9:50am
      Choco Muffin 911 said | December 5th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      I wish that Forrest would apply his money to the NRC rather than the comp he is creating. It would be nice to see Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands join too.

      • Roar Rookie

        December 5th 2017 @ 12:01pm
        piru said | December 5th 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

        You needn’t worry it seems.
        The ARU is refusing to endorse him unless he sends money to them

      • December 5th 2017 @ 12:46pm
        Perthstayer said | December 5th 2017 @ 12:46pm | ! Report


        People forget why Twiggy came up with his plan. It was/is to keep/resume a Western Force set up. This achieves many goals, one being providing a pathway for younger players that has been torn away. It offers WA rugby fans some quality rugby to watch, live. And will in general, hopefully, sustain and then grow existing interest in rugby union. And that benefits the nation.

        Piru, I didn’t hear that, sad. I wonder if ARU’s hoping he’ll fund NRC as well.

    • December 5th 2017 @ 11:21am
      Boomeranga said | December 5th 2017 @ 11:21am | ! Report

      “… particularly since a few prominent halves have been rather spectacularly moved on in the last week.”

      I’m aware of QC being excluded. Has there been someone else as well?

      • December 5th 2017 @ 11:26am
        carnivean said | December 5th 2017 @ 11:26am | ! Report

        Nick Frisby was also told he can look elsewhere.

        • December 5th 2017 @ 11:54am
          Boomeranga said | December 5th 2017 @ 11:54am | ! Report

          Thanks Carnivean. Hadn’t seen that.

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