The NRC was first started in 2007 with the Central Coast Rays taking out the trophy.
The tournament provided a quality competition that aimed to perform the role the ITM Cup does in New Zealand. Notable young players to come out of the tournament include Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Pat McCabe, Ben Mowen, Quade Cooper and of course Kurtley Beale who was the player of the tournament.
It was full of promise but stopped after just one season due to financial issues.
It was then brought back in 2014 as the rebranded National Rugby Championship. The tournament is meant to provide quality game time for Super Rugby players not in the Wallaby squad while also giving non-super rugby contracted players a chance to get their name out there.
While the goal is a good one, it has not been a huge success. The set up and constant rule changes through the years have led to a largely ordinary tournament with some state rugby bodies obviously taking it more seriously than others.
Rule changes through the tournament existence have included eight-point tries, timers on scrums and kicks as well as a new bonus point system.
This were all introduced to promote continuity and attacking rugby to bring crowds in. Unfortunately, the focus on attack has left little room for defense.
Games have been try-scoring frenzies with 60-80 points regularly being racked up. This is fun for a while but can become a little frustrating after a while. The constant rule changes have also left the tournament with a feeling of an experiment.
The next issue is the setup of the tournament. In 2014 there was nine teams (one ACT, four NSW, two QLD, one ACT and one WA) but some of the teams (namely the Sydney Stars) were horrible leading to a re-shuffle with this year’s tournament comprising of eight teams (one ACT, one NSW, one QLD, one ACT, one WA and one Fiji).
The tournament has also experienced problems with the splitting of Super Rugby players, especially in NSW. The NSW teams have not got strong links to the Shute Shield as they did in 2007 and this had led some teams getting all the stars and some receiving none.
This was highlighted in the 2016 season when the Western Sydney Rams had one contracted Waratahs player (Will Skelton) while the Country Eagles had 10.
These discrepancies have worked to further discredit the competition while also driving fans away. Why would anyone turn up to watch their local team get smashed by a team full of Waratahs?
Finally, it seems that some states take the competition more seriously than others. This is shown in the winners of the tournament.
Queensland teams have won the tournament three times and the Perth team has won it once. The Canberra Vikings have been runners up twice while out of the four NSW teams that have experienced stints in the league, runner up is the best they could do with the Country Eagles in the 2016 season.
This lack of seriousness in NSW is being shown again this year. The NRC starts this weekend, on the same weekend of the Shute Shield grand final.
This poor scheduling means that the best players in the NSW club scene (many of them super rugby players) will either not play in the first round or turn up tired and sore.
Every other state has finished their club rugby comp two weeks prior to the NRC starting allowing at least a fortnight for teams to prepare (still not enough but better than nothing). This again works to discredit the competition.
In conclusion, this tournament has a lot of potential to provide a tournament similar to that of the ITM Cup (NZ) or Currie Cup (SA).
It is also something that Australian Rugby needs to work as it can bridge the significant gap from club rugby to super rugby. But unfortunately, is has not quite worked so far due to several issues.
Having said this, improvements have been made and the move to two NSW teams should make them very strong along with the inclusion of the Fijian Drua who produce an exciting brand of rugby that will provide a challenge to all. Hopefully this year’s instalment of the NRC will hit the mark and be a huge success.