If there’s been a constant about the National Rugby Championship over its five seasons, it’s that the next wave of young talent has always found a way of shining through.
If you think back over the years, names like Jack Maddocks, Rob Valetini, Tom Banks, Samu Kerevi and Ned Hanigan have caught the eye.
This is year has been no different, and it’s worth looking at a few to have stood out already.
As a starting point, the NRC Rising Star was launched this season, with the view of formalising the kind of discussions that have been happening every week of every NRC season since day dot.
Which young punks should we be keeping an eye on? Who are the future Wallabies we’re currently watching?
I’ve played a small role in the background of all this through my association with the competition and rugby.com.au, but it’s also been a bit of wider collaboration, including the likes of Iain Payten and Jim Tucker along with other writers, as well as the Fox Sports commentators.
The Rising Star can’t have played more than three Super Rugby games, and is open to players from the Fijian Drua as well. The nominees for the first five rounds, as featured on rugby.com.au and Fox Sports have been:
Andrew Deegan (Western Force – Rd.1), Alivereti Veitokani (Fijian Drua – Rd.2), Jock Campbell (Queensland Country – Rd.3), Archie King (Melbourne Rising – Rd.4), and Darcy Swain (Canberra Vikings – Rd.5).
All five nominations have been worthy nominees, and I can tell you from the weeks I’ve been involved in the process that coming up with ‘the one’ for the week hasn’t been easy.
So who else is out there?
Brisbane City centre Matt Gordon has been really good over the last month, providing a great option for Quade Cooper and with a great ability of finding the line. Gordon has previously played for Queensland Country, but has shown this year that his game is coming along nicely.
No.8 Sam Wallis has popped up in the last few weeks, too, and his goalpost-to-goalpost running is really helping City fight back into finals contention.
Queensland Country outside back Jordan Petaia is absolutely a Wallaby of the future, but such is his quality at just 18, that he’s ineligible for the Rising Star by virtue of playing half a season of Super Rugby already.
Jock Campbell is running second to Tom English on the try-scoring tally with six tries in five games. Young lock Harry Hockings played upwards of a dozen games for the Reds this year, but is Country lock partner Angus Blyth has only one to his name, and is just as worth keeping an eye on.
NSW Country backrower Sam Figg was one of the dominant players of the NRC in 2016 and is returning to that form in 2018, but sadly remains ineligible for the Rising Star. Figg spent the 2016-17 off-season with the Western Force, has years of Australian Sevens experience, and even played the inaugural MLR season in the States for Glendale but is yet to make his Super Rugby debut. Can a 26-year-old be a Rising Star? You will if I get another say, Figgy!
The Sydney Rays have had a number of young players who I’ve liked the look of: midfielder Harry Burey, fullback Tim Clements. I think young playmaker Will Harrison has shown plenty of promise for a player who still hasn’t played a lot of top-grade rugby. But abrasive lock or blindside flanker Lachie Swinton is the Ray to have stood out for me; just hasn’t taken a backward step, and is performing very well at the next level after a standout season in Sydney Uni’s Sydney Premiership.
Canberra lock Darcy Swain has been great throughout, but keep an eye on blindside flanker BJ Edwards. The very definition of a late-bloomer, 24-year-old Edwards didn’t really start playing rugby until his very late teens, went from Colts to 1st Grade with Easts in Sydney within a year, and headed to the UK for opportunity.
Those opportunities included stints at Bristol, Cardiff, and Leicester, before coming back to Australia and then coming down to Canberra mid-season and starring for Gungahlin in their charge to the finals. He’s a good’un.
I still maintain Melbourne Rising are a better side than the table suggests, but their playoff chances only slightly more likely than a return of the Tasmanian tiger. Winger Kitione Ratu played all last season for the Rising, and has been one of their best again this season, along with Archie King and fullback Justin Marsters, who is playing his fourth NRC season in Melbourne.
Over in the west, Deegan has been winning the plaudits all season for the Western Force, but fullback and former Rising flyhalf Jack McGregor has been every bit as good this NRC. Flanker Tevin Ferris is another one, and he didn’t look out of place in the Wallabies trial game in Sydney back in July.
And of the Fijians, well, where do you start? They’re all eligible for the Rising Star! Veitokani has been outstanding, but Mosese Voka would have to be one of more underrated backrowers in the NRC and is having another wonderful NRC. Fullback Apisalome Waqatabu is another standout, and scrumhalf Frank Lomani remains one of my favourite players.
Fiji 19, Western Force 18, Canberra 17, Queensland Country 14; Brisbane City 13, Melbourne 7, NSW Country 5, Sydney Rays 1.
NRC Round 6
Fiji Drua v Canberra Vikings – Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji; 3.00pm FST/1.00pm AEST, streamed LIVE on www.foxsports.com.au.
Queensland Country v Sydney Rays – Bond University, Gold Coast; 3.00pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Melbourne Rising v Western Force – Kardinia Park, Geelong; 2.30pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
NSW Country v Brisbane City – Camden Rugby Club; 3.00pm AEDT, streamed LIVE on www.foxsports.com.au.
First plays second first up on Saturday, and if Canberra can beat Fiji in Fiji, it would go down as one of the great wins in NRC history. I’m just not sure the Drua are about to let top spot slip, though.
Queensland Country shouldn’t have too much trouble with Sydney, and though they’re due some good fortune, I’m not sure NSW Country will have quite enough to topple Brisbane City.
Finally, the Western Force should beat Melbourne on Sunday, but I can’t shake this hunch that the Rising will take a big scalp before the season is done. Could this be the week it happens though?