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The National Rugby Championship’s fifth end-of-season decider is here, and we could either finish with a maiden title for the Fijian Drua, or a second consecutive crown for Queensland Country.
It’s fitting that the best two teams throughout the 2018 season have won through to the final. Fiji’s only loss this season came against the Queenslanders, while Country fought back from two narrow mid-season losses to entrench themselves in the top two.
Interestingly, this is only the third final that will feature the top two sides of that season, though it is the fourth time the minor premiers have hosted the decider. And on that front, the last two minor premiers to host – Canberra and NSW Country – lost the Final.
I’ve outlined over the last week or so how close the two sides are in plenty of aspects of the game, with the obvious exception being the Drua’s incredible offload tally this NRC season. Though I will admit to being surprised at the efficiency of Country’s offload efficiency, as revealed this week.
So here’s another surprise that I wasn’t expecting: Fiji have conceded nearly 50 per cent more turnovers than Queensland Country. It means on average, the Drua will give up six more turnover opportunities per game than Country will concede themselves. That’s significant.
But, all these little factoids won’t count for much once the two sides take the field on Saturday afternoon in Lautoka. That’s where the key match-ups take over.
To begin with, I’ll be really interesting to see the battle between respective locks Albert Tuisue and Angus Blyth. Two very different players and two very different methods of operation.
Tuisue really got the Drua back in their semi-final in the second half last weekend against Canberra, when after coming back from the sin bin, he upped the physicality and just started knocking Vikings over for fun. When the Drua need something big from their pack, it’s usually been Tuisue delivering the bigness.
Blyth on the other hand, is already developing nicely as a set piece specialist, and he was responsible for picking off the Western Force lineout in the rain on the Gold Coast. And with the Drua preferring anything but a set piece game, Blyth’s ability will certainly present another opportunity.
In the backrow, Mosese Voka and Angus Scott-Young are the guys getting it done in the tight stuff, and both have had really strong seasons for the respective sides. Voka has led the competition for ball carries, while Scott-Young has been impressively busy in defence.
They do different jobs for their sides, but both will be crucial to either side coming out on top.
At flyhalf, again it’s a contrasting battle between the promising Hamish Stewart, and the incredible Alivereti Veitokani.
While Veitokani has been the spark in everything the Drua have done in attack, Stewart has been instrumental in steering Country around the park, getting them to where they want to be before unleashing the fast men outside. Veitokani leads his fast men straight up through the middle, and from there they wreak havoc to just about anywhere on the field.
There’s no question this will be an integral contest within the match itself. Whichever flyhalf comes out on top, their team probably lifts the NRC toast-rack trophy.
Out wide, there probably isn’t a more mouth-watering face-off than Filipo Daugunu and Apisalome Waqatabu.
Both have that unbelievable knack of being in the right place at the right time when a ball is about to emerge via offload, with Daugunu the one making the metres and Waqatabu scoring the tries.
If they happen to get into a foot race in open space, it will make tuning into the Final completely worthwhile.
National Rugby Championship Final, Saturday
Fijian Drua (1st) v Queensland Country (2nd) – Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji; 3.30pm FST/ 2.30pm AEDT, LIVE on FOX SPORTS
Where as last week I found nearly impossible to tip, all this week I’ve had the thought in the back of my mind that Queensland Country are better equipped than ay other team to beat Fiji in Fiji and take back-to-back NRC titles.
Country have just the right balance between defence, set piece, attack, and turnover transition to cause trouble for the Drua, and they’ve already proved that once this season, albeit in Queensland.
It would be wonderful if the Drua claimed a maiden title in their first ever NRC Final, and in only their second season. It really would. But I just have this hunch Country will make it a fourth NRC title for Queensland in five seasons.