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Opinion

Reds win shows the value of the National Rugby Championship as Australian rugby’s premier development competition

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4th July, 2020
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The Red’s 32-26 win over the Waratahs on Friday night was a fitting end of to seven years in purgatory for Queensland Rugby.

The Tahs didn’t gift wrap the Bob Templeton Cup for the Reds, with the Tahs’ lineout and goal kicking making the game a nail biter. Overall though the Reds dominated possession, territory and the scrum, coming away with four tries to the Waratahs’ two, topped off with a couple of handy James O’Connor penalty goals.

A lot has been made of the Waratahs being a young team and that they were missing four players to injury. Yet in Beth Newman’s article on rugby.com.au, it was highlighted that the average age of both the Waratahs and the Reds 23.4 years old. Furthermore, the Reds have recently lost two locks and a playmaker in contract disputes and 14 minutes into the game starting lock Angus Blyth was taken off with a head injury.

However, the Reds were able to call on bench lock Tuaina Tualima, who plays for Brisbane City in the National Rugby Championship, to get the job done.

This highlights the wisdom of the decision by the Queensland rugby union to embrace the NRC as its premier development competition. The Queensland Rugby Union has used the NRC to give the best club players like Tualima an opportunity to prepare for professional opportunities if they arise, to develop coaches like Brad Thorn before he joined the Reds and to further develop existing Reds players who do not have Wallabies obligations during the international season.

On the last point, the example of Hamish Stewart stands out. Stewart was recruited by the Reds as a prospective flyhalf and played well in the position, but flashier competition arrived at flyhalf and Stewart floated between the fullback and the bench.

However, the NRC provided the opportunity for the Reds to develop Stewart as an inside centre, which better suited his skill set, and he spent the 2019 NRC season learning the new position with Queensland Country. At Super Rugby level he plays the role very well, his brutal and accurate defence, in particular, is reminiscent of Reds stalwart and 23-cap Wallaby Anthony Fainga’a.

Yet because of his background at 10, Stewart also has excellent playmaking skills, in particular his fearlessness, timing and accurate passing mean that he runs straight into the teeth of the defence, creating the maximum amount of space for the players outside him. He is particularly effective when he combines with big, fast forwards like he did with Caleb Timu in a Wallabies trial match in 2018, to set up an excellent try.

See from 4:20 at this link.

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As his partnership with O’Connor develops, we will hopefully see Stewart stepping up more often to first receiver and using the full range of his skills in attack, but the foundation for his role at inside-centre was laid in the NRC under the tutelage of Queensland Rugby Union staff.

The highlights how the NSW rugby union’s failure to embrace the NRC has put it behind the curve on player and coach development. In six seasons no NSW-based team has ever won the competition, and only NSW team to make the finals has been NSW Country.

Sydney-based teams have won the wooden spoon five times and the Waratahs have had to hire their second Kiwi coach in a row because none of their local people were up to the task of coaching at Super Rugby level.

The source of NSW’s failure in the NRC has been opposition from within the Shute Shield Club competition in Sydney, which was a major source of Wallabies during the amateur era and which apparently still sees itself as being perpetually entitled to that mantle.

The proponents of the Shute Shield have been hellbent on dumping the NRC and replacing it with a “super” club rugby competition, where the best Shute Shield clubs can play club rugby teams from elsewhere in Australia.

While a super club competition may attract some interest from the faithful, it doesn’t stack up in terms of professional player development. The problems include what to do with Super Rugby players whose club teams don’t make the super club competition.

Do they sit out for that season or are they shoehorned into other teams, compromising the integrity of the competition? How do the professional franchises work to develop their players and coaches when amateur clubs are calling the shots?

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With the benefits of the NRC are just now being realised by teams like the Reds and also the Brumbies who have embraced it, there seems to be no reason to change things because NSW has failed to do so.