The fifth iteration of the NRC culminates this weekend with an enticing match up between two of the most entertaining teams of the competition. It’s remarkable how far this tournament has come and if you had told me way back in 2014 that in just a few years time the Grand Final would be held in Fiji and feature QLD Country I would have nodded politely and scoffed at your behind your back.
No team, over that first three years, were worse than QLD Country. In fact their win record was twice as bad as the next worst team, the Greater Sydney (and indeed Western Sydney) Rams. The fact that they managed to turn that 13% win record into a premiership the next year is a credit to all involved, most noticeably their coaching team headed by Brad Thorn. Thorn obviously is tasked with turning around the Reds, also with a dismal win percentage, while new coach Rod Seib has maintained the momentum and guided his team to the Grand Final again, despite missing the key 2017 players such as Liam Wright, Taniela Tupou and Izaia Perese.
The Drua’s early foray into the competition was by no means as pedestrian. I recall watching their first match, against Brisbane City at Ballymore, and thinking they had some talent but wouldn’t be serious title contenders. Just one week later they turned it against a handy Melbourne Rising team and I changed my stance immediately. However last year their flashes of brilliance was matched by moments of seeming apathy. A 60 point lesson dealt out by Canberra Vikings followed by two losses at home to round out the season raised concern as to their temperament. While they snuck into the finals, they were knocked out easily by the very team they play this weekend.
Coach Senirusi Seruvakula knew he had a challenge ahead of him in 2018. Key players would be lose, including captain John Stewart and gun utiliy, Peceli Nacebe. More than that he needed to ensure his team could retain their composure for a full 7-week season (plus finals) let alone through a match. Winning at home was non-negotiable. Winning on the road would define their season. The intent in the players was there from the start. Momentum built early and they were able to see it through the duration of the NRC with just the one loss, on the road to QLD Country.
The home final for the Drua this weekend is undeniably a huge advantage for the team. However if there is a team they need any advantage they can get, it’s this QLD Country team. They Queenslanders are yet to drop a game to the Drua and that includes their preliminary clash last year in Suva and the Semi Final a couple of weeks later in Toowoomba. Call it over confidence or incredible hospitality, but the Drua have generously decided to put the Horan-Little Shield on offer this weekend as well. The Shield was always devised to be played for just in the preliminary rounds however the Drua have opted to double-down on the trophy front and put it on the table next to the toast rack.