PREVIEW: National rugby Championship, Semifinals
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Not only have the National Rugby Championship semifinals been massively boosted by the return of Wallabies, the league has also welcome Fiji in 2017.
The Fiji team will comprise locally-based players from Fiji’s national second XV, namely the Fiji Warriors and will play all of its home matches in Fiji.
The team’s participation in the NRC is being underwritten by World Rugby, allowing the Fijians to become the first overseas-based team to join the competition as it enters its fourth season in 2017.
ARU CEO Bill Pulver said: "We are incredibly excited to welcome Fiji into the NRC and thank World Rugby for supporting both the ARU and FRU in helping to make this a reality for next season.
"The Fiji brand of Rugby is arguably the most exciting brand of Rugby in the world and their inclusion in the NRC will enhance the competition both in terms of the quality of Rugby and by adding a huge amount of support and interest from the Fijian communities both in Fiji and here in Australia.
"Most importantly, with a team based in Fiji playing in the NRC, talented young Rugby players in Fiji will have an opportunity to play in a quality national competition without having to relocate from Fiji to pursue their aspirations to play high-level Rugby,"
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: "The Pacific Islands play a major role in the sport’s heritage and future and World Rugby is committed to working with our friends and colleagues in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to further assist them with the unique challenges that they face.
"Participation in the NRC will not only provide a superb performance pathway leading into Rugby World Cup 2019, but it provides locally-based players with a strong alternative to playing club rugby overseas should they wish to remain in the Fijian system.
"I would like to thank the Australian Rugby Union for embracing this opportunity and enabling Fiji to participate in the National Rugby Championship from next year. I would also like to thank the Fiji Rugby Union for their full commitment to making this happen. It will be a major milestone for the sustainable growth of Fijian rugby,"
Planning for the Fijians' inaugural season is well under way with the FRU working towards building a playing roster of up to 30 players and locking in venues for the team's home matches. All players in the squad will be locally-based.
With the inclusion of the Fiji team, the 2017 NRC will be a nine-team competition. An additional round of matches will be added to make it an eight-week regular season with each team having a bye throughout the season. The Fiji team will host each of the eight Australian teams in Fiji over a two-year cycle.
The Fijians should be well suited to the fast, open style of Rugby which is synonymous with the NRC.
This season the competition has delivered an average of 10 tries per match and the return of the Wallabies just enhance the quality of the semifinals.
In the final four NSW Country Eagles will take on Melbourne Rising in Newcastle and the Macquarie University Sydney Rays are hosting Perth Spirit in Sydney.
The Eagles are massively boosted by the inclusion of Wallabies Tom Robertson and Tolu Latu who returned from London earlier this week. The Victorians will be bolstered with their own star power, through Wallaby number 900, Sefa Naivalu who will add some extra pace on the wing.
In the second semifinal, the Sydney Rays welcome back captain Matt Lucas and Damien Fitzpatrick into the starting side, while Luke Morahan slots back into the Perth squad after traveling with the Wallabies to London.
We take a look at all the Semifinals action!
Saturday, October 15
NSW Country Eagles v Melbourne Rising
(Sportsground Number 2, Newcastle - Kick-off: 15.00 AEDT)
Not that the first semifinal needed any more spice, both sides have two players returning from the Wallabies set-up to boost their match day squads. The Country Eagles are going to put out a commanding front row, with skipper Paddy Ryan joined by new Wallaby prop Tom Robertson and recent national squad addition Tolu Latu. Robertson has played in the last three tests, while Latu’s early NRC form put him firmly on Michael Cheika’s radar.
The Rising have no shortage of firepower either, with Super Sefa Naivalu and James Hanson returning as the Rising look to make their first ever grand-final. Naivalu played his maiden test in Pretoria coming off the bench while Hanson has been the back-up hooker for the last two internationals. The last time these two met the Eagles got away with a two-point win, this time around it could come down to which Wallabies make the biggest impact.
Referee: Graham Cooper
Assistant referees: Edward Martin, Andrew Cox
TMO: Ian Smith
Sunday, October 16
Macquarie University Sydney Rays v Perth Spirit
(Pittwater Park, Sydney - Kick-off: 15.00 AEDT)
The Rays 2016 season has been built on consistency. The halves pairing of skipper Matt Lucas and Angus Sinclair have been arguably the best in the whole competition, steering the forwards around the park and opening up space for the outside backs. Sinclair’s Shute Shield combination with inside centre Irae Simone has proved extremely fruitful for coach Simon Cron who is also their club coach back at Norths.
Perth on the other hand have been dealt a massive blow ahead of the semi-final, losing last year’s Buildcorp NRC Player of the Year, flyhalf and skipper, Jono Lance. It means Ryan Louwrens and Ian Prior will step up into the starting nine and 10 for the first time this season. They are both Super Rugby regulars with plenty of experience but will no doubt have their hands full as they look to bring down the Rays and make their second NRC grand-final.
Referee: William Houston
Assistant referees: Edward Martin, Graham Cooper
TMO: George Ayoub