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By Thomas Lobban
Queensland Rugby fans celebrated on Saturday night as Bond University Queensland Country claimed the National Rugby Championship title.
It took just one season for head coach Brad Thorn and his assistant Paul Carozza to turn the 2016 cellar dwellers into champions and now Thorn will look to drive the St.George Queensland Reds in a similar direction.
When Thorn’s official duties as Reds head coach kick off on November 27th, he’ll have at his disposable 18 players from his 35-man Queensland Country squad.
With that in mind, Reds’ fans have plenty to get excited about as we start looking to 2018. Here are the 18 Country players who could feature for the Reds next year:
The Reds’ newest signing was electric throughout the NRC and capped off his debut season with a hat-trick in the final. Daugunu played eight matches for Queensland Country and crossed the chalk 13 times, claiming the competition’s leading try scorer award. He played himself into a Reds’ contract and will be one to keep an eye on when the season kicks off in February.
Duncan Paia’aua was handpicked by Thorn and Carozza to skipper Country in 2017 and he repaid their faith with the side’s first-ever NRC title. The 22-year-old Rockhampton product played more Super Rugby minutes than any other Reds player in 2017 and grew in confidence throughout the year. Paia’aua has always had playmaking ability but he seems to have added finishing polish to the mix. Michael Cheika has taken notice and selected him at flyhalf for the Wallabies exhibition match against the Barbarians in October.
James Tuttle’s 2017 Super Rugby season kicked off with a bang when he scored the match-winning try in the Reds’ Round 1 clash against the Sharks. He played 13 matches at scrumhalf for the Reds in 2017 before pulling on his beloved Queensland Country jersey. Tuttle was the NRC’s leading point scorer and also led the competition for try assists.
Long lauded as a star of the future, Taniela Tupou is starting to live up to the hype he’s carried since becoming a YouTube sensation in high school. He was devastating for Queensland Country in 2017, showcasing more than just a powerful running game. With age, Tupou’s scrummaging is improving and he’ll be eager to add to his 17 Super Rugby caps when the 2018 season gets underway.
If the NRC is about creating a pathway to the elite level, then Izack Rodda is the competition’s 2017 pin-up boy. Rodda dominated in his debut NRC season last year and then had a huge pre-season with the Reds to earn a spot in the match-day 23 for Round 1. He forced his way into the starting side by Round 3 and picked up 12 Super Rugby caps. After making his Test debut against the All Blacks in Dunedin, Rodda returned to the Country fold for the opening Rounds of the 2017 season, helping his side claim their first ever Andy Purcell Cup victory over Brisbane City in Noosa.
Those who hadn’t heard of Izaia Perese before the 2017 Super Rugby season were introduced to the zippy outside back on Easter Saturday when he scored two screamers against the Southern Kings. "Izzy" is another example of the value in the NRC and has been one of the competition’s most damaging attacking weapons for three seasons now. While he is yet to pull on a Wallabies jersey, Cheika is clearly keen on the young Reds’ winger because Perese is back on the Spring Tour after being invited as a development player in 2016.
Caleb Timu’s return to Rugby in 2016 was cut short minutes after it began when a serious knee injury ruled him out of action for the remainder of the year. A long rehabilitation period which saw Timu return via Queensland Premier Rugby with Souths set the platform for the backrower to make his Super Rugby debut against the Brumbies but the NRC is where Timu really hit his stride. Timu’s impressive first NRC season was rewarded when he claimed the competition’s MVP award after the grand final.
The 2017 Queensland Reds captain’s season was brought to an abrupt halt when he ruptured his Achilles in Johannesburg against the Lions. Slipper had a strong rehabilitation period and was able to put on 10kg in the gym before returning to Rugby with Queensland Country. His leadership was influential in the back end of the season when he helped Country knock over the Fijian Drua in the semi-final. A broken eye socket in the semi restricted Slipper from a grand final appearance but he played a key mentoring role, running water for the front row when they were under pressure in the final.
Chris Feauai-Sautia’s Super Rugby season never got off the ground as injuries prevented him from adding to his 47 Reds’ caps. He managed to get back on the field via Queensland Premier Rugby before forming a lethal centre-pairing with Paai’aua for Queensland Country. Feauai-Sautia looks to have returned to his best and will be eager to claim his 50th Super Rugby cap having recently re-signed with the Reds.
The NRC’s best fetcher in 2017, Liam Wright was an absolute nuisance at the ruck and earned Country 15 turnovers. He’ll become George Smith’s understudy in 2018 and is destined for big things having already been invited on the Wallabies Spring Tour as a development player. Wright skippered the Queensland U20s to the title and was captain of Country when they became the first side to knock off the Fijian Drua in Fiji.
Queensland’s up-and-coming playmaker has steered two Brad Thorn coached sides to premierships in 2017. He kicked off his year as one of the form players in the U20s competition, earned the Number 10 jersey for the Australian U20s tour of Georgia and secured five caps for the Reds. The flyhalf put the icing on his 2017 season with a commanding debut season for Queensland Country and Reds’ fans should be excited about his booming right boot.
Brad Thorn was instrumental in Lukhan Tui and Izack Rodda’s rise to Wallabies and he’s clearly having a similar influence on Harry Hockings. Thorn entrusted Hockings with running Country’s lineout in the grand final and will now look to further develop the 203cm lock in Reds camp.
Towering Fijian flyer Eto Nabuli crossed for eight Super Rugby tries this year and seems to have grown in confidence on the wing. He earned his Wallabies debut in June and played all but two games in Country’s title-winning campaign.
With 34 Super Rugby caps to his name, Sef Fa’agase brought a lot of experience to Country’s front row in 2017. When Fa’agase was available, Country’s scrum was strong but unfortunately syndesmosis ruled him out of the finals series.
Alex Mafi has overcome an injury riddled two years to have a full year of Rugby in 2017. He earned his Super Rugby debut and formed a youthful grand final-winning front row combination with Taniela Tupou and Richie Asiata.
Sunshine Coast product Tate McDermott only graduated from high school a year ago. The 19-year-old won both a Premier Colts and Premier Rugby title with UQ this year and was handy from the bench for Country. He’s set for a big future and will enjoy every minute of his first Reds’ pre-season.
Angus Scott-Young had a 2017 to remember. He won a Super U20s title with Queensland, toured Georgia with the Australian U20s and then helped University of Queensland to their Hospital Cup win. Scott-Young took all of that experience and used it to form a lethal backrow combination with Timu and Wright as Country secured their first-ever NRC title.
Another Thorn project, Angus Blyth is on a similar development path to Hockings. Remember it was Blyth whose 203cm frame swatted away a Vikings’ box kick in the grand final as Paia’aua swooped and raced away, giving Country a 28-21 lead.
Stay tuned for a full 2018 St.George Queensland Reds squad announcement in the coming weeks.
18 MARCH 2018