With the return of the NSW teams to the NRC in round two, it’s time to brush off the old akubra and talk about the last (and certainly best) team in all of the NRC, the mighty NSW Country Eagles!
I make it no secret that I’m a big fan of the Country Eagles, but I will put aside my fandom and give an honest preview of what will be a tough season for the men from out bush.
While many folks have been disappointed by the New South Wales teams lack of success at NRC level, the Country Eagles have shown, in glimpses, that with a solid and established program in place, the NSW teams can be legitimate threats to the competition.
In their first season, the Eagles finished as runners up before being knocked out in the semis by eventual champions Brisbane City. While 2015 saw the team just miss out on finals, in 2016 they merged with the Sydney Stars and it showed, with them finishing as minor premiers, claiming the Benn Robinson Bell and the Horan-Little Shield. They also became the first NSW team to make the Grand Final, but the less said about that night in Tamworth, the better. Looking at you, Perth.
Last year, the Eagles went down in their first two matches, and despite recovering to win their games, it came back to bite them in end with the Perth Spirit (yet again) knocking them out of the semis contention in the last game of season when they defeated eventual winners QLD Country.
While the coveted Toast Rack has repeatedly gone begging, the team has succeeded in carving out a solid identity in the Country. More often than not, the efforts of the players in going out into the community has seen the club develop in crowd numbers, overall support, and in their engagement with the NSW Country Rugby Union over the last few years.
2018 however sees the Eagles start the competition in an interesting time for NSW Rugby, with the removal of the Greater Sydney Rams from the competition still fresh on the minds of many rugby fans in the state. But with that, the Eagles have the benefit, unlike their city rivals in the Rays, to utilise that support they have developed over the last few years in the country areas to be a dark horse of the competition (or a magpie?), and very much have the potential to deliver a much-needed first Toast Rack for NSW Rugby.
The Coaching Staff
Darren Coleman returns to the head coach role for his fifth season in charge of the Eagles, and remains the only foundation NRC coach that is still going strong.
Honestly, it’s a good move. Coleman has been in great form as coach, taking the Warringah Rats to their first Shute Shield in 2017, as well as the Grand Final this year.
Originally from Kempsey though, Coleman has also had a solid run as the Eagles coach, and has admitted that he still has unfinished business at the club.
“It wasn’t the first time we’ve been bumped out in those sorts of circumstances either unfortunately, but that’s just how footy goes,” he said at the NRC launch.
“We’ve been there or thereabouts and competed well the last few years, so we know within ourselves what we can do to improve.”
Coleman has assembled a pretty quality squad in a short period of time, with more than half the players this year having made their starts in the Country system.
Paddy Ryan will captain the side again for a third year. Having a mature head in Ryan steering the side on the park around has helped the Eagles in the past, and one that this team will be handy to benefit from.
The squad also has a lot more Rams players than their city counterparts, with the likes of Rob Lagudi, Sam Thomson, Jed Holloway and Mack Mason making their way to the bush.
The two latter players are going to be of profound influence to this side. Mason showed a lot of class in the Rams side last year, while the former Rams skipper in Holloway will bring an extra head of experience to the squad to compliment Ryan.
The forward pack of this side is the clear strength in this team, with Super Rugby young guns Harry Johnson-Holmes and Will Miller pairing with the likes of Tom Staniforth and Sam Ward.
However, the Eagles do lack an experienced Super Rugby head in the centres. While Seb Weilman while probably be the ideal first choice in that position, the rest of the centres will might struggle against some of the more experienced and intimidating opposition backlines.
Charlie Abel, Matt Gibbon, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Rob Lagudi, Paddy Ryan (c), Chris Talakai, Cody Walker
Tom Horton, Mahe Vailanu
Emmanuel Meafou, Tom Staniforth, Sam Thomson
Nick Champion de Crespigny, Jed Holloway, Will Miller, Rory Suttor, Patrick Tafa, Sam Ward, Brad Wilkin
Jake Gordon, Jack Grant, Mick Snowden
Mack Mason, Rohan Saifolo, Angus Sinclair
Denny Godinet, Jaline Graham, Apolosi Latunipulu, William McDonnell, Seb Wileman
Alex Gibbon, Alex Newsome
The Eagles, like the Rays, will enjoy a more favourable draw this season with four home games and three away matches. However, unlike the luxury the Rays enjoy of having them all back-to-back in the same city, the Eagles will have a rougher ride.
Their season starts this weekend in arguably the toughest place to win in the whole competition, when they head west to face the Western Force in the first challenge of the year for the Horan-Little Shield.
Following that, they will enjoy a home match in Mudgee against the Melbourne Rising. However, the next week will see the toughest run for the team, with the Eagles having to travel back to Sydney for their Wednesday night derby match with the Sydney Rays, before turning around and heading right back to Armidale for their home match against the Vikings.
After that, they’ll head to Fiji to face the Drua, before enjoying two final home games the last fortnight of the regular season, hosting Brisbane City in Camden and their Country rivals Qld Country in Tamworth.
While they do enjoy four home games, enduring away trips to the West and Fiji and that period where they will play three games in eight days effectively negates a lot of those advantages. However, if they can pull it off and win their home games (and in the past, they’ve proven a tough nut to crack in country NSW), the favourable draw should be enough to get them in the finals.
So, with all this considered, will the Eagles soar high in 2018?
This is a squad that has the potential to the make the semis, and in the past they have proven to be a handful for many teams. Despite having a good draw, I predict the Eagles will finish in fifth spot, just outside the semi-final placing. With a more favourable draw to the Rays and strong squads in the Force, Drua and QLD Country outfits, I think it might be a bit too much for this outfit.
But, I’d love to be proven wrong when it comes to this squad, and in the past they’ve shown to me that when they get some wind beneath their wings, they prove mighty hard to stop. Up the mighty Eagles!