NRC Squad Announcement: Sydney Rays

Photo: Sydney Rays

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The fifth season of the National Rugby Championship (NRC) got underway last weekend, with first up wins from an impressive looking Fijian Drua, Western Force, and reigning champions Queensland Country. But with all eyes on the Intrust Super Shute Shield grand final in Sydney, and 20 of the players involved named in the Sydney Rays and NSW Country Eagles squads for 2018, the scheduled clash between the two was postponed until Wednesday 19th September, meaning they take their competition bow this weekend instead.

With the demise of the Greater Sydney Rams following on from the dissolution of the Sydney Stars in 2016, New South Wales has gone from four representative sides in the first two seasons of the NRC, to just two. But while that inevitably shrinks the opportunities of next-level footy for a whole heap of aspirational players, it should also improve the strength-in-depth of the remaining teams, and their competitiveness as a result.

The Sydney Rays went from a semi-final finish in 2016, to second-last place on the ladder a year later. But head coach Julian Huxley was dealt a crippling hand in terms of injuries.

‘Hux’ is back on board in 2018 as an assistant coach alongside fellow former Brumby and Wallaby Owen Finegan, with former NSW Waratahs skipper Chris Whitaker returning from a lengthy stint in Europe to call the shots before he assumes his assistants role with the Tahs for the 2019 Super Rugby season.

The players they have at their disposal are a healthy mix of Waratahs, and some of the standouts from this season’s terrific Intrust Super Shute Shield campaign.

Rob Simmons had arguably a career-best season after making the move south of the Tweed Heads to represent New South Wales, and will feature for the Rays outside of any Wallabies duties; Curtis Rona had an impressive first year with the Tahs and should be a real handful at this level; Nick Palmer was going great guns with his first taste of Super Rugby before succumbing to injury so should be champing at the bit to play some good footy; and the return of Jack Dempsey after a long time out of the game is eagerly awaited at both state and international levels.

From club land, Lachlan Swinton is one to watch as he continues his seemingly inevitable upward curve towards higher honours; Northern Suburbs’ skipper Hugh Sinclair performed admirably with his short-term stint at the Rebels in 2017 and will be looking to throw his hat in the ring for another Super Rugby opportunity; bulwarking West Harbour centre Enoka Muliufi will take some stopping, while former Aussie Sevens star Pama Fou has enjoyed a terrific first year of Shute Shield with Eastwood, and could light up the competition with his footwork, pace and finishing prowess.

But as a former halfback himself, Chris Whitaker should be licking his lips at the prospects of seeing his three no.9’s go at it for a starting jersey. Mitch Short and Nick Duffy have already represented their state earlier this year, while Theo Strang started in 15 of Sydney University’s 19 matches this year, as they made their run to the Intrust Super Shute Shield title. For Short in particular, who missed most of the club season through injury, this is a chance to show that he is most definitely the next cab off the rank behind Jake Gordon and Nick Phipps at state level.

The one area of concern appears to be the lack of depth at flyhalf, with Randwick tyros Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson the only recognised no.10’s in the squad at this point, and Strang able to shift from scrumhalf if needed.

But considering Hugh Sinclair’s rather more than capable brother Angus – the Rays incumbent in previous seasons – is listed as one of three NSW Country pivots this time out alongside Waratah Mack Mason and Southern Districts’ Rohan Saifoloi, the spread of orchestrating talent does not appear to be too even.

One intriguing addition is former Parramatta Eels rugby league player John Folau, younger brother of Israel. He says he wants to follow in Izzy’s footsteps all the way to the Wallabies, so all eyes will be on his cross-code transition in the coming weeks.

All will be keen to impress over the next two and a bit months.

“We have picked players who have performed really well in Shute Shield this year, and this is another opportunity for them to perform on a national stage,” said Whitaker. “As I have said before, the NRC is an intense nine-week programme and a chance for players and coaches to step up and embrace the challenge.”

The Sydney Rays will once again be captained by NSW Waratahs hooker Damien Fitzpatrick, and he’s already looking forward to ripping in against his club and state team mates when the traditional City v Country rivalry is revived at Leichhardt Oval on the 19th.

“It’s definitely worth putting on the calendar. While there are plenty of guys who know each other well, we are passionate about who we are playing for and why we are playing. That game has also brought on fierce rivalry,” he said.

Sydney begin their campaign tomorrow against Canberra Vikings at Concord Oval. The match kicks off at 3pm, and is also live on FoxSports.

Video courtesy of Rugby AU

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SYDNEY RAYS 2018 SQUAD

FORWARDS: Cameron Betham (Randwick); Jack Dempsey (Gordon/NSW Waratahs); Dean Doumbos (Eastwood); Damien Fitzpatrick (c) (Eastwood/NSW Waratahs); Jack Hayson (Randwick); Maclean Jones (Warringah); Josh Kemeny (Sydney University); Ryan McCauley (Eastern Suburbs); Rory O’Connor (Warringah); Nick Palmer (Northern Suburbs/NSW Waratahs); Kiernan Rabie (Randwick); Matt Sandell (Sydney University); JP Sauni (Northern Suburbs); Pat Sio (Eastwood); Rob Simmons (Randwick/NSW Waratahs); Hugh Sinclair (Northern Suburbs); Lachlan Swinton (Sydney University); David Vea (Randwick); Connor Vest (Northern Suburbs); Shambeckler Vui (Southern Districts/NSW Waratahs)

BACKS: Harry Burey (Northern Suburbs); Cam Clark (Northern Suburbs/NSW Waratahs); Tim Clements (Sydney University); Tyson Davis (Warringah); Ben Donaldson (Randwick); Nick Duffy (Northern Suburbs); John Folau (N/A); Pama Fou (Eastwood); Will Harrison (Randwick); Latu Latunipulu (Randwick); Enoka Muliufi (West Harbour); Guy Porter (Sydney University); Curtis Rona (Parramatta/NSW Waratahs); Mitch Short (Randwick); Theo Strang (Sydney University)

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