The National Rugby Championship (NRC), the third tier of Australian rugby beneath the Wallabies and Super Rugby, was designed with the objective of discovering talent.
And over the four years of its existence it certainly has been successful in that task with Samu Kerevi, Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge just three to emerge from the ranks.
But none are more exciting, or made more of an impact, than former Fijian goalkeeper, Filipo Daugunu. And yes, we are still talking about rugby.
The 22-year-old Daugunu played as a goalkeeper in the oval game but gave it up in 2015 to pursue a career in rugby, first making a mark in the Fiji’s sevens programme.
He only moved to Brisbane this year to play club rugby with the Wests Bulldogs but quickly caught the attention of Queensland talent scouts, who included him in the Queensland Country NRC squad.
Not a bad pick-up as it turned out, as his stats for the tournament show: top tryscorer with 13 tries, second in metres made in attack (792) and second in clean breaks (18).
Okay, pretty impressive but here’s the killer – the most amazing aspect of Daugunu’s feats are that he was suspended for the first three rounds of the competition. He did it all in just seven matches.
The 1.75m tall, 91kg winger announced himself as the latest Fijian flyer to put his stamp on Australian rugby with a stunning 75 metre solo try in his NRC debut against the Sydney Rays in Round 4.
Skipper Duncan Paia’aua had just scored the first try of his own hat-trick when Daugunu exploded into action from the re-start.
He evaded seven tackles in a curving long-range run for his first try and then darted onto an inside pass from fly-half Hamish Stewart for a second late in the game.
Since the double against the Rays, he scored a treble against the Melbourne Rising, one in the hardfought win over the NSW Country Eagles and then a stunning quadruple in the 57-31 mauling of the Greater Sydney Rams.
He became just the fourth player in four years to score four tries in a NRC match. He then topped it off with the crowning achievement – a searing second-half hat-trick as Queensland Country defeated Canberra Vikings in Saturday’s final 42-28.
His first came in the 43rd minute, tip-toeing down the sideline to put Country back in the match as they trailed 21-7. The second came 10 minutes later as he finished off a break by Paia’aua to make it 21-21.
His final try put the icing on the cake – a scorching 60 metre effort straight from the kick-off to complete the stunning come from behind victory.
Not a bad result for coach Brad Thorn (l), recently appointed as the Queensland Reds’ new coach in Super Rugby, who took Country from last to first in one season.
Daugunu certainly knows his way to the try line, indeed the only match where he was kept a little quiet was on his return to Fiji, Lautoka, when he and his teammates took on NRC new boys, the Fijian Drua. For Daugunu, who hails from Cakaudrove province, the match was a triumphant homecoming.
A big step for the youngster who began his sporting career playing for the Labasa football club. Queensland fans are already salivating picturing Daugunu in a Reds jersey next season. “(He’s) just a highly-talented young man,” Thorn enthused. “He does some special things out there.
“There’s no substitute for speed and he’s just a natural footballer. “You’d like to think having him in the (Reds) programme, he’s just going to flourish. “He can kick goals, like a lot of Fijians – they’re multi-talented.
He’s good in a ruck situation, he’s a physical guy. “It’s great to have him on board and good reward for him. He’s backed himself, come here, played club footy and got picked up. “And he’s a wonderful young man too.”
The challenge now for Daugunu is to continue his feats against the likes of Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo in Super Rugby next year.
More than 70 teams, including schools from Egypt and Lebanon, descend on Abu Dhabi on Thursday for the supremely popular BSAK 7s rugby tournament to be held in the capital.
School teams from Cairo and Beirut will be part of the popular annual tournament being held at the British School Al Khubairat, with the hosts as well as Dubai powerhouses Dubai College, Dubai English Speaking College and Jumeirah English Speaking School set to be among the favourites.
All in all, there will be more than 70 teams from around the Gulf and internationally playing in the tournament which runs over two days, starting Thursday and finishing on Friday.
The under-11 and U-12 tournaments take place on Thursday followed by a full day at Abu Dhabi’s premier sporting event, Zayed Sports City, where the U-13 to U-19 boys play as well as U-14 and U-19 girls touch.
It is sure to be an excellent showcase for youth rugby especially for teams in their build-up to Dubai Sevens at U-19 level next month.
“It’s a fantastic showcase for the rugby players from all round the Gulf and internationally as we welcome both Beirut and Cairo,” said BSAK’s Head of PE, Mike McFarlane – who also coaches Abu Dhabi Harlequins.
“A world-class venue such as Zayed Sports City is a great stage for players to compete in. I know our BSAK teams are very excited for the tournament and no doubt will face stern competition from top teams such as DC, DESC and JESS who are in and around the silverware each year.
“Thursday evening we have U11 and U12 at BSAK and Friday we move to ZSC which hosts the U13 to U19 boys as well as the U14 and U19 girls touch.
“We’ve got some fantastic talent on show and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the likes of Jack Crowther in the U12s, Oliver Winstanley in the U16s and Sam Relton in the U19s show their quality.”
It was a case of an awesome foursome for DC a year ago as they took home four of the eight titles on offer at the BSAK 7s last November.
Despite being beaten 10-7 and 30-0 by JESS Ranches and DESC in the U-12 and U-13 finals, DC responded by claiming the trophy in the U-14s. Facing DESC, DC held their nerve to claim a comfortable 22-5 triumph.
They were also celebrating in the U-16s final after their 29-7 defeat of Repton.
Their U-19 side soon made it three titles on the day. Having got past hosts BSAK in a thrilling semi-final, they completed the job by overcoming DESC 27-5.
There was also something to celebrate for their girls’ U-14s, who won gold in a hard-fought 15-10 victory over DESC, while their U-19s finished runners-up.
We all know the UAE as a transient place where people frequently come and go, but rugby in the Emirates is an eternal community.
And one particular group of players thrown together here have forged a lasting bond – one that will become even stronger after the death of one of them, Garth van Niekerk, this week.
Football may be referred to as the beautiful game, but the modern-day version has been made uglier by the petty tribalism, financial greed of the elite and eroding links of realism between passionate fans and increasingly indifferent players.
Rugby retains a pureness, where rival fans sit, unsegregated from one another at its biggest games and its stars don’t earn unfathomable sums of money.
News of Abu Dhabi Harlequins and former Abu Dhabi Saracens centre Van Niekerk’s death shocked the UAE rugby community.
The South African was a fiercely proud Sharks and Springbok supporter, but was able to realise a lifetime ambition earlier this year when he took a trip to Wales with Sarries team-mates Sean Stevens and Craig Nutt to watch Wales play Ireland in the Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium.
“That was one for him to tick off on the bucket list and something we’ll never forget. I think we’ll keep that memory with us and it will strengthen the bond between us,” said Sean Stevens, who along with Van Niekerk and Craig Nutt, moved across Abu Dhabi to Quins this summer.
Despite being a fellow South African, Bloemfontein native Stevens admitted he didn’t think much of his compatriot when they first met at Sarries training around April 2015.
Stevens, 28, felt perturbed by the fact Sarries had brought in another centre weeks after Stevens had arrived to replace the Quins-bound Pieter Morton.
“I joined the club a few weeks before him. I was going to replace Pieter but then he came in and was this big South African centre,” recalls centre/flanker Stevens.
“He was wearing a Sharks jersey and I’m a Cheetahs fan. I didn’t speak to him a lot the first few weeks. I thought ‘who is this guy, from Johannesburg, but who’s a Sharks fan’.
“But he slotted straight in and not even his rivals had a bad word to say about him. And he turned out to become one of my closest mates out here.
“A few of us at the club went on holiday together a few times and those are times we’ll always remember. We went to Bali for nine days last year and then to Wales to Nutty’s home town this year. We went to a Six Nations game at the Millenium Stadium, Ireland v Wales.”
The Millennium holds 74,500 and Wales games are littered with thousands of fans wearing inflatable daffodil headdresses. They may look daft but Nutt revealed wearing one and belting out the Welsh national anthem was something Van Nierkerk had long wanted to do.
“He always wanted to dress as a daffodil and sing the Welsh national anthem and he loved every minute of the trip,” said the 33-year-old prop, from Bargoed, 18 miles outside Cardiff.
“For the game to be so close and Wales to win was an unbelievable experience for the boys and Ireland always travel so well also.
“It was really good to get a South African’s perspective on our country and also for them not to be just in Cardiff, but to spend time in the Valleys was also really good.”
Social media has been awash this week with tributes to Van Niekerk, described as not only a great player, but a great guy. And despite only meeting most of his friends and family once on his visit to Wales, Nutt said his new pal left a lasting impression.
“I have had loads of messages from people that met Garth that weekend saying how much of a nice guy he was and sending condolences even though they only met him once, he left such an impression on them,” Nutt added.
Stevens and Nutt both featured in Quins’ 29-25 triumph over Exiles in the West Asia Premiership on Friday. A game usually filled with animosity saw both sets of players come together at the final whistle as they embraced for a joint photo that Nutt was sending to Van Niekerk’s family.
News of his death reached the players the following morning and Stevens revealed the previous night’s win had been a nice way to honour Van Niekerk.
“Everyone played for him and we wanted to go out and do our best,” said Stevens. “The game was a fitting tribute to him. A win is special against Exiles but even though the scoreboard has a loser, I think rugby won.”
The game was also poignant for Exiles, particularly a few of their former Sarries players who also knew Van Niekerk well.
Number 8 Jaen Botes described his fellow South African Van Niekerk, known to his friends as ‘Mamba’, as the same guy on and off the field.
“Garth was the type of guy who always introduced himself to people with a warm hand and a bright smile,” said the UAE international.
“He was a tremendous rugby player with a heart of a lion. I have never played with a centre that would run a hard line like he did. Every time we took to the field he always ensured that we had something to smile about. I’m sure those who knew him would agree.
“There was really no change in character on or off the field, he was pretty much the same guy. He did everything with a smile and full intention.
“The news about his illness was a shock to many and the fact that everything happened so quick just goes to show that you never know when it is your last.
“This is a tough one to swallow, however the friends and rugby community here in Dubai will cherish the memories we have of him and our condolences goes out to his family.”