National Rugby Championship
Mark Baldwin, Kane Koteka lead next generation of Australian back-rowers
Brett McKay
October 22, 2015

Australian rugby fans are excused for focusing all their energies on the Rugby World Cup. If it was the collective power of Australian crossed fingers that made Craig Joubert believe he saw a penalty, then the Wallabies do indeed thank you.

Back on Australian soil, however, another competition that is every bit as important for the future of the game in this country is about to enter its own knockout stage. The second season of the National Rugby Championship has completed the nine regular season rounds, and an excellent finals series is upon us.

But beyond the teams, who have been the standout players in this crucial next level of Australian rugby?

ESPN has been keeping you abreast of the NRC with weekly round-ups, and our eyes are sneaky enough to have earmarked a few standout names. Some you'll know and won't be surprised to read. Some will be a nice reminder, and some are names you should genuinely remember for the future.

© Johan Schmidt Photography

The Stars

Jono Lance

The NSW Country Eagles fly-half was crowned NRC Player of the Year, and it was a well-deserved gong among a pretty hot field. Lance has suffered two injury-plagued seasons with the Waratahs, and for him, the NRC was the first real chance for him to put some major game time together at a decent level.

He was the Eagles' leader in every sense of the word. He captained the team superbly on and off the field, steered the team around the park with wonderful vision, defended stoutly in midfield, and kicked both out of hand and from the tee brilliantly (Lance's 83% was the best goal-kicking success rate of all regular kickers).

The big winners from Lance's return to form are the Western Force, whom Lance will join for the 2016 season. He is the strong-defending but attacking-minded No.10 they need to steer them around the park.

Liam Gill

The Brisbane City openside flanker was considered by many Australian pundits and fans as unlucky not to have been selected for the Wallabies' World Cup campaign; back home, Gill has spent the past two-and-a-half months reminding everyone why that is the case.

Gill has been the standout back-rower of the competition, and that's in hot field including names such as Jordy Reid from Melbourne, Canberra's Jarrad Butler and unheralded players such as Cohen Masson from the Greater Sydney Rams and the North Harbour Rays pair of Harry Bergelin and Boyd Killingworth.

But Gill is certainly the premier on-baller still in the country, and arguably only topped in Australian rugby by David Pocock. He's been all over the bright yellow NRC ball like the proverbial kid on a cupcake, and so many of City's counter-attacks have stemmed from a Gill turnover. If Brisbane are to lift back-to-back NRC titles, Gill will have be a major reason.

© QRU Media Unit/Sportography

Ita Vaea

While Gill has been the standout back-rower in the NRC, University of Canberra Vikings No.8 has been the standout impact man.

Vaea's story is remarkable in that he's even playing again, after being forced out of the game for more than two years with a dangerous blood clotting issue, Vaea mounted his comeback to the game in the 2014 NRC, and his form was such that the Brumbies welcomed him back to Super Rugby in 2015. Come the NRC this season, he has just set about destroying defences.

A bullocking ball-carrier anyway, one of the great sights of the NRC campaign has been Vaea cranking it up in counter-attack when, with enough room to build momentum, he has quickly made short work of some of the better defenders in the game. He's developed a taste for scoring tries, too, crossing five times in eight regular season rounds, and leading the Viking Park applause for most of them. Always had a smile on his face too, and not just when smashing into blokes.

Keep an eye out for ...

Kane Koteka

The Perth Spirit flanker first made his mark in last year's NRC, after which he scored a Western Force academy spot and went onto play 10 Super Rugby games in 2015. Come this year's NRC, Koteka is the high-workrate constant in a Perth pack that seemed to change every week. He formed a very handy partnership with another West Australian, Richard Hardwick, and it's genuinely fantastic to see the western pathways pushing some quality through.

© Johan Schmidt Photography

Matt Philip

The Sydney Stars lock has enjoyed a rapid rise after playing Australian Schoolboys and two years of Australian Under-20s, and he is a major reason for the Stars' resurgence to make the finals after winning just one game last year. A strong defender and ball-carrier, Philip is now in the Waratahs set-up and looks destined for Super Rugby sooner rather than later. At just 21, he's already playing as if he's been at this level for so many more years than just one.

Caderyn Neville

His is a name you'll have heard often, and he was parachuted into the Brisbane City team only days before the first NRC game of the season having signed to join the Queensland Reds from Melbourne Rebels for 2016. Since then he's only improved - reminding everyone of his lineout and ball-carrying prowess, and setting himself up for a big Super Rugby season next year. The three-way partnership with Wallabies Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas will be formidable.

© © QRU Media Unit/Sportography

Tom Kingston

The Sydney Stars full-back was happy just to be playing again after two injury-plagued seasons with the Melbourne Rebels; and he wanted to use the NRC to remind himself if and why he still loved playing the game, and as a by-product hopefully put himself in the shop window again. He's ticked both boxes, and proved a lynchpin in the Stars attack as they qualified for the semifinals. He's lost none of his pace, captained the side very well for a month or so, and will be a very handy pickup for a Super Rugby side in 2016. In fact, it will be crazy if he's overlooked; he's that good a player, such a naturally gifted and clever footballer.

The unpolished gems

Robbie Abel

The Vikings hooker won a Western Force EPS contract after starring for Perth in the 2014 NRC, but he couldn't quite crack it and his deal wasn't renewed. He returned to the national capital mid-year, led the Canberra Royals to their first ACT Premiership in 20 years, and very quickly established himself as the Vikings' first-choice rake in the NRC. One of the most accurate lineout throwers in the country, Abel is also an excellent scrummager and a very good driving maul operator. Too good a player to not get another crack at Super Rugby somewhere.

© Karen Watson

James Tuttle

The Queensland Country scrum-half captained his side in 2015, despite being just 19 in a squad featuring senior players such as Saia Fainga'a, Ed Quirk and the evergreen Radike Samo, who is genuinely old enough to be Tuttle's father. Tuttle is a canny half-back who is already in the Queensland Reds system, but who doesn't get a lot of attention. Make no mistake, he can easily become a quality understudy to Nick Frisby in the post-Genia period at Ballymore.

Mark Baldwin

Baldwin was one of the Eagles' most consistent players in 2015, and the epitome of the hard-working back-rower whom coaches just love. Equally at home at No.8 or on the side of the scrum, Baldwin carries the ball strongly, defends to the death, and is the proverbial pain in the behind at the breakdown. Australian rugby is blessed with back-row depth currently, and emerging players such as Baldwin only add to those blessed stocks.

© Johan Schmidt Photography

John Porch

The winger got into the North Harbour Rays side midway through the season, but he quickly cemented his spot after displaying extreme speed and a healthy knack of finding the try line. He might be something of a late-bloomer at 25, but there aren't many better finishers in the NRC. Porch has spent time in the Australian Sevens system, perhaps unsurprisingly, and is one of the players whom you wonder why we haven't seen more of already.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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