Vikings secure grand final berth and break Spirit hearts

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Canberra Vikings v Perth Spirit in National Rugby Championship semi-final.
Perths Anaru Rangi, and Vikings Rob Valentini.
Photo: Jamila Toderas

Canberra Vikings v Perth Spirit in National Rugby Championship semi-final. Perths Anaru Rangi, and Vikings Rob Valentini. Photo: Jamila Toderas

The Canberra Vikings will get a chance to secure their first National Rugby Championship title after hammering the last nail into the Western Australia rugby coffin on an emotional night at Viking Park.

The Vikings will play either Queensland Country or Fiji Drua in the grand final in Canberra next weekend after they beat the Perth Spirit 40-35 in a tense semi-final battle on chilly Saturday night.

But the tight win doubled as a heartbreaking finish for the Spirit players, who now face uncertain futures following the ARU's decision to axe the Western Force from Super Rugby.

Several players are yet to sign contracts for next year or beyond and it appears unlikely they will be able to find a new home in Australia before the start of next year.

That's why the Spirit threw everything they had at the Vikings and went within inches of a last-minute upset when ACT Brumbies recruit Isi Naisarani was held up in the dying minutes.

In the end the Vikings were too strong for the defending champions, led by Rob Valetini and Tom Cusack in forwards dominated contest.

"The boys dug deep, which is what we had to do. But there were nervous moments at the end," Cusack said.

"The Vikings have never won it before, we want to be the first. We've got a young and very talented group, and we've got complete faith in what the guys can produce.

"We knew the Spirit would be hard, some of these guys don't have a job to go to. So it's a testament to what they've done and they're team because they left absolutely everything out there."

The Force players have been dragged through controversy and uncertainty for most of the year and the loss to the Vikings could be the final chapter for their careers in Perth.

They showed immense fight to the end in both Super Rugby and the NRC and refused to roll over even when everything was against them.

Spirit vice-captain and former Brumbies scrumhalf Ian Prior said it was a devastating finish for all of the Perth players.

"I couldn't be prouder of the guys. A lot of them don't know what their future us," said Prior, who is set to take his career overseas.

"It will probably sink in over the next few days with guys moving on. Considering everything that has happened, guys have done well. It will be an emotional couple of days coming up, but I enjoyed how we rallied together."

One Spirit and Force player who launched himself on to the Brumbies' radar was lock Richie Arnold, twin brother of ACT second-rower Rory, after scoring a first-half hat-trick against the Vikings.

???His three-try performance was a perfect audition for a Brumbies spot if there is one available and his try after the half-time siren levelled the score at the break.

The Vikings scored 353 points in their eight regular season games, but ran into a Spirit brick wall for most of the first half until they finally broke through when Rob Valetini, Faalelei Sione and Andrew Muirhead scored tries.

The windy and icy conditions made it difficult for free-flowing rugby and both forward packs thrived on the chance to muscle up in a scrum-a-thon.

The Vikings finally hit the front when Tom Banks touched the ball for one of the only times in the game to score in the corner and then hit the Spirit with the what appeared to be a killer blow when Wharenui Hawera scored.

But the Spirit had one finally chance when Naisarani went within inches of scoring to cause an upset just weeks before he moves to Canberra.

"I was nervous coming into this game playing against my mates for next year, but we gave it everything and we fell short," Naisarani said.

"It's a sad day. For me, Western Australia gave me an opportunity to play Super Rugby and I'm very disappointed about the Force. The Western Force will be in my heart wherever I go."

AT A GLANCE

CANBERRA VIKINGS 40 (Rob Valetini, Faalelei Sione, Andrew Muirhead, Harry Lloyd, Tom Banks, Wharenui Hawera tries; Wharenui Hawera 5 conversions) btPERTH SPIRIT 35 (Richie Arnold 3, Anaru Rangi, Sama Malolo tries; Peter Grant 5 conversions) at Viking Park on Saturday night.

NRC GRAND FINAL

Saturday: Canberra Vikings v Queensland Country/Fiji Drua at Viking Park, 7.30pm.

This story Vikings secure grand final berth and break Spirit hearts first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.