Vikings coach Dan McKellar. Photo: Melissa Adams
The National Rugby Championship will be a success if the next Billy Meakes stays in Australia.
The former Australian sevens and under-20s centre has signed a deal with English Premiership side Gloucester, joining an army of Australian players in Europe and Japan who moved offshore when their careers reached dead ends here.
Meakes played for Norths in the Shute Shield and was a finalist for the Ken Catchpole Medal last year but, with a British passport in his pocket, took a chance in the lower divisions of the English system after failing to make the leap from club to Super Rugby in Australia.
The chance turned into a game for Gloucester and, eventually, a prized full-time contract. On his first day with the club last year, the 23-year-old found himself at the breakfast table with former England and New Zealand internationals Mike Tindall and Jimmy Cowan. By anyone's standard, Meakes has landed on his feet.
"I was on the cusp of Super Rugby when I was here for a couple of years, but obviously it wasn't working out and I wasn't going to get an opportunity this season," he said on a recent visit to Sydney.
"So I thought I may as well take an opportunity while it was there, which could put me in a better position to be seen by other clubs, which means it might be easier to come back now for a Super Rugby contract than I would have when I was playing at Randwick or Norths.
"It was an opportunity thing, to play a better level of rugby I had to go overseas."
The Canberra Vikings will start their season against the Perth Spirit on August 22.
The team is a three-way partnership between the University of Canberra, the Brumbies and the Vikings Group.
Coach Dan McKellar has almost finalised his roster and will take players away to a camp at Bateman's Bay next month before finalising the final squad of 14 Brumbeis and 16 Canberra club rugby players.
Despite initial angst from the Viking's Canberra club rivals, McKellar hopes the capital will back the NRC as a genuine stepping stone to Brumbies contracts.
The Vikings will play four games in Canberra in the competition's inaugural season.
The second coming of professional third-tier rugby in Australia has been a long time in the making. It will be born again in little more than a month's time, when the Sydney Stars play Brisbane City at Ballymore in the opening round of the NRC on August 21.
It will come bearing the scars of its predecessor the Australian Rugby Championship, which was killed after one season because of its profligate cost.
This time around, the Australian Rugby Union is determined to have the competition wash its own face and has lined up a more than $2.5 million in broadcast and commercial sponsorship to ensure that happens.
That determination to succeed where the ARC failed has put a greater burden on the nine participating teams, including the clubs, individual investors and provincial unions, who have been required to stump up the cash for their participation.
It has led to prominent Sydney club Eastwood to withdraw its financial support for the Greater Sydney Rams and still has many club and provincial identities questioning the financial capacity of many of the sides to play in the competition beyond the first season.
But amid the noise and criticism stand players such as Meakes and his former national academy teammate Terrence Hepetema. Hepetema made it on to the Waratahs' bench in the side's midweek clash with the British and Irish Lions last year before also heading to Europe. He now plays in the English Premiership with Leicester.
For the players who do not automatically make the jump from schoolboy glory to Super Rugby, the NRC is a long overdue stepping stone in Australia's development pathway.
"One of the problems [the Super Rugby clubs] had in the past was that a large proportion of their back-end squad weren't playing a sufficient level of high-quality rugby," said Andrew Fagan, the ARU's general manager of national teams and competitions.
"So this gives them effectively a 12-month program of activity now training and playing."
Meakes said he would still be in Australia if the NRC was around last year.
"I don't think I would have gone, based on the offer I was given [to play with Clifton in the English second division]," Meakes said.
"If Gloucester was in the picture before then, who knows, but that's a whole different kettle. Gloucester's the next level and I've just lucked out there."
See the full NRC draw here.