The Australian National Rugby Championship 2017, which includes a World Rugby-funded team from Fiji, was officially launched at Allianz Stadium in Sydney this morning and there was plenty of excitement among the players from each of the nine competing teams.

The launch kicked off with a special performance from Matavai dance team who welcomed the newest addition to the tournament, the Fiji Airways Drua, in what is a major boost for rugby and its fans in the Pacific island nation.

The players in attendance included Michael Ruru (Perth Spirit), Jordan Jackson-Hope (Canberra Vikings), Duncan Paia'aua (Queensland Country), Andrew Ready (Brisbane City), Seru Vularika (Fijian Drua), Jed Holloway (Greater Sydney Rams) Paddy Ryan (NSW Country Eagles), Rob Leota (Melbourne Rising) and Damien Fitzpatrick (Sydney Rays).

Vularika said: ‘’It’s really exciting to be here, it’s really massive for us. Fiji can’t wait to see us play on our home grounds.’’

The first game of the season will kick off this Saturday 2 September when the Canberra Vikings take on Queensland Country on home soil at Viking Park. Following this match, Fiji will play their historic first NRC match against two-time Premiers Brisbane City at Ballymore.

On Sunday, the 2016 grand finalists, NSW Country Eagles, will take on Greater Sydney Rams at TG Millner Oval and, soon after, the 2016 reigning champions Perth Spirit will host Melbourne Rising at McGillivray Oval.

World Rugby's Executive Committee paved the way with the approval of a financial packaage to underwrite participation. Inclusion reflects the international federation's commitment to strengthen the player development pathway following productive meetings between the international federation's Rugby Committee and the three Pacific Islands unions in Fiji in June.  
National Rugby Championship entry will provide a high-level competition environment that aids Rugby World Cup preparation while importantly providing young Fijian players with an alternative to playing overseas. 

At the heart of their preparation for Rugby World Cup 2015 was Fiji's share in a £15.3 million investment in Pacific Island rugby programmes (both direct into unions and indirect into competitions) by World Rugby over the four-year cycle 2012-15. A similar figure is being invested over the current 2016-19 cycle, which will be increased by this exciting new investment underwriting the NRC.  

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: "The Pacific Islands play a major role in the sport's heritage and future and World Rugby is committed to working with our friends and colleagues in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to further assist them with the unique challenges that they face.
"Participation in the NRC will not only provide a superb performance pathway leading in to Rugby World Cup 2019, but it provides locally based players with a strong alternative to playing club rugby overseas should they wish to remain in the Fijian system.
"I would like to thank the Australian Rugby Union for embracing this opportunity and enabling Fijian Drua to participate in the National Rugby Championship. I would also like to thank the Fiji Rugby Union for their full commitment to making this happen. It is a major milestone for the sustainable growth of Fijian rugby.”

ARU CEO Bill Pulver said: “We’re delighted that most of the games will be aligned with community rugby events which means sport fans from around the country can watch our nation’s best players in their own backyard.

“In addition, there will be six matches in regional locations across the country and three NRC matches will be wrapped inside our Aon Women’s University Series tournaments, which will make for a brilliant atmosphere at the universities on those event days.”

The NRC will include the latest law trials announced by World Rugby last month, despite not coming into effect in the Southern Hemisphere officially until 1 January 2018.

Fans in the region will be able to watch every game from the NRC live on Fox Sports, with two games broadcast each weekend (Saturday and Sunday at 15:00 AEST) and the remaining two games (Saturday and Sunday at 13:00) available to stream live via and the Fox Sports App.

2017 NRC round one fixtures (all kick-off times local)
Saturday 2 September: Brisbane City v Fiji Airways Drua at Ballymore, Brisbane, 15:00
Saturday 2 September: Canberra Vikings v Queensland Country at Viking Park, Canberra, 15:00
Sunday 3 September: Sydney Rams v NSW Country Eagles at TG Millner, Sydney, 15:00
Sunday 3 September: Perth Spirit v Melbourne Rising at McGillivray, Perth, 15:00