Central West Rugby Union’s new-look competitions are anyone’s to win, that much has become very clear in the last couple of weeks in particular.
Put simply, the Blowes Clothing Cup, New Holland Agriculture Cup, GrainCorp Cup Northern and Southern Division and Westfund Ferguson Cup are all harder to pick than a broken nose.
But which player has had the biggest impact so far?
Central Western Daily guru MATT FINDLAY has had a look back at the opening half of the season, and brings you his top 20 so far.
1 | SHARNAH STEVENS (West Wyalong Redbacks)
Central West Rugby Union’s most prolific try-scorer, and easily the Westfund Ferguson Cup’s best through the opening eight rounds of the competition.
In leading her West Wyalong Redbacks’ unbeaten run to the top of the table – they’re coming first with a game in hand on second-placed CSU Bathurst – Stevens has scored a whopping 24 tries in her side’s first six games.
You read that correctly, 24 tries in six games.
That equates to 120 of the 402 points her side has scored, more than a quarter, and that’s not taking into account the goals she’s kicked either.
Take Stevens out of West Wyalong’s side and, admittedly, the Redbacks would still be good, but nowhere this good.
She was among Central West’s best at both the women’s sevens and XV-a-side country championships too, earning gigs in the NSW Country merit sides for both.
This one’s a no-brainer.
2 | HARRY WEBBER (Bathurst Bulldogs)
There was never any denying his ability and more so his raw pace – the kid’s lightning – but Webber has stepped it up to another level in 2018 and his side is reaping the benefits, with Bulldogs now sitting second just three points behind Orange Emus.
He earned a place on Central West’s wing and was among the Blue Bulls’ best at Warren, deservedly winning a spot in NSW Country’s initial Cockatoos squad although he was desperately unlucky to miss out on the final side.
He’s since moved into the centres for Bulldogs and his performance hasn’t dropped off, his best showing since shifting coming in the side’s landmark, drought-breaking win over Orange Emus in round seven.
He scored a double in that game and backed it up with another brace the week after against Forbes, four of the 10 tries he’s scored this season.
3 | MAHE FANGUPO (Forbes Platypi)
Since Fangupo hurt his knee Forbes have struggled, winning just one game since he injured himself against Orange Emus in round four – athough the defending champions’ first loss actually came the week before that.
Put simply, without a fully-fit Fangupo the Platypi are nowhere near as intimidating, or formidable, and that’s shown in a big way.
And, of course, he was player-of-the-tournament at the NSW Country Rugby Union Championship and earned a spot in the Cockatoos side too.
4 | JACK O’CONNOR (Harden Red Devils)
Last year the Red Devils didn’t win a game and were permanently glued to the bottom of the GrainCorp Cup Southern Division ladder.
This year, through eight rounds, Harden is unbeaten and flying high on top of the table.
Of course, there’s more factors at play here but one massive reason for that is the inclusion of former Northern Suburbs ace Jack O’Connor.
Nicknamed Carrots, O’Connor moved home this year and has been superb in leading the Red Devils’ stunning start to the season, also landing a match-winning penalty goal in Central West’s stunning NSW Country Rugby Union Championship upset win over Newcastle-Hunter.
5 | TOM GREEN (Orange Emus)
He’s always been an out-and-out winger, but Emus’ coaches Jeremy Wallace and Paul Ringland moved him into inside centre purely so he can get the ball as much as possible, that’s how influential he is to the Blowes Clothing Cup-leading greens.
One of the few outside backs that actively looks for contact, Green’s ability to break tackles is just about second to none in the top tier and his try-scoring exploits have become somewhat iconic around Endeavour Oval – his finishing is superb.
His unwillingness to kick perfectly suits the greens’ style of play and without as good a ball carrier on the counter, Emus may not be in as strong a position as they are right now.
He scored a double in the Caldwell Cup final for Central West and earned a deserved call-up to the NSW Country Cockatoos’ side as well.
6 | JONO SHARKEY/GEORGE HANCOCK (Narromine Gorillas)
The Gorillas have stormed to the top of the second tier New Holland Agriculture Cup and the control and organisation of their boom halves pairing is a huge part of the reason why.
Despite whispers of mass retirements after last year’s GrainCorp Cup Northern Division one the quality of the Gorillas’ forward pack was never really in question, Narromine is and never has been short of a big, ball-running piggy after all.
But moving up to the second tier forced the side to rethink its approach somewhat, and that’s where Sharkey and Hancock have come in.
With a focus on playing with width the onus to control, organise and execute Narromine’s attacking phase-play has fallen squarely on their shoulders and, as results show, they’ve flourished with the responsibility.
Without their cool heads, crisp service and near-flawless decision-making you can almost guarantee Narromine wouldn’t be winning the competition.
7 | JOE DAKUITOGA (Cowra Eagles)
In previous years Emus’ Nas Havealeta was the unanimous holder of Central West’s wrecking ball tag, but Dakuitoga is giving him a real run for his money this year.
Since linking with the Eagles mid-season he’s single-handedly turned Cowra’s scrum into a force to be reckoned with, is nigh on unstoppable close to the line and is one of the last people you’d want to run straight at.
His match fitness is improving every week and he’s now playing 80 minutes too, the scary thing is he’s only going to get better in the back half of the year.
8 | JOSH MILES (Parkes Boars)
Parkes’ recent seasons have been tumultuous, to say the least.
With that in mind it was always going to take a pretty brave, and very committed, man to take the Boars’ reins and try and galvanise the club in 2018.
Enter Josh Miles, who coached the club’s colts last year.
With the Boars’ dropping to the New Holland Agriculture Cup, Miles took on the captain-coach’s job at Northparkes Oval knowing he wouldn’t have the likes of Israel Symington or Johnny Rathbone, and several other old heads, at his disposal.
But with some solidarity off the field, a group of talented group youngsters and a welcome boost in experience from the likes of Dan and Ben Ryan, Lloyd Rogers and Ben Powlay, Miles has helped reinvigorate the Boars and bring a real sense of pride back to the club.
Results too, the Boars sit second in Central West’s second tier.
9 | HUGH WESTCOTT (Molong Magpies)
While it was impossible to pick any individuals out from Geurie’s stunning run to the top of the GrainCorp Cup Northern Division table, there’s one who’s stood head and shoulder above the pack in Molong’s start to the season.
So far the Magpies have looked like the only side capable of taking down the Goats – the two sides drew in their only meeting so far – and a huge reason for that has been Hugh Westcott’s efforts from the centres.
He’s continually created something from nothing and is an exceptional support player, which has led to some sensational Molong tries, and his speed is second to none in his side, and that competition.
He’s been the biggest threat in Molong’s backline, and moving forward he’ll hold a lot of the side’s point-scoring potential in his own hands.
10 | NAS HAVEALETA (Orange Emus)
There’s been a fair bit of change at Endeavour Oval this year, but one thing that’s largely remained the same is the greens’ power at the set-piece.
With several new faces in the side’s forward pack, plenty of that has come down to Havealeta’s influence at tighthead prop, he’s a rock basically, and is pretty much immovable at the scrum.
Although they’ve been clunky at times, that has given the greens’ backs a good foundation to attack from, then take into consideration Havealeta’s power with ball in hand and without it too.
He’s scored several tries this season and has the best nickname in the Central West too, Big Nasty.
11 | CLAIRE WOOLMINGTON (CSU Bathurst)
Speed, speed and more speed.
You can’t coach raw pace and as CSU’s mentors have found out since Woolmington – a league tag, rugby league and netball star as well – linked with the club this year it’s an incredible asset to have.
Basically, if she’s given even the tiniest amount of space she’s gone. Poof, just like that.
She’s been an absolute phenom for the Mitchell women, seemingly scoring at will, including back-to-back four-try hauls against Mudgee and Dubbo Rhinos in the two weeks leading up to the general bye.
The students have lost just one game this year – to the unbeaten West Wyalong – and Woolmington’s point-scoring exploits are a huge reason for that.
12 | HAMISH GORDON (Dubbo Kangaroos)
Has arguably the best kicking game in the Blowes Clothing Cup and that’s showing, despite his side’s inconsistency so far in 2018.
Playing five-eighth, he’s proved a constant threat when running but Gordon’s boot has continually turned sides around and more often than not kept Roos in a strong position in terms of territory, but his side has struggled to take advantage of that on several occasions this season.
Of course, being in the conductor’s seat you could argue that falls on his shoulders as well, but half the battle is putting yourself in a position to score points and Gordon’s doing that constantly.
13 | DAVE JESSIMAN (Mudgee Wombats)
Moving into Central West’s second tier, Mudgee needed its war-horses to front in 2018 and give a valuable experience boost, and none has done that more than Jessiman.
He’s a Wombats veteran, knows rugby inside and out and – while it sounds odd considering he’s a second-rower – he knows how to find the stripe.
He’s scored plenty of tries this season, notably crossing for seven in two weeks at one stage, but so much of that comes from the amount of work he gets through, which helps put him in the right spot at the right time.
Consistently Mudgee’s best, and a massive reason the Wombats are still well and truly in the New Holland Agriculture Cup hunt.
14 | JACK MARCHINTON (Orange Emus)
With Andrew Selwood moving to Southern Districts Emus needed a flanker to step up and fill his shoes and Marchinton’s gone a long way to doing that so far in 2018.
He’s a very different player to Selwood, obviously, but has made the role his own, his ability to find space has been incredible in particular. Especially considering he prefers going through, rather than around, defenders, despite his size.
He's been among the table-topping greens’ best week-in-week-out, and has picked up his side’s three best and fairest points and players’ player award a number of times this year.
If Central West’s side was selected on form right now, he’d be the first back-rower picked.
15 | TOM NELL (Orange City Lions)
Nell directs traffic from the base of the Lions’ ruck and does so with aplomb, but his real influence comes off the field.
Orange City’s problems this year are no secret, the Lions are struggling for commitment off the field, with numbers at training the big issue.
This is part of the vicious cycle teams in the country inevitably go through, and it’s a test of character to see if they’ll come out the other side, and Nell’s showing plenty of that.
He’s doing everything he can to drive the Lions’ attitude to training, along with the likes of Chris Senior, and is one of the side that continually shows up on and off the paddock.
Here’s hoping that rubs off on the rest of the Lions.
16 | JOEL HARPER (Bathurst Bulldogs)
In the top tier he’s fighting well above his weight in terms of experience, and he’s flourished at the set-piece, leading a powerful Bathurst scrum that is a huge factor in the side’s surge in the early parts of the 2018 season.
While his work around the paddock does leave a little to be desired at times and his performance has dropped off somewhat since the start of the year, the upside and potential in this young bookend seems endless.
Had a tough time of things in Central West’s Caldwell Cup campaign at Warren but the experience will be invaluable and if Harper sticks around, the Blue Bulls have a prop they can build a forward pack around for many years to come.
17 | TIM BERRY (Cowra Eagles)
Cowra skipper Chris Miller is often the player that immediately springs to mind when you think of the Eagles but Berry’s influence in the side’s recent run of form can’t be underestimated, for the simple reason that he’s not often considered a danger man – wrongly, by the way.
With the target on Miller’s back rather than his own Berry has been afforded more room to move with the ball, more opportunities to target the breakdown defensively and the chance to be an unexpected go-to man at lineout time, all because of the attention his skipper’s presence garners.
He’s taken full advantage, and is without doubt one of the form back-rowers of the competition, leading the side’s charge to the top four.
After skippering the side last year he was one of the driving forces in Cowra’s fight to remain in the top tier too, after the Eagles were originally locked in to the New Holland Agriculture Cup.
18 | MARITA SHOULDERS (Bathurst Bulldogs)
She’s the heart and soul of her Bulldogs side, was in last year’s Blowes Clothing Cup title win too.
Shoulders has been the Bathurst outfit’s best in its run to the Westfund Ferguson Cup’s top three, and she was named player of the tournament at the NSW Country Rugby Union Women’s Championship, despite Central West coming third.
Everyone knows who she is, how good she is, and how big an impact she has for Bulldogs – ‘nuff said.
19 | PETER FITZSIMMONS (Bathurst Bulldogs)
In terms of individual form he seemed to have a somewhat slow start to the season, but has seriously hit his straps in recent weeks. More importantly, he’s Bulldogs’ skipper and that’s where his real influence is.
When he talks, Bulldogs listen. Where he goes, Bulldogs follow.
Has already enjoyed a landmark season, making his 100th top grade appearance – he was best on ground in that too – and earning a NSW Country Cockatoos debut, and looks set to build on that in a big way in the back half of the season.
His off-field influence must be noted too, he also established his club’s Indigenous round, continuing the good work of Emus’ Tom Goolagong in 2017, and that’s a concept that, rightly, will be built on in future years.
20 | REGAN HUGHES (CSU Bathurst)
Not a name many would know, because he’s linked with the students from rugby league this year.
A Cowra Magpies junior, Hughes was playing for the CSU Mungoes before defecting to the Mitchell Men this year, and he’s made a big impact.
Playing in the centres, he’s provided the students with a big, strong, ball-running option who always seems to make it over the advantage line.
But more importantly, by being so good he’s taking the heat off fullback Lochie Robinson, which is huge to the student’s attacking phase-play.
CSU looks to be finding its feet, and if the students are to make a run at the New Holland Agriculture Cup, look to Hughes to play a massive role in that.