BATHURST’S Kurt Hancock has some tough decisions ahead of him over the next month, but they are the sort of headaches any rugby league coach would love to have.
Such is the level of under 18s rugby league talent in the region, Hancock is not going to have an easy task picking a final Western Rams squad for the upcoming Daley Cup competition let alone settle on a starting 13.
But it will need to be a strong side given a change to the pathway for aspiring country rugby league players could deliver the strongest Daley Cup competition yet.
Andy Haycock, who is now in his eighth year with the Western Rams academy, runs the Dubbo satellite training sessions.
He travelled with the under 18 and under 16 squads to Sydney for Sunday’s trial matches against the Central Coast Roosters.
A shift in the pathway meant country juniors – like Bathurst’s Brad Fearnley – could play for Penrith (Western) or the Canberra Raiders (Riverina) in the SG Ball – wrapping up in May – and still live and train in their home towns, making them eligible for Rams selection.
“This year we’re pretty much full strength,” Haycock said, but admitted it was a shift that would benefit all regions.
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A total of 22 players took the field in the 18s clash, with Haycock predicting some tough decisions ahead for Hancock.
The Bathurst-based mentor will have to cut the squad back to just 18 ahead of the Rams’ opening Daley Cup clash against the Penrith Panthers on February 16.
Haycock said “keeping kids in the country” – with their pre-existing support network – “but also having a direct link to an NRL club” was vital.
The Penrith Panthers have made their SG Ball and Harold Matthews training resources available to the Western Rams academy.
“Ben Hardin, who’s the 20s coach, sends us the videos of the training drills and we run it how they would run it,” he said. “The beauty of what we’re doing is if kids are lucky enough to get to Penrith, they’re already aware of what’s expected.”
Played in the shadows of Panthers Stadium, Sunday’s trial attracted NRL stars Isaah Yeo and Kaide Ellis (both from Dubbo) and Wayde Egan (Lithgow), as well as Panthers SG Ball premiership-winning five-eighth, and Dubbo CYMS utility, Matt Burton.
Haycock said having the likes of Yeo present helped the kids “see there can be a pathway”.
“You’ve got three first graders from western NSW – and proudly from western NSW – they were happy to come along and interact,” he said. “There was a real western reunion – lots of people interested so see the next generation come through … It’s almost like a big family.”
The region’s coaches are also learning a great deal from Panthers pathway coaches Matt Cameron, Jimmy Jones, Sam Jones and Ben Hardin, who have visited the region and also hosted training in Penrith.