EXPRESS yourself - that is the message that Central West coach Dean Oxley has issued to his squad ahead of their bid to retain the Caldwell Cup at this weekend's New South Wales Country Rugby Union Country Championships.
As Oxley gathered his squad in Dubbo on Sunday for one last training session, they did so in the presence of the Caldwell Cup trophy they won in 2019.
It's a trophy that Oxley is intent on retaining and believes that can be achieved if his Blue Bulls can have the confidence showcase their skills.
"One thing I don't like when I see players with ability is them not having the confidence to take control of a match or a game," the Bathurst-based coach said.
"We are not a one-dimensional team, I don't coach those types of football teams. Everybody has a skill set, that's why they've been selected, and I want them to have the confidence to go out and really express that.
"The skill is how we blend all that together and make a really champion team. So when the opportunity is available, I need them to take control of that moment and not second-guess themselves."
Oxley was the man who coached the Blue Bulls to Caldwell Cup glory in 2019, the Central West outfit bettering then defending champions Illawarra 45-21 in the decider.
It was the first time in nine years Central West had been crowned champions of the top tier Country Championships competition and the 13th time overall since the zone first won the Caldwell Cup in 1956.
While COVID-19 forced the cancellation of last year's championships, it has done nothing to dull Oxley's desire to see the Blue Bulls defend that cup. They will play at the scene of their 2019 triumph - Tamworth's Scully Park.
"We don't want to hand it over so we'll be doing our very best to go on a run ... the goal is to maintain a little bit of dominance while we've got it," he said.
"The big thing I am trying to impress on them is that they're not playing club footy, they don't have to do it all, they just have to go out there and do their job because they are playing with really good footballers."
OXLEY has searched right across the Central West zone for this year's Blue Bulls squad and has assembled a playing unit which not only features experienced talents, but emerging ones as well.
There's a number of faces from the successful 2019 unit including Bathurst Bulldogs duo Peter Fitzsimmons and Justin Mobbs, Forbes flyhalf Mahe Fangupo, the man who scored two tries in the decider in Dubbo centre Filisone Pauta plus halfback Shahid Khalfan.
When Khalfan plucked from Harden's ranks two years ago he went on to be named player of the tournament. He now plays his club rugby in the Blowes Cup for Orange Emus.
Harden is represented again this year by Charlie Brown, while other South West clubs Young and Cootamundra have contributed to the Blue Bulls too.
Five of the six Blowes Cup clubs - Bathurst Bulldogs, Orange Emus, Orange City, Dubbo Kangaroos and Forbes Platypi - have players in the squad as do New Holland Cup clubs CSU, Parkes and Mudgee.
"We have seven country players in the starting team, I've got a couple of exciting new players who are having their debut for Central West and a couple of guys who have got some unfinished business," Oxley said.
"I'm loving the fact we have a large zone, the geographical challenge is always going to be there, but we can pick rough diamonds from all over the place. We've got boys from all the different competitions, we're really happy to have that blend, the skill is to get out of the club socks and get on with being in Blue Bulls ones.
"It's very exciting to get a few new faces and a few young people coming through. That's the nature of the squad, we can't think about back in the day or what we did in 2019, we've just got to build from that point.
"There's plenty of excitement in the side, we've got a younger forward pack than we had in 2019 but it shows there's opportunities there for people to step up."
CENTRAL WEST BLUE BULLS: 1. Charlie French (Forbes), 2. Charlie Henley (Emus), 3. Josh Tremain (Orange City), 4. Justin Mobbs (Bathurst), 5. Tom Macleay (Forbes), 6. Will Archer (Dubbo), 7. Cameron Stanley (Cootamundra), 8. Peter Fitzsimmons (Bathurst), 9. Shahid Khalfan (Emus), 10. Mahe Fangupo (Forbes), 11. Harry Webber (Bathurst), 12. Lachie Harris (Emus), 13. Filisone Pauta (Dubbo), 14. Adam Plummer (Bathurst), 15. Joe Nash (Dubbo), 16. Rusi Lawanikula (Forbes), 17. Lamarn Ma'a (CSU), 18. Gus Foster (Cootamundra), 19. Hamish Kaveney (Young), 20. Charlie Brown (Harden), 21. Lachy Brown (Mudgee), 22. Miniti Tonga (Forbes), 23. Luke Bevan (Parkes), 24. Sione Naufahua (Bathurst), 25. Lachlan Buckton (CSU).
HE scored the first try when Central West beat Newcastle-Hunter 36-14 in the 2014 Caldwell Cup final and in 2019 when the Blue Bulls were crowned champions once more Fangupo again crossed the stripe in the decider.
So when the 32-year-old returned to Forbes this season after spending 2020 with the Newcastle Wildfires, Oxley was keen to have him back in a Blue Bulls jumper.
He will skipper the side while Bathurst number 8 Fitzsimmons acts as his deputy. Both men also bring with them past NSW Country experience.
When it comes to the coaching staff the Blue Bulls not only have Oxley, who made it a Caldwell Cup-Blowes Cup double in 2019, to help guide them.
He will be assisted by Cootamundra's Mitch Wakeford and Mudgee's Phill English, Harden's Aaron Seamon is the manager and Dubbo's Tim Beach assistant manager.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
WHILE there is talent right across Oxley's squad, there are four men in particular he is excited to see in action over the weekend.
Bathurst Bulldogs' winger Adam Plummer, who has scored four tries in the past fortnight, is one of them.
"He's in red hot form," Oxley said. "I coached him in the Country 20s and I'm sure he'd like to translate to a Country Cockatoos jumper. He's a great example of confidence ... he's just on fire and he has to have the ball in his hands."
Joe Nash, who won premierships with Parkes and Bulldogs and is now playing with the Dubbo Roos is another Oxley's keen to see in action. He'll start at fullback.
"He's just come back for injury and he had an outstanding game against Bathurst a couple of weeks ago," the coach said.
"He was a Country trialist two years ago but didn't make it through to the Country squad, he's super keen to try and get that jumper. He's been a big supporter of the Blue Bulls and we'd love to see him get that reward.
"Then there's Charlie Henley, Emus' hooker, he's played some representative football in Sydney prior to coming to the Central West and hasn't been available in previous years, so we're very excited about having him.
"Dubbo's Will Archer, he's also going to have his first season for the Blue Bulls and he's a damaging ball runner and we need him."
AS the defending champions, Central West has the easiest draw of any of the of the five zones hoping to claim Caldwell Cup glory in Tamworth.
Illawarra will face Hunter in round one while Central Coast squares off with Far North Coast.
Central West won't play their first game until 1.20pm Saturday - they'll face the best of the losers from that first round. Win that clash and they'll advance to the decider at 2.20pm Sunday.
"We really have benefitted from that hard work of 2019, it means we only play the one game on the Saturday where the other teams in the top tier have to play two games," Oxley said.
"We get the advantage, there's not doubt about it. If we get through that first game our recovery will be easier than the other team that makes it through.
"We'll have every opportunity to retain this cup if they're good enough it's theirs to take."
While Oxley has only had four training sessions with the squad he says they have been "very productive and very positive" with the players buying into a new system.
"I get the pleasure of coaching really good footballers, giving the instruction once and seeing it carried out is quite impressive," he said.
"I've always enjoyed coaching rep footy because of the level of ability and people being able to understand and get it done."
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