NINE different clubs, 25 different players but one goal - they are numbers that Central West coach Dean Oxley believes can add up to a Country Championships triumph.
This weekend when Oxley's Blue Bulls run out on to Tamworth's Scully Park it will be with the intent of winning a third consecutive Caldwell Cup.
Though there were late withdrawals and late additions, Oxley knows every one of the players who will pull on a Blue Bulls jumper deserve to do so.
"We've got nine clubs represented and that's something I'm really happy about as it gives us a cross section," Oxley said.
"We are definitely the strongest zone in the country, I could list another 16 players who are unavailable, actually there's 22.
"I'm very confident with the group of players I have here."
So why is Oxley so confident his men can make Central West history come Sunday afternoon?
THE ABC PLAN
EVER heard the saying it's as easy as ABC? That's something that Oxley buys into when it comes to his squad.
"I've got this little analogy in my head, the ABC, the A is the small tip of the iceberg in ability, the B is the belief and then the C is the commitment to the team," he said.
"The reason why the Blue Bulls have won the last couple of years is the commitment to the team, that's an important component.
"We had a wonderful training session on Sunday, everyone got around each other, there's certainly belief in what the boys have been doing and there is ability.
"So I don't think there's any reason why we won't bring home the cup at all the be honest. There's some caps that are missing and some ability that is missing, but it's all about getting around each other, which has been fantastic."
THE NEW ZEALAND CATALYST
IN March of 2019 both the Central West men's and women's squads travelled to New Zealand as part of their Country Championships preparation.
The tour, organised by Central West Rugby Union boss Matt Tink, was a huge success.
The men travelled with a big enough squad to split the players into two teams.
The squad visited Crusaders HQ, had breakfast with a handful of All Blacks and played games against Prebbleton and University of Canterbury.
Across the men's and women's squads Central West won five out of six games, but more importantly, it was an experience which united the squad.
They went on to a scintillating 45-21 victory over Illawarra in the Caldwell Cup final that year.
While COVID-19 meant no championships in 2020 as well as no possibility of touring before last year's event, a New Zealand trip is back on the cards for 2023.
"The basis where everything really started to build was the tour that [Matt] Tinky organised to New Zealand a couple of years ago," Oxley said.
"We're planning on this tour again next year, to go back to the Crusaders to give us another shot in the arm of that togetherness, getting rid of our clubs socks and putting on our Central West socks.
"That last tour was special, I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie that came with it, and that's continued to flow on to this weekend."
THE POOL OF DEATH
IF the Blue Bulls are to pull off a Caldwell Cup treble it will mean surviving what Oxley labelled 'the pool of death' - Central West having been grouped with Illawarra and Hunter.
Between them Central West, Illawarra and Hunter have won all the Caldwell Cups dating back to 2008.
Newcastle-Hunter has won seven times across that period, including a remarkable run of six consecutive country triumphs between 2008-13, while both Central West and Illawarra have been crowned champions three times.
But Oxley is eagerly anticipating the challenge.
"To be honest, I'm embracing the adversity, the harder it is the better," the coach said.
"Like that 8am start we have against Hunter, I'm backing our boys I think we can manage that better.
"I'm actually quite happy to have as many challenges as they want to throw at us and not use them as excuses, but use them as a way to show our strength moving forward.
"When we pull together we don't think about the issues and we get it done. I'm very confident with the attitude of the boys and how we are going to go."
The pool games will feature 25-minute halves. After the 8am clash at Scully Park the Blue Bulls will meet Illawarra at 2pm.
Oxley hopes that both those games will see the Blue Bulls triumph and advance to the decider against the best pool B outfit - either Far North Coast, Central Coast or Mid North Coast.
The Caldwell Cup final will be an 80 minute battle.
"We're going to take it, as the cliché goes, one game at a time. We've got Newcastle first up then we've got a couple of hours to recover before we play Illawarra," Oxley said.
"The key will be being quite professional between games, we'll be able to support our colts and women's teams after our games on Saturday, but it's going to be all business up until 3pm hopefully with two victories under our belts and a chance to defend the cup on Sunday."
THE FORWARD PACK
ANYONE that has seen an Oxley side in action knows he aims to have them play attacking and entertaining rugby.
It's about players backing their skillsets and having faith the men standing beside them will do the same.
As such, his starting forward pack for the championship has size and strength, but they are also mobile and have attacking flair.
Vastly experience Blue Bulls Charlie French and Josh Tremain are the props and Bathurst Bulldogs skipper Peter Fitzsimmons gets the job at hooker.
Ollie Harveson and Justin Mobbs will line up in the second row, Dan Ryan and Charlie Brown as the flankers and Dubbo Roos star Will Archer at number 8.
Then there's the mercurial Mahe Fangupo at scrumhalf.
"We play a very fast, attacking style of footy, over that last couple of years it's been based on getting away to early leads and then consolidating that," Oxley said.
"We've got a very mobile pack there and I'm very excited about watching Ollie Harveson going around at this level. He's been very strong for Emus, he's new to the zone.
"It's great having Dan Ryan back, he's got a wealth of experience and is just an exceptional person."
The joint captains also come from the forward pack - Forbes' finest Fangupo and Bathurst battering-ram Fitzsimmons.
"Mahe and Peter Fitz will be joint captains. I don't see the need of having a captain and a vice," Oxley said.
"Mahe leads through his actions and so does Fitzy, he lets Fitzy do the talking."
THE BACK LINE
JUST as the Blue Bulls' pack is full of strike power, the back line features more players who know how to find the try line and hit hard in defence.
After earning NSW Country selection last year but not actually getting a chance to pull on a Cockatoos jumper due to COVID-19, Oxley expects big things from fullback Joe Nash and and centre Adam Plummer.
"We've got Joey Nash, who was player of the tournament at the last Country Championships, but he didn't get to play country due to COVID so he's got some unfinished business," Oxley said.
"He's reaching form, as is Adam Plummer, they've really played well for Bathurst in the last two weeks. They both unfortunately missed out on that country jumper last year due to COVID even though they were selected."
That pair play club rugby for the Bathurst Bulldogs while the rest of the starting backs are from the Dubbo Kangaroos, so there'll be familiar combinations.
Tim Beach and Ratu Roko are on the wings, Filisone Pauta at outside centre and Josh Bass will start at flyhalf.
"Ratu has been in exceptional form, he's another player who's new to the zone," Oxley said.
"He came to Canberra on the tour, he's been involved in the program, he's playing outstanding for the Dubbo Roos. He pops up all over the park."
TO be successful at the Country Championships you need more than just a strong starting XV - the whole squad needs to be able to do a job.
Oxley feels he has just that and has gone as far as stating: "There's opportunities for country honours I believe for both bench and starting players in the side."
One player Oxley can't wait to see in action in Dubbo Roos' speedster Calub Cooke.
"Calub Cooke, he was a bit of bolter. He came into the squad quite late but he's in scintillating form, he played excellent against Bathurst on the weekend," Oxley said.
"He's only 20 years of age, but he's one of the quickest rugby players in the Central West that I have seen for some years. He's lightning quick, so he's physical and fast.
"It's very hard to try and coach those into a player but he comes with those attributes and it will be experience he adds to that. He's pretty special to be honest and while he sits on the reserve bench at the moment, he's going to be playing plenty of football."
Bathurst Bulldogs scrumhalf Kurt Weekes was another late addition but has been in excellent form and provides a goal kicking option.
Then there's Cowra duo Damien Michael and Noah Ryan - two men who can be devastating against fatigued opponents.
"Kurt Weekes is in there, that only happened late Tuesday night. He's been playing well and he plays a fast style of footy too, he's been playing quite well for Bathurst," Oxley said.
"Noah Ryan comes in from last year and he was leading the point-scorer last year in the Blowes, so he's been a really great acquisition.
"Another one I'm really excited to see go around and has been in excellent form is Damien Michael from Cowra, their a number 8. He's very athletic, he's scored a number of strong tries throughout the club season, he's incredibly quick and strong."
THE FINAL SAY
WHILE Oxley knows creating history at Scully Park on Sunday afternoon will require an almighty effort, he has the utmost confidence his men can clinch a third consecutive Caldwell Cup.
"It's never been done in the history of the Country Championships for Central West, three in a row. It's certainly something that's been spoke about amongst the players in regards to leaving that legacy and having that additional pride in the zone," the coach said.
"There have been three or four Central West sides that have won two years in a row and while this isn't the same side as last year and last year wasn't the same side as the one before, we've got the same core group.
"There's a bit of work to do when we get up there to try and duplicate what we had last year in terms of results, it's a different group, a different skillset, but the same mantra of coming together as one and that's the reason why I coach.
"We'll get this done, that's my plan."
- CENTRAL WEST BLUE BULLS: 1 Charlie French (Forbes), 2 Peter Fitzsimmons (Bathurst), 3 Josh Tremain (Orange City), 4 Ollie Harveson (Orange Emus), 5 Justin Mobbs (Bathurst), 6 Dan Ryan (Parkes), 7 Charlie Brown (Harden), 8 Will Archer (Dubbo Roos), 9 Mahe Fangupo (Forbes), 10 Josh Bass (Dubbo Roos), 11 Ratu Peceli Roko (Dubbo Roos), 12 Adam Plummer (Bathurst), 13 Filisone Pauta (Dubbo Roos), 14 Tim Beach (Dubbo Roos), 15 Joe Nash (Bathurst), 16 Matt Trapp (Bathurst), 17 Tom Dunstan (Mudgee), 18 Daniel Minto (Mudgee), 19 Damien Michael (Cowra) 20 Fletcher Wright (Orange Emus) 21 Alexander McNiven (Orange Emus) 22 Miniti Tonga (Forbes) 23 Calub Cooke (Dubbo Roos) 24 Noah Ryan (Cowra) 25 Kurt Weekes (Bathurst).
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