Coach Cameron Greenhalgh is expecting to field the strongest Western Rams team he's had at disposal for next year's Country Championships.
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Greenhalgh has named an extended provisional squad and, unlike previous years, many of the region's very best players have put their hand up.
The likes of Wellington's 2022 Peter McDonald Premiership player of the year Justin Toomey-White, new Mudgee coach and former NRL player Clay Priest and boom Macquarie off-season signing Billy Gilbert have all been named in the initial squad and are expected to line up for Western in 2023.
"There's a few I've been chasing for a few years now," Greenhalgh said.
"In the whole squad I think there's about six or seven coaches so there's a wealth of experience.
"Clay Priest and the whole Mudgee squad, apart from Jack Beasley, made themselves available and there's a lot of talent there. Justin Toomey-White is as keen as ever and that's a really good sign.
"Jack Littlejohn and fellas like Jeremy Thurston are among those who have committed so far.
Greenhalgh, a highly-respected mentor who coached Forbes to the inaugural Peter McDonald Premiership this year, drew up what he described as "a hit list" of his top 30 players shortly after the 2022 season.
Those players were contacted and while some have already marked themselves unavailable - Dubbo CYMS' Jyie Chapman, Bathurst St Pat's pair Jackson Brien and Matt Ranse, and Mudgee's Beasley among them - the bulk of the replies the coach received were positive.
When asked if it will be the strongest Western team he's worked with, Greenhalgh replied "I think so".
"I said to take the job on again I wanted players to commit. It looks like they have committed," he said, before touching on the squad's strengths.
"Just that experience. Like I said, there's six or seven captain-coaches who could be in the final squad and I think they're happy to work with me and maybe come together and not worry about anything else apart from them and how they play.
"All the feedback I've got so far has been pretty positive and that's exciting."
The Rams are likely to have a powerhouse forward pack next season. Macquarie back-rower Alex Ronayne, who has captained the Rams the past two seasons, is in again alongside his new Raiders co-coach Jack Kavanagh while Dubbo CYMS pair Jarryn Powyer and Ben Marlin have also been named in the initial squad. Parkes gun and former NSW Country representative Will Wardle, Forbes' trio of premiership winners Charlie Lennon, Tongia Fox and Traie Merritt, Mudgee pair Cody Godden and Ben Thompson, Bathurst Panthers captain-coach Jake Betts and brother Jake, and incoming Orange CYMS coach Ethan McKellar are other forward options alongside the highly-accomplished Toomey-White and Priest.
"I think they're going to be a very tough, physical and skillful pack," Greenhalgh said.
"We're going to have a trial and see how we go and see what combinations we can build but the pleasing part so far is just the commitment of the players."
The Rams have just missed out on making the semi-finals of the Country Championships the past two seasons, with heavy pool losses to sides from much larger centres like Monaro often damaging their for-and-against.
In 2023 the championships will change to a knockout style and Western has been drawn to play the Greater Northern Tigers at Tamworth in round one on March 4.
The Rams finished their pool stage commitments earlier this year with a commanding 42-24 win over the Tigers at Gulgong.
Rams halfback Nick Greenhalgh said after that match he hoped the 2022 performances inspired some players to pull on the green jersey.
"I think that has happened and I think the Peter McDonald Premiership has added a bit to it," the coach said.
"These guys have started to play one another and when this squad went out I think some might have thought 'I wouldn't mind playing with this guy and I wouldn't mind playing with that guy' so they probably think with the team we can put together we're going to be very competitive."
Macquarie signing Billy Gilbert, who most recently played in Newcastle but also has Queensland Cup experience, has already been mentioned as a chance to play at hooker for Western alongside Bathurst St Pat's Group 10 Player of the Year, Hayden Bolam.
Littlejohn, Nick Greenhalgh, Chad Porter and Alex Bonham are all halves options while Forbes' NSW Country representative Mitch Andrews headlines the backs alongside the likes of Jeremy Thurston, Blake Lawson, Corin Smith and CJ Ralph.
The Rams squad is set to train together and have a trial match early next year before the clash with the Tigers in March.
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