2011 Toyota Cup preview
We analyse every club's chances and spot the stars of the future in this year's under-20s competition.
New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors celebrated a famous win over South Sydney in last year's Toyota Cup grand final but the task will be more difficult this year with a number of players – including Elijah Taylor, Matt Robinson, Shaun Johnson and Glen Fisiiahi – promoted to the NRL squad in 2011.
However, seven members of last year's grand final side remain and coach John Ackland fully expects his brigade to be among the front-runners again this season. More importantly, watch for the fruits of last year's labour to pay dividends in first grade as players break through.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The backline that lit up the Toyota Cup in 2010 on their way to the grand final has all but disappeared, leaving a host of new faces to step into the breach. One face that will sit above all others is that of English Academy representative George Burgess, the younger, bigger brother of Sam who towers over the first grade squad, let alone the under-20s.
Coach Scott Murray is also new to the role and his challenge will be to bring a young, inexperienced squad up to speed as quickly as possible.
Two players who finished 2010 in the Toyota Cup squad and are ones to watch are flyer James Roberts (who twice scored tries after collecting the ball in his own in-goal) and dynamic back-rower Adrian Ha'angana.
The Bulldogs' under-20s finished a game short of the grand final last season after an amazing mid- to late-season run. They could prove a tough proposition again with five-eighth Aidan Sezer leading the way.
Sezer, a capable runner not afraid of taking on the defensive line, was the Toyota Cup Five-eighth of the Year in 2010; he was also recently selected in Ricky Stuart's 'Blues in Waiting' squad.
North Queensland Cowboys
Having finished fourth in the regular season in 2010, the Cowboys have high hopes that they can go all the way this time around. They welcome back the vast majority of last year's Toyota Cup squad with the likes of Alex Elisala, Kyle Feldt, Moses Pangai, Michael Parker Walsh, Sam Hoare and Callum Haywood all certain to be better off another 12 months' experience.
Impressive young half Michael Morgan is also eligible and although the Cowboys expect him to feature heavily in the NRL side, he will no doubt drop back down from time to time to lend a helping hand. Expect them to give the Toyota Cup title a shake.
Having made an agonising exit in 'straight sets' in the 2010 finals, new coach Jason Taylor has the job ahead in 2011 after an exodus of talent to other clubs or with individuals who have stepped up to the main player unit.
With club TC Player of the Year Brad Murray off to Parramatta and Jacob Miller joining the Wests Tigers, insiders expect competition for halves positions to be keenly fought between Queensland pair Tom Guymer and Ryley Jacks and Wagga product Jack Littlejohn.
The junior Raiders will be keen to atone for their inglorious exit last year, thrashed 64-18 by the Rabbitohs in the Preliminary Final. They'll again get great service from last year's TC Halfback of the Year and captain Sam Williams, now in his third year in the under-20s. Williams was a prolific try-assister, his 27 the third most in the comp, plus he scored 16 tries from 22 games as well. It's some comfort to know he's waiting in the wings should either McCrone or Orford not measure up.
Coach David Hamilton, who guided the Junior Kangaroos last year, will be looking to continued development from 18-year-old prop Sheen Lomax, son of former Raiders hard man John.
Manly Sea Eagles
The predominantly new squad is looking to put last year's indifferent season behind them. After winning the minor premiership in 2009, they started 2010 solidly but managed just four wins from their final 13 games – a slump coach David Penna attributed to injuries and first grade call-ups that led to a lack of firepower and continuity.
Expected to lead the way again in 2011 is local product Magnus Stromquist. Last year the 102kg prop averaged 29 tackles and 110 metres a game. With boom youngster Lama Tasi off to the Roosters, former NSW under-18s rep Stromquist will he handed more responsibility.
It's not known whether last year's star halfback Gary Riccardi will again back up in the TC, or whether the baton will be passed to rookies Josh Drinkwater or Taylor Matthews.
Gold Coast Titans
Boom playmaker Jordan Rankin could be partnering Scott Prince in the halves for the first-grade side this year, but if not, the promising19-year-old will spearhead the Titans' TC squad.
Another young gun with potential NRL game time coming his way is hooker Matt Srama. If these two are on board, the under-20s team could easily improve on last year's eighth-place finish.
New recruit halfback Jacob Miller (ex-Roosters) has been turning heads with his application after training with the first-grade squad in the off-season. He'll be joined in the halves by 17-year-old five-eighth Curtis Sironen, son of Balmain legend Paul, who played a handful of games at the end of 2010 and impressed coach Grant Jones.
The mentor is hopeful the side won't lose talented back-rower Ben Murdoch-Masila for any extended period in first grade after the 20-year-old was earmarked for first grade by Tim Sheens late last year. Jones is looking to build on last year's disappointment of missing the finals by one competition point.
Having narrowly missed the finals last season, 2011 brings some new challenges with a whole batch of fresh faces coming into the squad. The forwards have been hit particularly hard as players pass the 20-years-old age limit, but incoming coach Kurt Richards is impressed with the talent he has witnessed thus far.
While the likes of Dale Copley and Corey Norman showed glimpses of their abilities at NRL level last year, the Broncos have high hopes for some emerging youngsters, with centre Aaron Whitchurch, back-rower Mitchell Frei and fullback Jordan Kahu among the players to watch. Like the NRL squad, the Queensland floods forced the squad indoors for much of the pre-season but there may well be brighter days ahead for the Broncos' young guns.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Following the heartbreaking pectoral injury sustained by Cameron King in the Dragons' World Club Challenge win, the under-20s hooking role will be keenly contested between Shellharbour products Daniel Burke and Todd Ryan.
Coach Adrian Lam will be thrilled at the maturity in his side's pack, with props Jarred Thompson and Jack Stockwell now entering their third year in the Toyota Cup. With second-rower Alex McKinnon and halfback Scott Rosser also backing up for a hat-trick of seasons Lam is confident the junior Dragons will leave their mark in 2011.
The Knights' junior team finished 12th in 2010 so they'll be hoping for a better showing this season. But there are already good signs ahead for a club with plenty of local talent.
The 2010 Knights under-18s side made the finals only to be knocked out in the first week by the eventual premier Roosters. With some members of that team moving up to the under-20s this year, there is a strong hope of finals football.
Melbourne will rely on some returning players to boost them up from their disappointing 13th-place finish in the Toyota Cup in 2010.
Kenneath Bromwich, Kirisome Auva'a, Benjamin Hampton and Tohu Harris are some of the names who will be expected to lead the way with their experience.
Just like their top-grade counterparts, Cronulla's Toyota Cup squad limped to a 14th-place finish last season – but they are eyeing much loftier heights in 2011. A key focus this year will be kicking off match day on the right note – and that means winning games.
The Sharks have 10 players returning with an extra year's experience under their belts while a number – including Albert Kelly, Matt Wright and Stewart Mills – have spent the off-season training with the NRL squad. The club has high hopes for 18-year-old centre Luke Pickard who represented the Australian Schoolboys last season.
Last season the Panthers' under-20s limped home in second last position so they'll be hoping for plenty of improvement in 2011.
One thing the team has this year is experience. No fewer than 20 players who are be eligible for Toyota Cup this season had some experience in the team last year, which should help moving forward.
Some ill-timed injuries and a simple case of too many players failing to live up to expectations saw the Eels' youngsters finish with the wooden spoon last season but at a club renowned for their junior development, moves have been made to ensure there is no repeat in 2011.
Coach Matt Cameron took the initiative late last year once the finals were out of reach by dropping all of the uncontracted 20-year-olds and promoting 11 members of Parramatta's SG Ball squad for the back half of the season.
The results will hopefully be seen this year, with eight of those kids heading into the new season with at least 10 games of Toyota Cup experience behind them. The Eels have high hopes for young halfback Cameron Bruest – who has joined the club from Canberra – while Jacob Loko and Pat O'Hanlon have impressed in the pre-season.