Next Gen: Toyota Cup Season Preview

Next Gen is a new weekly column by Fox Sports commentator Matt Russell which will cover the 2011 Toyota Cup competition. 

The Toyota Cup enters its fourth season on Friday night, having already given rise to more than 150 NRL players. Fox Sports will again cover two games each week and commentator Matt Russell previews the season ahead.

Putting the National in Youth Competition!
The first three years of the Toyota Cup have seen the Grand Final trophy go everywhere but the game’s origin – Sydney.

Canberra beat Brisbane in 2008, Melbourne pipped the Tigers in 2009 and last year the Warriors downed South Sydney.

Will 2011 finally see a Sydney club win the premiership?

My tip...
North Queensland.

The Cowboys have NRL experience in the halves through Michael Morgan and two of the best young forwards in Australia – Chris Grevsmuhl and Jason Taumalolo.

Kyle Feldt is back as their sharp-shooting goalkicker. Others to return after highlighting their potential last year are Callum Haywood, Sam Hoare, Alex Elisala, Nathan Kepa, Moses Pangai, Michael Parker-Walshe, Wayne Ulugia, Dom Walsh... the list goes on.

The trip to our tropical north might be a damaging one for plenty of visiting teams.

What about last year’s Grand Finalists?
The beauty (or otherwise if you’re the commentator) of the Under 20’s is that the age limit often forces massive changes to teams.

The Warriors hang onto some of their premiership players in Ben Henry, Carlos Tuimavave, Sam Lousi, Sebastine Ikahihifo and Sosaia Feki but is it enough?

At least they retain more than beaten Grand Finalists Souths, who have had a massive turnover. Adrian Ha’angana remains as does flying back James Roberts while George Burgess is an exciting addition, but they might find the going tough early in the year.

Star gazers...
As footy fans juggle their NRL Dream Team on computers around the country, here are a five cheap Toyota Cup graduates set to shine during the 2011 NRL season. Buy them soon as their price is set to rise.

Nafe Seluini
(Penrith) – The best impact player in the NYC last year. Seluini, an interchance hooker, was instrumental in the Warriors Grand Final victory. He explodes out of dummy half and has the pace to go on with it.

Sam Kasiano
(Canterbury) – Kasiano has size and skill and uses both well as a prop. His go-forward and off-loads were key to the Bulldogs charge to the NYC finals last year. His mum helped negotiate a new contract at the Dogs but his fan-base is set to extend much further than his family this year.

Ryan Tongia
(Cronulla) – I remember a game last year when Tongia had four defenders converging but blew them all away with electrifying speed. The fullback/winger should be better for having represented PNG in the Four Nations. Having switched from the Gold Coast to Cronulla, expect him to get a shot in the first half of the season.

Tariq Sims
(Nth Qld) – Last year’s Toyota Cup Player of the Year used to be an outside back but now does his best work in the front row. He’s all knees and elbows but uses them legally. Rugged, durable, skillful... just three reasons for the Cowboys to be optimistic.

Beau Henry
(Newcastle) – This former Warrilla Gorilla has played halfback with the Dragons under 20’s since the NYC started in 2008. The 2009 Toyota Cup Player of the Year didn’t find his NRL niche under Wayne Bennett and has sought fresh opportunities under Rick Stone. Undoubtedly gifted, new surrounds might just be the key.

Here’s a first...
It’s well documented how many Toyota Cup players have stepped up to NRL but not many coaches have followed – in fact none – until NOW.

Ivan Henjak’s dismissal at Brisbane has seen Anthony Griffin take control of the top squad for 2011.

Griffin led Brisbane to the inaugural Toyota Cup Grand Final in 2008, only to be beaten in Golden Point by Canberra. He also steered the Broncos to the 2009 Toyota Cup finals, before assisting Henjak in 2010 and replacing him in 2011.

The NYC family wishes “Hook” well. Let’s face it, he has the right nickname to be a coach.

Welcome aboard...
The fresh faces in the under 20’s playing ranks extend to the coaching ranks this season.

There are four newcomers and one who has switched clubs.

Kurt Richards takes over from Matthew Wood at Brisbane, having been a skills coach at the Broncos for the last three years and previously working with Keebra Park High School and the Queensland Academy of Sport.

At Cronulla, Joey Grima’s promotion to NRL assistant allows James Shepherd to take over at Toyota Cup level. He played with North Sydney and the Roosters before coaching roles at Balmain and more recently in the Northern Territory.

Alex Melville replaces Craig Culnane at Penrith, having already spent five years with the Panthers in different coaching roles. The former Campbelltown City Kangaroo has also spent time as Academy Coach at the London Broncos.

Jason Taylor is back in the coaching ranks fulltime after a long and decorated playing career that spilt over into instant success with the clipboard. He guided Parramatta (’06) and Souths (’07) to the NRL finals before parting ways with the Bunnies at the end of 2009.

Taylor comes in for Scott Murray, who switches to South Sydney, after two years at the Roosters. South Sydney’s Grand Final coach last year, David Kidwell, has moved to Melbourne as an NRL assistant.

Ah, the merry go round. It’s an interesting ride!

Little things right...
Expect a torrent of penalties early in the season as new referees bosses Bill Harrigan and Stuart Raper crack down on key areas like scrums and play the balls.

Players across the grades have been warned and guided during the off-season, with a clear warning the crackdown WILL last and WON’T be confined to the NRL.

I think the single referee set-up in Toyota Cup has been working well but wonder why the two NYC television games couldn’t have two-referees. That way these referees and the players they officiate would be better equipped for the NRL situation when they get there. Just a thought.

The pressure is on...
Only two clubs are yet to make the Toyota Cup finals in the competition’s first three years – Cronulla and Newcastle.

Both are determined to have a breakthrough season in 2011.

Canberra and the Warriors are the only clubs yet to miss the Toyota Cup finals.

Both want to keep their perfect record.

Fittingly, Canberra and New Zealand is where we start our coverage this weekend (see below).

On the box...
Toyota Cup participants and viewers will get to hear some of the game’s best minds cast an eye over the next generation of NRL stars in 2011.

Joining me in commentary at different times will be Gary Belcher, Brett Kimmorley, Simon Woolford, Cam Smith, Braith Anasta, Jamie Soward and more.

Our New Zealand friends have the first game on Saturday as the Warriors host Parramatta. See it as part of Super Saturday from 2pm AEDT.

On Sunday it’s myself and Brett Kimmorley in Canberra as the Raiders host the Sharks. Tune into NRL Sunday from 11.30am AEDT.