Youngsters reignite old rivalry
They were unknown youngsters when they played a heart-stopping Toyota Cup Grand Final in 2008, but on Friday night the Raiders and Broncos reignite the battle – and this time they do it as established first-graders.
The youngsters from Canberra played a large part in the Green Machine’s dramatic finals surge last season before narrowly being knocked out by the Wests Tigers, while the Broncos have been going through a transitional period, unearthing many future superstars.
It is this exciting core group of players, including 11 from the inaugural Toyota Cup Grand Final, that will take the field at Canberra Stadium and it is this youthful rivalry that promises to deliver a pulsating contest.
Raiders excitement machines Jarrod Croker, Joel Thompson, Daniel Vidot, Shaun Fensom and Travis Waddell will take on Broncos young guns Josh Hoffman, Jharal Yow Yeh, Andrew McCullough, Alex Glenn, Ben Hunt and Josh McGuire.
It took a miraculous chip-and-chase deep in extra-time to decide the contest in that grand final three years ago, and all signs point to another thriller on Friday night.
"It's a good match-up to see how many players have progressed from the Toyota Cup into the NRL," Shaun Fensom said.
"There is a bit of rivalry there, we have played a lot against those boys.
"As soon as we got that last try in extra-time, I sort of looked back and reflected on all the hard work that we had put into it, and the sacrifices that had to be made to get that grand final."
The contest says a lot about the pathway the Toyota Cup competition is providing for young players to learn their craft.
Within the next two seasons more than 200 Toyota Cup graduates will have played in the NRL. Fensom says the competition is a great learning curve, not only on the field, but also preparing the players for all the rigors and challenges that comes with the NRL Telstra Premiership.
"Especially with the training schedule, I think it gets your body ready," he said.
"The level of attack and the structure that goes into the competition and the coaching, you really had to stay focused and not clock-off, because you will get burned in that competition if you aren't on your game.
"It's very similar to first grade in that respect.
"One of the biggest lessons I took out of my time in the Toyota Cup was the professionalism of the competition.
"The travel and seeing what it takes to be a first grade footballer, because you are around the first grade squad a lot and you pick up so much just from being around them and seeing how they prepare."
It is something Fensom has taken to heart, quickly becoming one of the game's iron men, and a popular pick amongst Toyota NRL Dream Team fans.
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With the loss of inspirational leader Alan Tongue to a shoulder injury, expect the hardworking 22-year-old to get through even more work, both in defense and attack.
"Tongie is a very experienced player and he brings a lot to the side, there is no doubt we'll miss him, but we should be able to cover it," he said.
"Tongue does get through a bit of work, so if it means I have to stay on the field longer and make an extra 10 tackles, I’m quite happy to do that."
And Fensom should have no problem handling the extra workload after putting on more bulk in the offseason.
"I've put on two kilos now, so my playing weight is around 98.5kg, and I’ve still got my fitness," he said.
"I have [noticed a difference], just coming into contact with the ball and my defense as well. I'm a lot stronger up top now and control my opponents much better than last year.
"I've worked hard to keep my fitness and talked to our conditioner Matt Ford about that and he says I should be able to carry the extra weight and keep the conditioning.
"I think my body is still maturing, I only just turned 22, and they say you don't fully mature till around 25, I think the extra weight is just the result of the preseason weights program."