We look at your under 20s team and how they are shaping up for 2012.
Coach Kurt Richards says his young squad is focused on making up for the disappointment of last year when they finished just outside the top eight despite compiling one of the best points differentials (+201) in the NYC.
They will be missing a talented core of players who will feature heavily in the NRL this year; Corey Norman, Dale Copley, Dane Gagai and Kurt Baptiste.
“We were just too inconsistent and suffered a lot of injuries – we were never the same side two weeks running – but we’re hopeful of better things this season,” Richards told NRL.com.
Richards is tipping “fair years” for Chris Binge, who was the squad’s Player of the Year in 2011; halfback Cameron Cullen (six try-assists from 10 games last season); and centre Matthew Berwick, who crossed for four tries in one match over eventual premiership runners-up North Queensland in Round 23.
The Bulldogs endured a tough finish to a great year, after withstanding the fancied Storm in Week Two of the Finals, the Bulldogs’ faced eventual premiers the Warriors in Week Three… and were smashed 64-0.
“It was a disappointing way to finish but the boys played so well the week before against Melbourne, when we were long odds, to get through to that stage,” coach Andy Patmore tells NRL.com.
The ‘Dogs have lost Toyota Cup Team of the Year representatives Dale Finucane and Tim Lafai, plus Josh Jackson, graduating to the NRL squad.
Patmore said the trio had a big impact last season, but added the club was in the process of unearthing more stars to fill the void.
“There’s a lot of young talent at the club this year… some very exciting prospects including a few Australian Schoolboys from the SG Ball side,” Patmore says.
Insiders tell us two-time Australian Schoolboys prop David Klemmer, a monster standing 190cm tall and weighing 120kg, is one to watch for 2012.
It wasn’t only the Raiders first-grade squad that suffered injuries in 2011. Canberra are hoping for a much better showing this time around under the direction of new head coach Andrew Dunemann.
Having arrived from Newcastle in the off-season, Dunemann said he was intent on instilling a winning culture amongst his youngsters but is still going through the process of learning their capabilities.
“It’s hard to get a gauge because you tend to get rose-coloured glasses when it comes to how good your own players are,” he explained. “That said I’d like to think we’ve got a decent squad.
“At the end of the day this is all about getting them ready for the future and the only way you get them ready for that is to win games as well. You want to get that winning mentality so that if they get called up to first grade they’re confident and know what they need to do to win.”
The Raiders have high hopes for Edrick Lee this season – the classy back having impressed after spending much of his pre-season training with the NRL squad.
North Queensland finished agonisingly close to claiming their first Toyota Cup premiership in 2011, with a title-winning conversion attempt sailing wide in the dying seconds of the Grand Final against the Warriors. (The match went to golden point, with the Warriors kicking a field goal three minutes into extra time.)
In 2012 their Toyota Cup squad is again one of the strongest, with the NYC’s leading pointscorer and Junior Kangaroo Kyle Feldt and NRL-experienced forward Jason Taumalolo ones to watch. In the halves though, the Cowboys are searching for a new combination – Michael Morgan has been promoted to the NRL squad while homesick Gold Coast product Michael Parker-Walshe was granted a release from his contract.
New coach Todd Wilson, previously in charge of the Townsville Stingers’ under-18s, views the season as one of great opportunity.
“The team has had a great improvement the past few years and we’ve got to try to continue that the next few years,” Wilson says. “There are a few guys who played one or two games last year who are going to need to take that step up and become regulars.”
The junior Titans will be looking to make a statement after finishing a lowly 14th in 2011, with new coach Jamie O’Connor hopeful a few star individuals will emerge.
There’s a strong vibe around playmaker Matthew Beddow, who made a huge impression in his debut year in the NYC last season. In just 14 games in the No.7 Beddow proved dangerous every time he ran the ball, making 58 tackle busts – the most by any halfback – as well as 10 line-breaks (third most) and nine try assists.
Club stalwart Luke Williamson has taken charge of the under-20s having spent time as caretaker coach of the NSW Cup side last year. He concedes it could be a difficult season for the 2011 NYC wooden-spooners but it’s a new-look squad with only a few retentions and some new additions.
Williamson told NRL.com that given the side’s performance last year he didn’t want to balloon anyone’s ego too early, but was prepared to nominate prop Justin Lemalu, who played with the side last year, as one player to watch in 2012. Lemalu averaged just a quarter of a game in 23 outings but still managed 12 offloads, 27 tackle-breaks as well as 80 metres a match.
Having enjoyed a solid 2011 in which they finished the regular season in fourth before crashing out in the semi-finals, Melbourne are expecting a much tougher challenge for their crop of youngsters this time around. With up to seven players elevated to the NRL squad in 2012, coach Dean Pay will rely on a number of newcomers to lead the way instead.
“We’ve lost a number of players which is a fair dint in the side but the new kids are working hard at the moment – I think it’s just a case of wait and see,” Pay explained. “We’ve got a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds that are good players but it will take them a while to find their feet and get used to the physical side of things and length of the season.”
Keep an eye on five-eighth Matt McGahan who scored 212 points last season, and centre Denny Solomona to lead the way for Melbourne in 2012.
If new coach Michael Crawley had his choice of players from those eligible to play under-20s for Newcastle this season then they would be expected to improve on their eighth-place finish in 2011.
Alex McKinnon and Korbin Sims are among the most highly touted prospects in the game today but it appears likely they will spend more time playing NSW Cup – if not NRL – than Toyota Cup in 2012.
Dubbo product Will Smith is expected to be an important figure in the halves in his third year of Toyota Cup football and establish an exciting combination with Api Pewhairangi. Chanel and Pat Mata’utia will be the targets out wide and Chad Redman the direction out of dummy-half. This is a team capable of being very, very good.
Parramatta’s NYC team finished a disappointing 12th last year but will be hoping for a big year under new coach Steve Speechley. Speechley nominates five-eighth Jason Wehbe and back-rower Mathew Eisenhuth as two players to watch, with both earning plenty of NYC experience last year. Centres Vai Toutai and Trent Jennings are also primed for a big season, while Speechley also expects the younger brother of Will Hopoate, 17-year-old utility back-rower Jamil, to feature at some point.
Speechley told NRL.com that overall there were seven players in the side this year that featured in the NYC regularly last year but overall it’s a relatively young squad. Rather than focusing on winning games the aim was to develop traits in those players that they could take to the next level, but if they developed those traits then the wins would follow, he said.
Former Newcastle Under-20s coach Garth Brennan has taken over the reins at the foot of the mountains where he hopes to restore the club to its glory days.
“Playing in the junior systems at Newcastle and then coaching for nearly 10 years – there were plenty of times where we got thumped by Penrith teams,” Brennan explained. “I’ve been a bit surprised the past couple of years they haven’t been up to where they need to be. It’s an exciting challenge to restore Penrith to where they should be as far as junior footy goes.”
Headhunted by general manager Phil Gould after being told his coaching services would no longer be required at the Knights, Brennan has simple expectations for the year ahead.
“We’re in a process of rebuilding out here at Penrith and it’s a fairly young squad. A lot of the guys are coming out of SG Ball and are a year or two young,” he said. “That’s exciting. I think building to something in the next year or two will be good but my main goal is just to be really competitive this year and every game we play I want to be in the competition. Whoever beats us is going to have to earn it – that’s the sort of mindset I want.”
Keep an eye on centre Tony Satini who impressed after debuting late last year, plus back-rower Vaipuna Tia-Kilifi. The Panthers have high hopes for both.
Last season the Sharks’ Toyota Cup side performed strongly, losing to the Cowboys in the Preliminary Finals. At the heart of their success was a dynamic attacking game (Cronulla’s Toyota Cup team scored 707 points for the season, the fourth most) based around talents who unfortunately are now too old for the underage competition. This season looks a rebuilding period for the junior Sharks, but one in which their coach still predicts ‘competitive’ performances.
“Obviously we lose some quality players with Chad Townsend, Tyson Frizzell, Stewart Mills and Tyrone Peachey – they were an integral part of our success last year – but if we can keep our best players on the park and keep some cohesion we’ll be competitive,” coach James Shepherd tells NRL.com.
“It’s going to be very difficult... you basically have to start again because it’s an underage comp and the influx of new players is pretty big. As soon as boys get too old you lose them... and we’ve lost some quality. We’re not starting from square one but we are starting again.”
First-time coach Ben Gardiner has seen the best and worst of South Sydney’s Toyota Cup capabilities in his role as assistant coach over the past two seasons. In 2010 they were minor premiers and in 2011, with an almost completely new playing roster, the Rabbitohs struggled to just four wins to finish the season in 14th. Kurt French played 13 of 17 games at halfback in his debut Toyota Cup season last year but Gardiner says he’s not guaranteed to start the year in the No.7.
“The thing with Kurt is that we’re not sure where his best position is at the moment,” he said. “He could play halves, he could play fullback or he could play centre, we’re just experimenting with him a bit at the moment. We’ve got another young seven as well, a bloke by the name of Luke Keary who played in the Queensland Cup last year, and he’ll be good. He’s a little bit more experienced and he’s played against men before, which is a big thing in the under-20s.”
Gardiner also pointed to injury-riddled back-rower Kyle Turner as a player of considerable potential. “He had quite a few injuries in his under-17s and under-18s and he looks like he could be a good specimen. I’m looking forward to getting him on the paddock,” he added.
New coach Justin Holbrook joins the Dragons’ coaching staff after two premierships with the Bulldogs in the NSW Cup. He is hoping to bring success to the baby Dragons, who have missed the finals for the past two years.
“We’re very hopeful of a good year and I hope some of our guys kick on to the top grade,” Holbrook told NRL.com. “Hopefully I can bring some of the success I’ve had down here. Coaching under-20s is great because the boys are very enthusiastic about everything they do and this group here has been great in the pre-season.”
Keep an eye on forwards Jack Buchanan and Kem Seru, guys who could do some serious damage up front. And as far as speedsters go, you might see Yaw Kiti Glymin cross the stripe on the wing more often than not.
After finishing in fifth spot last season (before bowing out with consecutive losses), Roosters Toyota Cup coach Jason Taylor is expecting big things from his troops in 2012.
“I feel like we’re a long way ahead of where we were this time last year,” he said. “We’ve got a few more players that are backing up this time. Last year we only had two or three players in their second year of Toyota Cup. Now we’ve got 12 months under our belt but of course how that transforms onto the field, we’ll soon find out.”
Many in Taylor’s squad have spent the pre-season training with the NRL side and Taylor admits he wouldn’t be surprised if a handful pushed on to experience first grade this year.
“That’s been good for them – being exposed to full-time training and the standard that the NRL guys train at,” he said. “Toyota Cup is all about producing guys that are going to move up to the NRL but at the same time we’re looking to perform well this year too because if you’re not winning you’re not going to get guys performing their best anyway. We want individuals to be confident and showing their best footy.”
Consecutive Toyota Cup premierships is quite an achievement for the Warriors, who continue to develop pathways for the increasing number of emerging young Kiwis to progress to the NRL, and there is no reason to suggest they won’t be in the mix again in 2012.
Despite losing a number of players to the NRL squad – including Konrad Hurrell, Ben Henry, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Carlos Tuimavave and Sio Taukeiaho – the Warriors still boast nine members of last year’s grand final-winning squad with coach John Ackland confident they can continue their good run.
“I think we should have a good team,” he said. “I’m sure other clubs are well placed but I’m confident in the guys we’ve got. We’ve got more guys still here from last year than we did the year before so there is still some experience.
“I think we’ll be okay. I’d say that the junior base at this club is extremely healthy.”
The club has farewelled impressive youngsters Sosaia Feki and Adam Henry this season – the pair joining Cronulla and Sydney Roosters respectively.
A new coach and a new-look squad means 2012 remains somewhat of an unknown quantity for the Tigers’ under-20s, yet head coach Todd Payten – fresh from calling it quits on his impressive 16-season playing career – is confident that his boys can reach the finals for the second consecutive year after finishing seventh in 2011.
“I think we’re quite capable of going a long way in the competition, it’s just all those variables you’ve got to rely on,” Payten explained. “It’s not just form and injuries of our grade but first grade as well. I’m yet to experience all of that so it will be a learning year.”
Nevertheless, Payten admits that with only a handful of players remaining from last season, he will field a relatively young squad in 2012 so development remains his primary concern.
“Going on what Tim (Sheens) has told me, he expects them to be fit and disciplined,” he said. “While we’ll be out to win every game it’s more about development and getting those two things right in case they get called up to first grade.”
The Tigers are expecting big things from back-rower Jesse Sue, hooker Ben Saunders and former rugby union star Joel Luani this season while all eyes will no doubt be on Payten himself as he makes the transition from player to coach.
“It’s different. I’m learning a lot as I go,” Payten said. “I’m definitely paying a lot closer attention to what the coaches say or do. I’m getting a lot of help from the people around me and learning a lot from them. I’m enjoying it.”