Broncos' under-20s set for Maroons masterclass
They'll have every right to feel a little starstruck at first, but the under-20s Maroons' opportunity to train alongside Queensland's Origin greats represents a "wonderful reward for effort and hard work" according to Broncos NYC coach Craig Hodges.
A whopping 10 players from Brisbane's NYC side have been selected for the Queensland under-20s team that will take on their New South Wales counterparts in the curtain raiser to Wednesday's Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium.
In preparation for battle, the Maroons' junior and senior sides will take on each other in an opposed training session at Sanctuary Cove on Sunday afternoon.
For Hodges, who took over the reins as Brisbane's under-20s coach in 2013, Sunday's session allows his contingent of players the opportunity to tap into the footballing brains of some of the NRL's brightest talents.
"There are some genuine legends of the game in that Queensland side so to train opposite them and have a chat to them afterwards would be enormous for an 18 or 19-year-old," Hodges told NRL.com.
"Imagine if Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk or Justin Hodges has a word to you and ticks you up on something. As a young fella if one of them gives you advice you got back to club training and work your backside off on whatever they told you to do.
"I think it will be a huge thrill for them and a fantastic experience. When you're in the under-20s system your first grade team trains in the day and they train during the evening so you don't really cross paths with the NRL guys."
Aside from Brisbane's 10 representatives, four Cowboys, two Titans and one player each from the Tigers and Raiders round out Queensland's under-20s squad, coached by former Cronulla, St George and Adelaide Rams utility Kurt Wrigley.
Having such a large chunk of Queensland's side come from the Broncos is deserved recognition for the club in the opinion of Hodges, with his NYC side sitting third on the ladder and only one point behind the table-toping Panthers.
"I've got a close relationship with all the boys in the side so I'll be watching the game with enormous pride – it's like having 10 sons out there representing Queensland on the one occasion," the father of three daughters said.
"I'm probably biased but I think it's a wonderful reward for effort and the hard work our boys have put in. I've been involved with them for a few years now and a lot of those boys have been through the system for a couple of years so I've been able to see how they've progressed."
Hodges is expecting all of his Broncos' troops to fire on Wednesday night as the Maroons look to win the Darren Lockyer Shield for the first time since the under-20s State of Origin concept was introduced in 2012.
"I think Jayden Berrell will be very good from dummy-half – he's been very consistent for us for a long period of time now. He's a smart hooker and a very tough character and he'll do a wonderful job," he said.
"[Lock] Jai Arrow will also be fabulous and I think he's ready for some senior footy. The halves will very good too – if the forwards can get rolling I think Ash Taylor and Jayden Nikorima can play some good footy off the back of that and hopefully bring the backline into play.
"I think they'll all do a good job and make their state proud."
With limited time for match preparation, player continuity takes on even more importance for the young Maroons, who will be aided with their 'spine' constructed solely from the Broncos under-20s side.
Fullback Paul Byrnes, who has Intrust Super Cup experience with the Redcliffe Dolphins, joins teammates Nikorima, Taylor and Berrell in Queensland's spine, with the latter three having 42 try assists and 42 line-break assists between them so far this season.
Arrow leads the under-20s competition in hit-ups and ranks second in offloads, while Taylor is the NYC's second-highest point scorer after Round 16.
Hodges believes these club combinations are the key to defeating NSW for first time in the under-20s Origin arena.
"I'd like to think our [Broncos] combinations can certainly help them. I think Kurt Wrigley is a very smart coach and I'll think he'll have them as well prepared as he can," he said.
"The two senior Queensland and Australian teams have a wonderful advantage – at the highest level they have Smith, Cronk and [Billy] Slater together who play and train together every week – so instead of having two or three training sessions together they've had two or three years.
"Not only do [the Queensland under-20s] have a combination with each other, they also have a genuine affection and care for one another.
"You're not just playing alongside a bloke you've been picked in a side for, you're playing alongside a mate that you share your life with.
"It's a huge thrill for these young fellas and that's why I'll sit back with enormous pride.
"I'll be very happy for my boys to get the result because I know how excited they'd be about that."