After Mat Thomas’ final, 23-man NSW Country side for this year’s shortened, two-game program was revealed on Monday evening one thing looks unmistakably clear – 2018 could be the start of a new era for the Cockatoos.
Headlined by Central West Blue Bulls Tom Green, Peter Fitzsimmons, Chris Miller, Dan Ryan and Mahe Fangupo this year’s young Cockatoos side contains, as Thomas put it, “a huge number of new faces”.
So much so, just three players involved in last year’s almost-undefeated campaign have retained their spots – Ryan, Illawarra flanker Leighton Cowley and Central Coast prop Kevin McNamara.
That’s partly due to the majority of Newcastle-Hunter players not being available and a few injuries to, but more due to the now-Cockatoos’ performances at Warren’s country week and then an intense, one-day selection camp at Singleton two weekends ago.
“I’ve always been about (initially) selecting on performance at country week, and the camp was excellent. Players travelled from everywhere, we pumped them full of information and some guys really stood up, while others did go the other way,” Thomas, who is hugely excited by the potential in the 2018 group, explained.
“I’m really happy with this side, there’s a lot of new faces and it’s a very different-looking squad but we look at that really positively. There’s a lot of younger players in the group and I think we’re really helping look after the future of NSW Country Rugby Union.
“It’s a fine line picking these sides, do you look at purely winning games or development as well? I think we’ve got a really strong group together, but we’re looking to the future too, I think we’ve found a good balance.
“I love it, it’s really exciting and this is what Country rugby is about, guys earning their chance to shine in a Cockatoos jersey.”
While Parkes’ Ryan was in last year’s side Forbes halfback Fangupo, who was player-of-the-tournament at Warren and Cowra and Blue Bulls skipper Miller return to the Cockatoos’ set-up after a couple of years.
Orange Emus’ Green and Bathurst Bulldogs’ Fitzsimmons, both former NSW Country Colts, will make their debuts at this level in the Cockatoos’ first game against the ACT Provincial outfit on June 17.
Green was inches away from a spot on the wing last year and has taken the next step this year as a result of huge performances recently and Thomas’ preference to run the ball, while Fitzsimmons’ selection is somewhat surprising.
Not the fact he’s been picked, more so where he’s expected to play.
With Cockatoos regular Steve Lamont and incumbent Ethan McInnes hurt, Fitzsimmons’ versatility was a huge drawcard for Thomas, who confirmed the Bulldogs skipper will spend time at hooker.
“He’ll play in the back-row and at hooker, he’ll play a dual role for us this year,” Thomas said.
“He’s someone I’ve coached before at the colts level and he was outstanding back then, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence now and he just brings so much to the table for us.
“We did need to be picking six guys to play in the front-row, and Fitzy has that versatility.
“Greeny, although he could do with a haircut, was close last year and has really impressed us this year. I coached him at colts level too. He’s a strong guy and with a shortened program we want to be running the ball, playing really exciting rugby, and his ball-running from the back three will be a huge part of that.”
Thomas also admitted he and fellow selectors have shown a lot of faith in Fangupo, considering he wasn’t able to do a lot at the camp because of a knee injury which he only returned from in Forbes’ Blowes Clothing Cup win over Orange City last weekend.
“Mahe was player-of-the-tournament (at Warren), and you don't win that award without being very, very good,” Thomas said.
“Honestly we carried him through the camp largely out of respecting that and we did want our physios to have a look at him as well.
“But with a full game under his belt last weekend and a bit more time between now and our first game, we’ve got plenty of confidence in him.”
The Cockatoos head into camp at Camden on June 16 before facing ACT Provincial the following day, with the second and final game of their 2018 program a few weeks later against Queensland Country.
While Thomas said the squad isn’t expected to change barring exceptional circumstances, he did admit a player like Illawarra captain Paul Tuala is a big chance to come into the side if fit, he’s hurt at the moment.
“He seems like he’s just getting better with age, Paul, to be honest. He’s always been outstanding but he’s playing smarter now too,” Thomas said.
“The squad shouldn’t change but we will look at performance and obviously if someone gets hurt then you consider making changes.
“We’re looking forward to this year’s program.”
- NSW COUNTRY COCKATOOS: Mahe Fangupo, Peter Fitzsimmons, Tom Green, Chris Miller, Dan Ryan (Central West), Tom Baker, Takunda Chimwaza, Leighton Cowley, Sam Latu, Amos Leef, Jay Spencer, Tait-Tania Tuumuliileuao, Aisake Tuevu, (Illawarra), Andrew Collins (North West Bushrangers), Ed Cordingly, Chris Logan (Mid North Coast), Ben Damen, Sam Pearce, (Far North Coast), Ritchie Steele (Western Plains), Marc Koteczky, Eddie Laupola, Kevin McNamara (Central Coast), Sam Callow (Mid North Coast)