CANTERBURY PRODUCTS SET TO SHINE IN NSWRL AND QRL JUNIOR COMPS
The opening rounds of the 2024 New South Wales Rugby League and Queensland Rugby League junior competitions are just weeks away – and an unprecedented number of Canterbury products are set to feature after joining, or returning to, clubs in Australia and Auckland.
NSWRL’s Harold Matthews Cup (under-17s), SG Ball Cup (under-19s) and Tarsha Gale Cup (women’s under-18s) kick off on February 3, while the Jersey Flegg Cup (under-21s) commences on March 9, running alongside the NSW Cup and NRL premiership.
QRL’s junior leagues, the under-16s Cyril Connell Cup and under-18s Mal Meninga Cup, get underway on February 10, with the second-tier senior Queensland Cup unfolding from March 9.
Canterbury Rugby League’s 2024 Red and Black Report will chart the progress of the region’s juniors in Australian competitions throughout the season.
CRL’s development and pathways partnership with Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs is solidified by some returning players and coaches, along with some new faces, from Canterbury to help spearhead their junior teams’ campaigns.
Halswell stalwart Shannon Rushworth coached Canterbury-Bankstown’s Harold Matthews team to the 2023 title and is back this year – with former Canterbury Bulls rep and Northern Bulldogs mainstay Kyle Reuben as an assistant.
Former Northern five-eighth Bronson Reuben and Hornby second-rower Sosaia Alatini were key performers in the Bulldogs’ Harold Matts triumph, and they have graduated to the club’s SG Ball ranks for 2024, where they will be joined by Linwood duo and Canterbury age-group reps Chelden Hayward and Genesis Sherlock.
Hayward was selected in the centres in the NZRL National Secondary Schools squad after starring in St Thomas of Canterbury College’s landmark tournament win in September.
A clutch of Canterbury juniors will be showing their wares in the NSWRL’s competitions from slightly closer to home, with four players set to feature in the Warriors’ inaugural Harold Matthews Cup campaign and five named in the club’s SG Ball Cup squad.
St Thomas’ quartet Micah Sula, Bishop Neal, Isaiah Savea (all Hornby) and Lennox Tuiloma (Linwood), who represented Canterbury 16s together in 2023, are in the Warriors’ Harold Matts team. Five players from last year’s Canterbury 18s squad, Hornby’s Noah Harmer-Campbell, Meihana Pauling and Jackson Stewart, and Papanui’s Jason Salalilo and Ezekiel Faga-Ieti, will help drive the Warriors’ SG Ball season; all five were part of St Thomas’ NZSST victory and were named in the New Zealand Secondary Schools Boys squad (as was Tuiloma), while Harmer-Campbell was hooker for the South Island Scorpions 20s team that reached the NZRL Ruben Wiki Cup final.
Tanner Stowers-Smith, who captained the Warriors’ SG Ball team in 2023 before making a huge impact for their NSW Cup side, is still eligible for the club’s incoming Jersey Flegg Cup team in 2024. But the great-grandson of Canterbury legend and former Kiwis captain Pat Smith is more likely to be a mainstay in the NSW Cup pack – if not break through for an NRL debut at some stage during the season.
Linwood’s Makaia Tafua is also still eligible for the Warriors’ Jersey Flegg squad but will have his sights set higher after earning a NSW Cup debut in the final regular-season round of 2023.
There’s four Canterbury products at Cronulla, with giant Halswell forward and provincial age-group rep Richie Tupuailei joining 2023 regular and ex-Hornby forward Felix Faatili in the Sharks’ Jersey Flegg squad.
Former Linwood playmaker Cairo Ruri – who starred in South Logan Magpies’ Mal Meninga Cup side last year – will be striving for game time in Cronulla’s SG Ball team. Papanui’s Jaydika Tafua will be part of the Sharks’ Tarsha Gale Cup side, for whom ex-Canterbury rep, Linwood women’s coach and CRL Development Officer Kylie O’Loughlin is an assistant coach. Tafua played in Souths Logan Magpies’ junior grades in 2023.
Second-rower/centre Te Kaio Cranwell, who was named in the NZRL 20s Tournament Team after starring for South Island Scorpions, represented Canterbury 18s and featured in Linwood’s CRL Premiership grand final victory in a whirlwind 2023, heads to Newcastle Knights to play for their SG Ball team.
Cranwell could line up against his Linwood clubmate and Canterbury 18s teammate Dakota Kakoi – who has been snapped up to play in Parramatta’s SG Ball side – when the Knights play the Eels in March.
Highly-rated Halswell half Oliver Lawry had his SG Ball campaign with Balmain in 2023 stymied by injury, but he’s part of Wests Tigers’ Jersey Flegg squad this season.
Hornby product Josiah-Ekkehard Neli, yet another Canterbury age-group rep, skippered Melbourne’s SG Ball side from lock last year and moves up into the Storm’s Jersey Flegg squad in 2024. He’ll pack down again with Riccarton prop K-Ci Newton Whare – whose father, Vince Whare, was a stalwart for Riccarton and Canterbury – after he also made impressive progress at the Storm in 2023, graduating from Melbourne’s SG Ball ranks and earning a string of Jersey Flegg appearances.
In Queensland, Linwood’s and St Thomas’ Eli Bijl-Kakoi will play for Norths Devils’ Mal Meninga Cup side, while ex-Hornby and St Thomas’ Donte Tahuhu-Wilson is in Brisbane Tigers’ Cyril Connell Cup and Gold Coast Titans’ development squads. Bijl-Kakoi and Tahuhu-Wilson represented Canterbury 18s and 16s, respectively, in 2023.
There’s big news in the refereeing ranks, too, with a pair of 2023 CRL whistle-blowers – Otago’s Liam O’Brien and Blenheim-based Jack Feavers – included in the NRL Pathways Program. Feavers, who controlled last season’s CRL Men’s Premiership grand final, ran the touchlines in the Warriors’ home SG Ball matches in 2023.
O’Brien will continue his officiating journey elsewhere in 2024, but Feavers is expected back in Canterbury’s premiership referee contingent again.