June 15 2023
As seen on canterburyrugbyleague.co.nz
Canterbury’s and South Island’s most promising youth players will get a rare opportunity to test themselves against top-quality Australian opposition next month, courtesy of a short tour by Canberra Raiders’ under-18s team.
The Raiders’ squad – essentially the best talent coming through the club’s academy, including fringe SG Ball (under-19s) players from this year’s campaign and the players who will make up next season’s SG Ball line-up – will play two matches in four days in Christchurch.
First up, the Raiders will face the Canterbury 19s team on Thursday, July 13, followed by a clash with South Island Scorpions 18s on Sunday, July 16.
“There will be some very talented players in the Canberra team – many I’m sure who will go and eventually play in the NRL – so it’s very exciting,” Southern Zone Rugby League General Manager Liam Turner says.
“Dean Souter, who runs the Junior Raiders High Performance Program, got in touch to see if we were interested in organising a game and it went from there.”
The Scorpions 18s squad will be selected from the South Island youth tournament, which is being held the previous weekend in Oamaru.
“It’s a short turnaround and puts a bit of pressure on us, but it’s too good an opportunity to turn down and we’re excited by it,” Turner explains.
“It provides a great pathway for any 18s boys playing in our tournament to be selected in this team and is another great example that the pathway to the NRL is right at the doorstep of South Island-based players.”
Having any junior team affiliated with an NRL club playing matches in Canterbury is an obvious coup, but Canberra has a massive reputation as a breeding ground of elite rugby league talent.
All-time greats such as Bradley Clyde, Glenn Lazarus and Ricky Stuart came through the ACT junior system during the 1980s, while fellow icon Laurie Daley was developed by the Raiders after arriving from nearby Junee as a 17-year-old. The local products helped form the nucleus of the famed ‘Green Machine’ that won premierships in 1989-90 and ’94.
More recent NRL stars such as Jarrod Croker, Josh Dugan, Josh Papalii, Anthony Milford, Jack Wighton and Hudson Young debuted for the Raiders after emerging through the club’s junior pathways and NYC (under-20s) team. Canberra’s SG Ball team was one game away from the SG Ball grand final in the 2023 competition, which wrapped up in April.
Meanwhile, these upcoming fixtures in Christchurch provide another key chance for players to impress and potentially follow in the footsteps of the increasing number of South Island juniors who are progressing to the elite level.
“There’s so many players who have gone through our system and our pathways that have gone on to a higher level – right at the top in the NRL with the likes of Jordan Riki and Griffin Neame, but also recent examples like Callum Donaldson from the West Coast going from the Scorpions earlier this year to a Melbourne Storm feeder club,” Turner enthuses.
“It highlights that even though we are seemingly a bit isolated down here, the opportunities for our boys and girls at the moment are right there for them and it’s really exciting.
“The Warriors have an under-17s (Harrold Matthews Cup) and under-21s (Jersey Flegg) entering the NSW competitions in 2024, to go with their recently reintroduced under-19s (SG Ball) team, so that’s also a big opportunity for our youth.”
Team line-ups in the 2023 Harold Matthews, SG Ball and Jersey Flegg competitions this season have peppered with tyros who have come directly from Halswell Hornets, Hornby Panthers, Linwood Keas and Northern Bulldogs, as well as Scorpions age-group teams.
Turner praises the dedication and hard work of coaches, volunteers and administrators – such as Canterbury’s and Eastern Eagles’ Archie Jacobs – for helping create the progressively clear pathway from junior club football, to South Island representative teams and eventually into the systems of NRL clubs.
“Southern Zone may have limited resources compared to other regions, but it’s definitely a big focus for us.
“People like Archie Jacobs, who has been a big part of the Scorpions system – nearly all of those players who have gone on to Australian clubs or the Warriors have been coached by him – so a lot of credit to him, along with many others.
“It’s a small wee team that works hard to make sure these players get these opportunities.”
With the only three weeks until the South Island youth tournament, Turner is encouraging players to put themselves in the frame for Scorpions selection in Oamaru.
Canterbury’s youth teams for the trip south will be named later this week, but other teams are still looking to fill out their squads.
“Our smaller districts looking for extra numbers, hopefully that’s a push for some of those players to put their hand up – come and play in this tournament and give yourself a chance to have a crack at the Raiders,” Turner says.