It was another successful year in the Junior Representative ranks, with NSWRL boasting the national title holders in both under-16s and under-18s divisions.
After a gruelling selection process throughout the offseason, the Harold Matthews Cup kicked off in February and was a rollercoaster for all teams involved, with the Cronulla Sharks shaping as early favourites after a blistering start which included an 82-0 Round 1 thrashing of South West Sydney Academy of Sport. They remained definite possibilities of defending their 2015 title throughout the season, but as the competition progressed it was the Sharks, Eels and Knights that settled in as Harold Matthews heavyweights.
Undefeated throughout the regular season, Parramatta took the minor premiership and looked hard to beat throughout the finals – while Cronulla bowed out in straight sets thanks to upsets caused by the Newcastle and Penrith. A Dylan Brown field goal was all that could separate the Eels and Panthers in the Grand Final Qualifier, sending them to the decider where they would face the Knights.
At Pepper Stadium a week later, the Knights were subject to a devastating injury toll which saw them lose their leader Brock Gardner early in the second half. Regardless, the Newcastle boys showed great character under adversity to draw within two points of Parramatta with just five minutes remaining, setting up a grandstand finish in Penrith. It wasn’t to be for the Knights, however, with the Eels hanging on to take their 19th title in the Harold Matthews competition. Skipper Kyle Schneider was awarded Man Of The Match Honours.
The Eels had completed the remarkable feat of winning every game they played in 2016 and finished the competition deserved winners – but the next task would be to unseat a heavyweight of the QRL’s under-16s Cyril Connell Cup competition. The Townsville Blackhawks, formerly the Townsville Stingers, were into the National Junior Final for the second consecutive year and were out to avenge their 2015 defeat. The sides met at Brisbane’s Albert Bishop Park on 15 May.
While the Harold Matthews decider provided a see-sawing battle between two evenly-matched sides, the same cannot be said about the under-16s National Junior Final. Through a try to Charbel Tasipale the Blue and Golds got on the scoreboard early – and never looked back, racing out to a 22-0 half-time lead. They showed similar dominance in the second stanza and thanks to a Man Of The Match-winning performance from JP Nohra at fullback, the Eels kept the Blackhawks scoreless to win 32 points to nil.
The under-18s division was perhaps a closer affair throughout the season, but the Sharks’ early dominance spread across both grades; after their 76-12 thrashing of the West Coast Pirates in Round 1, the club had amassed an incredible 158-12 scoreline between the Harold Matthews and SG Ball to start the season. They did, however, soon fall behind and the Panthers, Cutters and Knights surged ahead of the pack as the weeks progressed. It was Newcastle who earned the Minor Premiership in 2016, but they were just four points differential ahead of an Illawarra side that hasn’t won any sort of silverware since dual titles in 1996.
The three teams were involved in two of the games of the year in Finals Week 1, with the Knights edging out the Rabbitohs 23-22 in a Golden Point encounter and the Steelers overcoming a mountain of late defence to hang on to a 26-22 win over the Panthers. With the Knights falling to the Panthers in the Preliminary Finals, however, the Panthers faced the mental battle of a Grand Final against the Steelers – the side responsible for both their losses this year.
If the crowd at Penrith thought the Knights had bad injury troubles in the Harold Matthews decider, they hadn’t prepared for the injury toll that hit the Steelers in the SG Ball. Captain Hayden Lomax, hooker Cooper Purcell and fullback Steven Marsters all left the field throughout the match, leaving a disjointed spine and just one on the bench. The Panthers were too good not to make the most of their advantage and won the game 25-10 to be crowned SG Ball champions in front of a vocal home crowd.
Like the under-16s Eels, the Panthers faced up to the Blackhawks in the Under-18s National Junior Final – a team that had been there for the two years previously, but was yet to come out on top. It was a high-scoring affair in hot, dry Brisbane conditions, but Penrith maintained the lead over Townsville for its entirety and eventually made it three consecutive National Junior Final defeats for their opponents. The Panthers won 38-28, and dummy-half Treymaine Brown was judged best on ground in the encounter.
With the junior representative competitions concluded, our attention turns to two big interstate games taking place in June. NSW are set to take on Queensland in both age groups throughout the State of Origin series, with the under-16s playing a curtain-raiser to Origin I at ANZ Stadium and the under-18s facing off before Origin II at Suncorp Stadium. While the under-18s squad is yet to be narrowed down, the under-16s team has been finalised for the first encounter on 1 June.