A visitor to an Aquis Titans’ pre-season training session would notice there are certainly many fresh faces in the ranks.
That’s not just a description of the 10 players new to the club who are in the NRL squad but the youth around the group which is the youngest in the club’s history.
Neil Henry’s squad of 38 which has been going through the rigours of seven weeks of hard graft includes 13 players who are aged 21 or younger: Nene Macdonald (21), Kierran Moseley (21), Kane Elgey (21), Karl Lawton (20), Oshae Tuiasau (20), Ash Taylor (20) who are all on NRL contracts, and six players who are eligible for the Holden Cup and are in Ben Woolf’s squad in Brian Kelly, Jed Cartwright, Morgan Boyle, Kurt Bernard and Shane Wright who are all 19 and 18-year-old Greg Leleisiuao.
And the opportunity for the six under-20s players to have trained full-time with seasoned professionals like Greg Bird, Luke Douglas, Ryan James, William Zillman, David Mead, David Shillington, Zeb Taia and Nathan Friend could be a decisive factor in not just an improved performance by Ben Woolf’s Holden Cup side, but the future of the Titans.
The six have been identified as those with potential to progress to NRL level, a transition that has not seen too many National Youth League players become prominent Titans senior players since Mead, James, Ben Ridge and Kevin Gordon were among the emerging group in the club’s early days.
Nine of the current training group played in the Holden Cup competition last season – the six mentioned above plus Tuiasau and Lawton, who moved up to NRL contracts from the Titans’ under-20s, and Junior Kangaroo halfback and NYC player of the year Ash Taylor who signed from the Broncos.
“I think that gives an indication of how we want to develop our squad and provide a pathway for young players,” Henry says.
“We want to be a development club, not a recruitment club, and we are looking to retain and promote the best of our young talent and supplement them with experienced campaigners and NRL talent in our key positions.
“The six players from Ben Woolf’s squad will benefit greatly by being in our full-time training group and have adapted really well to the intensity and training load, and the natural education of mixing with full-time NRL players in areas of training, recovery and diet.
“They will go back to Ben Woolf’s squad as leaders who will be better served to handle a possible transition to the NRL.”
Bernard (Melbourne Storm) and Boyle (Canberra Raiders) were scouted to give the under-20s more size and impact and have impressed with their attitude.
Cartwright played only 10 games last season, scoring eight tries, before succumbing to an ankle injury that required surgery. Leleisiuao is still a raw talent who scored 10 tries in his 12 games. Wright, who has been outstanding in training, overcame missing 2014 with a knee injury by playing all but one match last season and improving gradually while Kelly had an impressive second season in the NYC, scoring four tries for NSW in the under-20s Origin clash against a Queensland team that included Taylor, Lawton and Tuiasau.
“The six of us are pretty tight and have really developed a good relationship and we have talked about when we go back we have to lead the 20s, and show the benefit from the experience,” said Morgan who went from working as an electrical apprentice in Canberra to the full-time training routine for the first time on the Gold Coast.
“The boys from last year’s 20s here talk about wanting to be more competitive and make the eight and I want to play a leading role in that.
“I have a lot more energy in training and been able to put in a lot more and there’s got a lot of pointers and tips from the guys here. Ryan James, Dougie and Birdy really pushed me along.”
Cartwright has piled on 14kg in a year as a result of his natural filling out (just like his father at the same age), weights program and months of inactivity after his ankle surgery mid-year. He played centre or five-eighth during his under-age days but knows he is destined for the back row.
And he has embraced the tough training grind.
“I have learned a lot training with the experienced guys and I want to take that back to the under-20s,” he said.
“They are definitely open at giving you advice, both good and negative. It’s good getting the tough advice and taking it on board because it shows you’re willing to work on your game and show you’re dedicated and want to work on my weaknesses.”
Says Kelly, who was working as a labourer - which meant his work and Titans training days started at 6am and finished at 7pm – before taking on a job as a teacher’s aide at Mudgeereba primary school earlier this year – knows he has leapt ahead in physical capabilities and maturity in the past two months.
“I’ve learned heaps, straight off from the first week, doing drills with David Mead and Greg Bird, guys I used to watch growing up. Meady plays the same position and I try to base my game around him and he’s really professional which has been a good influence on me too.”
The incentive for the six under-20s players, and the three who competed in the Holden Cup last year, is without doubt the tremendous rookie season of Kane Elgey in 2015. It has awoken a large group of young players on the Coast to what they can achieve.
“Kane is two years older than me and I watched him go through the ranks at Palm Beach Currumbin High School and play Australian Schoolboys and now NRL and it does give you confidence and something to follow,” said fellow ex-PBC student Cartwright.
Added Kelly: “I played my first year of under-20s with Kane, and he has given me good advice and been an inspiration for all of us. Not many have progressed through from our 20s to NRL so his success has given us the drive to emulate him.”
PICTURED: Back – Brian Kelly, Shane Wright, Greg Leleisiuao. Front – Jed Cartwright, Kurt Bernard and Morgan Boyle.