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Jeff Hanson

The 2022 Group 9 competition will kick-off this weekend (23-24 April), and a new season brings new life and fresh hope to all nine teams ready and raring for 16 rounds of enthralling Riverina Rugby League action.

One captain/coach that is more than hopeful that his side can play finals in 2022 is Temora Dragons skipper and former NRL star, Josh McCrone.

The Dragons finished fifth in 2021 before the season was brought to an early close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with minimal losses and a few key signings, McCrone believes the Red and Whites should at a ‘minimum’ be playing Group 9 finals.

“We were one game from finals last year when the competition stopped and I think finals is a minimum for us this year,” McCrone said.

“It’s a good competition and any team that wins it needs to be lucky with injuries, and I think our 17 is as good as any in the competition, and on our day, we can beat the best.”

The Dragons did remarkably well in 2021 following the club’s decision to sit out the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and McCrone said new players and more experienced juniors had the Dragons tracking nicely.

“Player numbers was the issue last season, but we went pretty well considering everything,” McCrone said.

“I think we set a good base for what we can do this year. We have the same core people there and with the pre-season we have had this year, we are a mile ahead of where we were this time last year.

“Plus, we have a few extra players there and some added depth.

While Temora has lost the likes of Luke Skidmore, Jaiden Burke and Sam Elwin, former St George Illawarra Dragon Hayden Lomax – the older brother of NRL star Zac Lomax – has returned to the club, while Zach and Harrison Starr join the fabled Red and Whites.

McCrone also touched on a good crop of locals ready to make their mark this season.

“Tyler Madden, Billy Reardon and Drew Robinson played well last year, and Jimmy Stewart has moved to Wollongong and is travelling back to play, and we have those blokes that can play multiple positions, so we have some versatility and players to fill holes,” he said.

Temora have the bye in Round One of the competition before taking on Junee in Round Two, and following a bumper harvest in the region, McCrone was pleased to see more and more faces at pre-season training.

“With our senior numbers, we will have somewhere around the 34 to 35 mark and there are blokes that haven’t shown up to training yet who just want to turn up and play a bit of reserve grade footy, which is fine,” McCrone said.

“A small group of us started training before Chrissy and it has picked up the last month, and we are getting more and more to training as we get closer to the season kicking off.

“Being a farming community, we didn’t get any farmers until the new year, but it is what it is, and we are starting to see good numbers and there is a good feeling around the club.

The 35-year-old is a Temora born and bred product, and following a 10-year, 191-game career at the top level, McCrone wants to emulate the feats achieved by Steve Reardon and Mark Stimson, who returned from the ARL in the early 2000s to guide Temora to a Group 9 title and Clayton Cup in 2004.

“When I left Temora, Mark Stimson and Steve Reardon were back playing for the club and we won the Clayton Cup, which is hard to do, especially in Group 9 with so many good teams to play against,” McCrone said.

“They were able to do that, and I don’t know if we will get back to being that successful, but we know that success breeds success and hopefully we can make finals and make our mark and continue to build a good playing group for the years to come.”

In a big Saturday and Sunday for Riverina Rugby League, Group 9 kicks off, while on Sunday, Group 20 will host their second round games.

Group 9 Round 1 draw: Wagga Brothers v Gundagai at McDonalds Park (Saturday); Junee v Southcity at Laurie Daley Oval (Sunday); Albury v Tumut at Greenfield Park (Sunday); Wagga Kangaroos v Young at McDonalds Park (Sunday); Temora on the bye.

Group 20 Round 2 draw: Hay v Darlington Point-Coleambally at Hay Park Field; Griffith Black and Whites v Griffith Waratahs at Solar Mad Stadium; Tullibigeal-Lake Cargelligo United Yanco-Wamoon at Lake Cargelligo Recreation Oval; Yenda v Leeton at Wade Park; West Wyalong (bye).

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