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It will be an unforgettable moment for Riverina Rugby League supporters when the Junee Diesels take on Temora Dragons in the Group 9 season opener on Saturday, April 15.

The match will be the first time the Diesels have played first grade since the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and there will be plenty of talent on show with coach Damion Fraser and assistant coach Daniel Foley leading their side into a challenging competition.

Junee products and club stalwarts such as Foley and Pat Guthrie return to the fold, joining returning players Connor McAuley and Hayden Diggins, while the club has signed some new talent in the form of Zach Singh and Jeffery Robbert.

Additionally, Junee has retained the services of Burmeister Shield premiership-winning players Sireli Vulaono, Paula Naidike, Ratu Saurara, Tom Carroll and Jese Wainibuli, along with talented juniors Blayne Linsell, Sam Neale, Nick Hogarth, Will McDermott, Jack McCarthy, and Sam Sainsbury.

“I think we have got a great mix of players, and I think we will be very competitive,” Foley said.

“We have some experienced players, and I think especially with these young guys, they have got a lot of talent, and we've got a lot of guys right on the brink of playing first grade in the next year or so, and they will be pushing the club forward in the right direction.”

Foley has seen the highs and lows of Junee Rugby League and said this season is different to recent campaigns where the Diesels struggled to field sides.

“We had no juniors coming through, and we were hanging on for dear life, but now we have 16s and 18s and good juniors coming through, and everything is looking positive for the club,” Foley said.

Foley will learn from Fraser, who has done a fantastic job guiding the Diesels through the Group 9 first grade wilderness, even helping Junee to a Burmeister Shield (reserve grade) premiership in 2022.

“He knows his stuff, and he's got a pretty long history with the game of Rugby League, and he's done a lot with juniors at the Canberra Raiders, and he was their former strength and conditioning coach,” Foley said.

“I think together, we can create a good combination, and we can try and put the right things in place for the team to get the best out of our players.

“It should be good, and I think we might get better the further the season goes, as we have a lot of players that haven't played a great amount of footy together.”

The Diesels returning to first grade is a real win for the game in regional NSW and the hard-working Group 9 administrators who helped make it possible.

“It’s a great result for everyone involved,” Group 9 Chairman Andrew Hinchcliffe said.

“When I reflect on that, the immediate concern was the following year, and the focus was on making sure there was a pathway for Junee, and we wanted to offer them support.

“We set some guidelines to help them return, and a lot of the focus was on the club's culture at the time, and thankfully the club has made that process, and I'm thrilled to see them return to the competition in 2023.”

It wasn't a smooth road back to first grade, with the Diesels originally planning to return in 2022. When that didn't eventuate, they featured in the Burmeister Shield competition, which has set them up nicely for a return this season.

“It was a big job, and sometimes rebuilding a little bit slower, and getting the detail and the foundations right is fundamental, and that way a club doesn't set itself up for future failure,” Hinchcliffe said.

“Last year, Junee was trying hard to return to first grade, and to be honest, it might have been a blessing in disguise that they didn’t, and following last year’s success, that should ensure they have stronger foundations for the future.

“Plus, Junee is an iconic footy town, and we wanted to do it right. They have a proud history, and it smacks people in the face when you talk of the likes of Laurie Daley and other talented players the town has produced, and I'm just glad to see them back.”

Unfortunately for Group 9, Brothers won't take part in first grade this season, with the Wagga club unable to form a competitive playing group.

Hinchcliffe hopes that Junee's return will set a precedent for Brothers and other clubs that might struggle to field first grade sides in the future.

“I am confident Brothers will return, and a little bit of that will depend on the desire of the people at the club,” Hinchcliffe said.

“Following what happened to Junee, we better understand what steps need to be taken, and that’s healthy.

“Brothers have some work to do, and they had quite a large exodus of players, but they are up to the challenge and want to be back.”

Group 9 first grade Round One draw - April 15: Wagga Kangaroos v Gundagai Tigers at McDonald's Park; Temora Dragons v Junee Diesels at Nixon Park; April 16: Albury Thunder v Tumut Blues at Greenfield Park; Young Cherrypickers, Southcity Bulls (bye).

Acknowledgement of Country

New South Wales Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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