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St Marys and Hills Bulls building for premiership defence

Premiers of the Leagues Clubs Australia Ron Massey Cup (RMC) and Sydney Shield will be hunting for back-to-back finals success when the 2024 season gets underway this weekend.

“For us it’s not so much about being the ‘hunted’ because we’re defending premiers, we try to reverse that script and say we’re still the ‘hunter’,” St Marys RMC coach Darren Baker said.

“We’re out to prove to everyone that last year was not a one-off thing.”

Helping that cause is the fact Baker has retained the majority of his 2023 squad. In last year’s Grand Final, seven different players scored tries in the 40-12 win over Wentworthville Magpies.

The win was St Marys first Ron Massey Cup title.

In Sydney Shield it was a much closer affair with Hills Bulls finally getting over the top of St Marys in a thrilling 34-30 Grand Final win.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you want to look at it, a number of our guys from last year’s premiership team have graduated into Under 21s Jersey Flegg for various clubs like Melbourne (fullback Brad Avery), Balmain (winger Joseph Jaber), and Parramatta (hooker Kruz Niutili-Schmidt),” Hills Bulls coach Matt Kelly said.

Centre Tui Afualo has also moved north looking for an opportunity in the Queensland Cup.

“We were in a very similar situation to this time last year, where we had an under-strength team, but we bonded well and in the end we won the competition,” Kelly said.

“I got a couple of players out of the North Sydney Bears Under 19s (SG Ball) when they finished Junior Reps. I’ll be looking to do that again as it’d be great to go back-to-back.”

The St Marys line-up for Round One on Saturday (5pm) against Mounties at Aubrey Keech Reserve is similar to the team that won the competition last year. The match will be telecast live on NSWRL TV, which now has a dedicated app available on the Apple App store and Google Play.

“We’ve had a really good pre-season across the board with pretty much the majority of our team from last year,” he said.

“We’ve also got a couple of new additions such as Wenty prop Niko Apelu, who has looked really sharp.

“But some of the faces from last year, like outside back Christian Crichton and back rower Joe Vaegaau have been training really well. Joe will be our captain again this year. (Pictured at top with the trophy)

Hills Bulls celebrate 2023 Sydney Shield premiership win. Photos: Bryden Sharp
Hills Bulls celebrate 2023 Sydney Shield premiership win. Photos: Bryden Sharp

“We’ve also got Hayden Bonanno back. He did his ACL in Round Two against Hills Bulls last year but magically the ligament has re-attached itself so he’s starting for me at No.7 this weekend.”

The halfback jersey was normally filled by goalkicker Zac Greene.

“Zac will be back in Round Two or Three – he’s just coming back from a shoulder operation,” Baker said. “But Jake Butfield, who was NSWRL’s Ron Massey Cup Player of the Year, he’s a good goalkicker so he’ll be our kicker against Mounties.”

Kelly’s Hills Bulls face the Glebe Dirty Reds on Sunday (17 March) in Round One action of the Sydney Shield.

“We’ve brought in a few of our Under 19s just to give them a pre-season with us, to try and bring them through our Hills District pathways,” Kelly said.

“They played all three trials and some of gone back now but I’ve also kept a couple.

“These first three rounds of Sydney Shield will give them another opportunity as we have a few players not back from injuries yet.”

Losing No.1 Avery as the side’s chief goalkicker has been off-set by promoting Lachlan Thomson, who was in-and-out of Sydney Shield last year.

“He’s had a great pre-season, so he’ll come back in as fullback and kick goals. We’ve also retained our five-eighth Dylan Marshall, whose pretty handy with the boot, so we’re covered.”

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