A long, tough preseason is finally over, and now the Tumut Blues will kick-off their 2021 campaign, that will hopefully see them finish atop the Group 9 standings and holding the grand final trophy at the end of the year.
Before then, 18 rounds of regular season rugby league and four rounds of finals need to be played – six months of hard and tough competition.
Up first for Tumut is the much-hyped Maher Cup, 100-year anniversary match against the Gundagai Tigers at Twickenham tomorrow, and the Blues will take in a new-look squad that will see eight changes from their line-up that was defeated by Gundagai 40-18 in the 2020 decider at McDonalds Park.
In major changes, Jordan Anderson is out suspended, so Lachlan Bristow joins Jacob Toppin in the halves.
Mitch Ivill and Cam Dowling return to the fold – Ivill starting at fullback and Dowling will come from the bench, while new recruit Ron Leapai, moves to the second row alongside Tommy Jeffery, pushing Adam Pearce to lock.
A fit Andy Harris starts on the wing, but the interest mainly lies with three players who will make their debut in first grade.
Tom Hickson (wing) and Jesse Bellchambers (hooker) have been named in the starting 13, while 17-year-old Malik Aitken will come from the bench in the number 14 jersey.
All three players are products of Tumut Minor League, and co-coach Lachlan Bristow, was ecstatic to be naming local talent in a star-studded Tumut line-up.
“It’s awesome. It is so good for the Blues to have some local boys coming through and personally for themselves, they are all pretty rapt and I’m sure they will do a good job,” Bristow said.
Aitken was a surprise selection to many, but not to Bristow and the Blues staff, who have been impressed by the youngster’s attention to detail at training.
“It is a big pat on the back for Mal, he has had a great preseason and a lot of sessions with the boys,” Bristow said.
“He will be used as a bit of cover and back up and if anyone goes down, he is there to add some spark.”
Jesse Bellchambers has arguably the biggest shoes to fill, when stepping into starting hooker.
The 20-year-old left rugby league in 2015, playing two years with the Tumut Bulls, before venturing to Canberra to play three years with the Royals, and after a good Pub 9s and big preseason, Bristow was again left impressed.
“We really like his willingness to learn, he has come from union and it is a bit different to playing league,” Bristow said.
“His attitude is awesome; he is tough and fit and I think he can handle it.”
There was no surprise when Tom Hickson was named in the Blues starting 13, after dominating the recent Tumut Pub 9s, although nobody expected the 20-year-old to be named on the wing.
“He has been really good, he has been very keen and this year, he came to me early on and said he wanted to have a crack at it and play first grade,” Bristow said.
“He is a little bit out of position, but I think he will do a good job there and he will offer some cover if we need to fill a few positions.”
Bristow, who will team up with new co-coach Zac Masters, after the retirement of Blues stalwart Dean Bristow, admitted there may be some teething issues early on.
Still, he believed an eager Blues squad would make up for anything lost with enthusiasm.
“I think trying to find those combinations will be the challenge, but if we base our game around attitude and effort, we will be right,” Bristow said.
“Our preparation has been a bit ordinary with rep games and Pub 9s, but that’s no excuse and I’m sure all of the boys will be ready come Saturday.”
Tumut Blues: 1. Mitch Ivill, 2. Andy Harris, 3. Brayden Draber, 4. Tolo Aroha-Tuinauvai, 5. Tom Hickson, 6. Jacob Toppin, 7. Lachlan Bristow (cc), 8. Zac Masters (cc), 9. Jesse Bellchambers, 10. Jed Pearce, 11. Tommy Jeffery, 12. Ron Leapai, 13. Adam Pearce, 14. Malik Aitken, 15. Lewis Arragon, 16. Matthew Byatt, 17. Cam Dowling.
Gundagai Tigers: 1. Dane O’Hehir, 2. Jack Lyons, 3. Ryan McQueen, 4. Aisea Taholo, 5. Charlie Barton, 6. Tyron Gorman, 7. Derek Hay, 8. Joel Field, 9. James Luff, 10. Luke Berkrey (cc), 11. Jake Elphick, 12. Royce Tout, 13. Troy Barby, 14. Dylan Murdoch, 15. Afa Collins, 16. Mark Elphick, 17. Chris Rose, 18. Vaughn Scott.
10am: Sullivan Cup
11.15am: Weissel Cup
1.20pm: Burmeister Shield
2.35pm: First Grade