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Developing local talent has always been of vital importance to the Newcastle Knights.

From the Club's inception in 1988 through to the current times, the Club takes great pride out of producing their own home grown talent and guiding them to bigger and better things.  

We've seen this over the years through a host of names from Paul Harragon, Matt Gidley, Danny Buderus through to Andrew Johns, Billy Peden and Jarrod Mullen.      

This focus on the junior ranks continues today through the High Performance Unit, a program set up by coach Wayne Bennett to provide opportunities for top range emerging players to learn their craft. 

The HPU program may only be two years old, but the Knights are already benefiting with four SG Ball players stepping up to the Holden Cup (Under 20s) ranks last season.  

It's a success that's also had a flow-on effect to the entire Club in 2014 with all three junior teams excelling.

The Under 20s are currently on top of the Holden Cup table after seven rounds, while the Harold Matthews (Under 16s) team recently clinched the Club's first minor premiership in the age division in over a decade. 

The SG Ball team are also performing well having qualified for the finals. 

While there's no doubting the junior ranks are flourishing, this wasn't always the case prior to the introduction of the HPU program.  

And the stats don't lie. 

In the six years of the NYC competition, the Knights have produced just five NRL players.

They have also only had two players make the NYC Team of the Year.

Something had to change and it's why the HPU program was implemented to help develop local players with a national focus. 

Program coach Troy Pezet has no doubts the entire Newcastle Club will benefit from their continued focus on the junior ranks. 

"When Wayne came here, he saw the need for a bit of a change in regards to what we were doing with our junior rep program," he says.

"Everywhere he has been starting at the Broncos he had a lot of success turning local juniors into first graders and likewise at the Dragons.

"So he noticed that we weren’t going to turn 25 players out of Harold Matthews and SG Ball into NRL players.

"It's why we needed to identify the best players in each age group to give them extra training in leadership skills and mental challenges.

"That’s not going to guarantee us NRL players, but it will give us a chance to come from a wide pool and narrow it down to a group we see as potential leaders." 

One of these players was outside back Sione Mata'utia, who has gone from the SG Ball and Holden Cup to the full-time NRL squad within 12 months.         

Mata'utia is a great example of how the High Performance Unit can prepare players for the demands of the first grade competition. 

He was part of a SG Ball side that won only four games in 2012, yet still managed to rise up the ranks thanks largely to the HPU program. 

"We made it because of the training that they did after the SG Ball season," Mata'utia says. 

"As the season finishes, normally people would just go back to club footy and just train twice a week.

"But with the HPU, we’d train one heavy session at the start on Monday and some fitness and then it just keeps developing your skills.

"That’s where that program helped me more, because fitness wise I wasn’t up to speed with the 20s.

"So I thought doing this program really helped me."

While you can never completely prepare a player for the rigours of the NRL competition, Mata'utia says the HPU program does a good job of using practical examples to explain the expectations required.

"In the HPU program they took us to one of the 20s games and we just studied what they do well and what they do bad," he says.

"Then we just tried to convert it into our game and try and correct our faults in the same way.

"So it was a good experience and the training was really good.

"The system that they’ve got there is something that’s successful for players and it’s shown, because a lot of the players in the 20s now went through the HPU."

Mata'utia believes it's vital for the Club's junior players to partake in the HPU program if they have any desire to succeed at the highest level. 

"It’s really important, because I believe it all starts with the juniors," he says.

"Once you teach the juniors what the first grade guys are doing and getting them to buy in as they get higher in the ranks, they’ll pick up the same mindset.

"Juniors are keen to just soak it all in and that’s the best time to hit them with information because they’ll just take it in and put it into their game.

"So it’s important you educate the juniors, so when they get to the 20s they are full of knowledge and become smarter players."