The Newcastle Knights juniors system is brimming with gifted emerging players who have captured attention on the representative stage.
Some of the most exciting, budding Knights were on show in the junior 2016 State of Origin representative matches played as curtain-raiser clashes during the three game series.
Incredibly, the Club boasted 10 players selected across three age brackets in the NSW Blues sides, an exceptionally promising sign for the future development of the Club.
In the Under 16s NSW side, Harold Matthews Knights Brock Gardiner, Phoenix Crossland, Jock Madden and Tom Baker were named.
In the Under 18s, Brodie Jones, Tom Starling and Pasami Saulo took the field. Brendan O’Hagan also gained selection but was unfortunately ruled out of the Origin clash after suffering a knee injury in the team’s final training session.
Pulling on the Under 20s Blues jersey was the icing on the cake of an already momentous year for Jack Cogger and Cory Denniss, who both also achieved their first grade debut with the Club early this season
While each individual has been both blessed with natural talent and an overriding desire to be at their best, the Club’s systems have also contributed to their success.
Developing local talent is at the very centre of the of the Newcastle Knights’ ethos.
Newcastle Knights player list manager Troy Pezet and junior recruitment manager Alex McKinnon are the men at the helm of identifying and developing budding league stars.
“Our representation at Origin level is something we’re really proud of and if we can keep producing players who are considered in the top 17 of their age group, then we hope to convert them into senior players down the track,” Pezet said.
While talent and success within any sporting organisation can be cyclical, it’s the strong structures built by the Knights to develop young players that are paying dividends.
One of those initiatives is the Knights’ prestigious High Performance Unit (HPU), which is responsible for identifying talented players between the ages of 13 and 18 years.
“The number of players chosen to represent their State is testimony to the success of our High Performance Unit that we started four years ago,” he said.
The program’s aim is to holistically develop players as individuals while the Club case manages their progression from juniors to the NRL program.
“It’s not only about their football program but their mental wellbeing and strengths,” he said.
“It’s focused on making each individual the best players and people they can be."
It’s evident that a driving, motivation for young players is the clear pathway forged by those who have gone before them.
“We are seeing that the pathway is definitely working at turning players into NRL players,” he said.
Young Knights Jack Cogger, Brock Lamb, Cory Denniss, Josh King and Sione Mata’utia have all blazed a trail from the Knights junior ranks to first grade.
“It’s testimony that it works and something that is really important to our footy club and our board that this continues,” he said.
“The board’s commitment to us being a development Club is really important.
“We want to keep developing local juniors and getting them through so the people of our area can be proud of them."
The Club’s commitment to developing its juniors is certainly recognised by the players themselves.
Talented youngster Tom Starling, who has donned the Blue jersey in back-to-back years, has been a member of the Knights’ junior system since Under 15s.
Since becoming a Knight, the dynamic hooker has embraced his chance to grow in a professional environment.
“The Knights give you the best opportunity to better your football,” Starling said.
“If you want to succeed, they will give you every opportunity to do it.
“It was unreal to run out in Suncorp Stadium and only a handful of kids would get to do that.
“I have been lucky enough to be able to do it twice.”
Tom Baker echoed Starling’s praise of the Knights’ support systems.
“I have been in the junior system since last year and being with the Knights has improved my game out of sight,” Baker said.
“The coaches are amazing and what they do for you on and off the field.
“They are there for you to talk to if you need someone to talk to as well.”
When asked about his representative experience, Baker added, “It meant the world to me and one of the proudest moments of my life.
“It was unforgettable and I loved every second of it.”
Pezet considers this success just the beginning for the Knights’ latest junior stars.
“I think one thing they do bring back (from representative football), they are more enthusiastic about developing further and getting to the next level,” Pezet said.
“They spend the week with really good coaches and around the other 16 best players in the competition and I think that gives them a real shot in the arm to get to the next level.”