Illawarriors coach Sean Barrett is quietly confident the Illawarra region's men's rugby representative team can give the NSW Country Championships a real shake this June long weekend.
Barrett guided the Illawarriors to third place last year and feels this year's team has the talent and experience to better that showing.
Unsurprisingly, six players from the undefeated reigning Illawarra District Rugby Union premiers Shoalhaven feature in the 26-man Illawarriors squad.
Shoals captain George Miller will also fulfill the same role for the Illawarriors, with Eli Sinoti from Tech-Waratahs his deputy.
The high-flying Kiama Cows have the most players in the squad, with 11 of their players to represent the Illawarriors at Scully Park in Tamworth on June 10-11.
Perhaps surprisingly only one Avondale player - Tavite Amone - has been selected for the Illawarriors, although some players have pulled out through injury and/or work commitments.
Barrett said it was good the squad reflected success enjoyed by Shoalhaven in recent years.
"The fact that the Illawarriors squad is dominated by Shoalhaven players is a reflection of Shoals' good work over the past couple of years," he said.
"Last year, we sort of had some of those guys in the squad but they couldn't travel away with work commitments and other issues.
"Having those sort of guys who have been pretty consistent for the past three years is really beneficial for the squad."
Barrett relied on a core group of players in his first year as coach in 2022.
He was glad to welcome a few key ins this season - current NSW Country player Eli Sinoti and Jack Hobbs, the Cockatoos' senior player of the year.
"Jack is jumping out of his skin, which is great. As is having guys who have played for the past couple of years for Illawarra, such as Nico Cowley and Jake Kamire from Kiama," Barrett said.
"We are going to have a squad that can cover a few positions for us, which is good.
''We've also got a really good young group of guys coming through that have been impressive for Shoalhaven, including George Miller, our captain.
"Harri Hibbs is a premiership-winning five-eighth and he is going to play five-eighth for us, with the experienced Tommy Baker covering some key positions in the backs.
"We also have one of the Brandon brothers, Mark, who has been one of the top points scorers in recent years, so we've got a bit of strike power out wide.
"The squad includes some talented young guys in Reuben Thomas from Kiama and Jett Fraser from Shoalhaven as well. I think we have a good sprinkling of experience and youth."
The Illawarriors have been training at Vikings Oval in Wollongong over the past eight weeks. The squad held their final captain's run on Wednesday night.
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The Illawarriors open their campaign on Saturday with games against Central North and defending champions Central Coast.
Depending on how they go on Saturday, Illawarriors will also play a game on Sunday.
"I'm really happy with the preparation we've had. I'm enthusiastic about our chances. It's great that the best players have made themselves available.
"It's my second year in the job. I've gone to the Caldwell Cup final twice, in 2008 and 2012.
"This is my chance to go one better with the right players and great support from the clubs and assistant coaches.
"We're representing the region and our clubs and our families, and want to do the right thing and we're a chance. If we can build on that third placing last year and go one or two better, that would be perfect."
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