IF CENTRAL Highlands representative rugby players thought they had it tough last year, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
Competition in the Queensland Country Rugby Union Championships is ramping up with newcomer Wide Bay’s dominating start to their 2011 season campaign.
After almost 10 years out of the competition, Wide Bay returned with a powerhouse display against Central Highlands, winning 29-13 in Bundaberg at the weekend.
“We are putting Wide Bay back on the rugby map,” Coach Mark Cassidy said.
“We have always had players who qualified for the Sunshine Coast and Darling Downs sides but haven’t a side of our own in close to a decade.”
The Highlands outfit made an encouraging start early in the first half but fell away by the second, conceding 17 points in just 40 minutes of football.
“We certainly had the possession to win it, leading 13-12 at half-time,” CH coach Joel Johnston said.
“We just ran out of legs.
“Fitness is still a problem but we are still very positive with what we’ve achieved.”
Of particular courage was the first-half try by hooker Zan Branford, who dived over for five points after burning through a mountainous 14 phases of rugby.
Johnson said the opponent’s home-ground advantage didn’t do the Highlands side any favours either, with the eight-hour bus ride to Bundaberg undoubtedly taking its toll on players’ performance.
Wide Bay coach Mark Cassidy said the first half left a lot to be desired in terms of possession and ball-handling skills but by the second half the spark had ignited and it was then that his players really started fire.
“I think our error rate in the first half kept the Highlanders in the game,” he said.
“But combinations are always pretty hard to pin down so early in the season.
“In the second we were much more aggressive – using the backline more and trying to promote the ball.”
Despite the 16-point drubbing, CH coach Johnston was reassured the Bundaberg hit-out served as just the right test for his charges heading into the new season, providing the overall standards of fitness improved.
“There is nothing worse than playing a game and knowing you were outclassed but we were definitely up there,” he said.
“While they think they are probably fit enough for club rugby, it’s probably not enough for representative footy.”
CH breakaway Tim Reeves from Capella fought hard at the breakdown to be named as one of his side’s best on ground, together with Chris Weeden and Emerald’s Manny Smith.
Rugby followers thought they had seen the last of Smith and his solo runaway efforts after informing a local rugby source the Waitangi day match earlier this year was to be his last run before retirement.
But a few quiet words from coach Johnston seems to have done the trick with the boots back on in 2011.
“We were a bit short with only nine backs, so he came in really handy,” Johnston said.
The Central Highlands will trial against Mackay on April 2 in Clermont.
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