Five from Northern Rivers earn Country jerseys
By ADRIAN MILLER
THE Northern Rivers has again proven a fertile rugby league nursery, with five local selected for NSW Country honours.
Ballina Seagulls' Andrew Battese, Byron Bay's Alex Butschies, Kyogle Turkeys' Cameron Gibson and South Grafton's Daniel Bligh have been selected in the NSW Country Under-18 team to tour Fiji, while Lower Clarence's Roy Bell has been chosen for the senior side.
The Under-18s were selected after their performances against Western Division and North Coast in the Country Championship, while former South Sydney Rabbitoh Bell was chosen after scoring three tries in Northern Rivers' loss to Western Division.
The Under-18s head to Fiji later this month, while Bell's senior team will play in the Quad Series in July against Queensland Country, a Jim Beam Cup selection side and the Australian Affiliated States.
The tournament will be hosted by Group Four, with games to be played at Tamworth, Gunnedah and Narrabri.
This is the second major honour of the year for Butschies, a strong-running second-rower, who was selected for NSW Under-17s and played in the curtain-raiser to the second State of Origin in Sydney a fortnight ago.
"I'm stoked to be going to Fiji," he said.
"I'm going to Europe with the Australian Institute of Sport, I played with NSW and now this; it's been a pretty awesome year so far."
Northern Rivers Under-18s coach Wayne Cullen said all four of his charges deserved the honour "I'm not surprised at all by their selections," he said.
"Daniel Bligh was the captain of the team and he's really maturing as a footballer.
"He has a contract with the Titans so Country is expecting big things from him."
Cullen said Battese, who plays first grade for the Seagulls, also had a bright future.
"He has good vision, a great kicking and running game and is definitely a player to watch," he said.
Cullen described Gibson, who was a late addition to the squad, as a 'sensational young footballer who really likes to make the game happen'.
The four become the latest in a long line of local juniors to progress to higher honours, which is highlighted by the number of former Northern Rivers players turning out for NRL clubs.
Cullen said the emphasis placed on junior development was the major factor.
"This is my third year as Under-18s coach and each year we would be producing around six to eight players who are capable of progressing forward, or did go further," he said.
"It's a combination of the Academy (of Sport) and then the divisional sides, because they allow the better players to play against quality opposition which makes them better players."