Wilkin headlining Central West contingent for Eagles’ 2018 assault on NRC | Photos

WING AND A PRAYER: After making his NRC debut with the Rays in 2017, Orange product Jack Grant has the chance to don NSW Country colours this year. Photo: JUDE KEOGH
WING AND A PRAYER: After making his NRC debut with the Rays in 2017, Orange product Jack Grant has the chance to don NSW Country colours this year. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

With the pain of 2017’s disappointing elimination driving NSW Country, the squad Eagles coach Darren Coleman has named for this year’s assault on the National Rugby Championship has a distinct Central West flavour to it.

Considering more than half of Coleman’s squad boasting a genuine grounding in regional NSW, there’s actually no surprise the production line that is the Central West has provided a massive chunk of the Eagles’ talent.

The likes of Brad Wilkin, Rory Suttor and Harry Johnson-Holmes – products of Yeoval, Bathurst and Cowra respectively – will all line up, while Orange’s Jack Grant and Cody Walker have also been named in the Eagles’ 33-strong group.

Both Grant and Walker were in the Sydney Rays’ squad in 2017 but this year’s move to field just two NRC teams in NSW – rather than three – has allowed the pair to shift camps, and take the field with the Eagles.

That’s something Coleman is excited about, and the fact the decision brings back the traditional city-country rivalry.

“It is great to be recognising and rewarding the talent that we have in the state. These guys are proud of their heritage and what they represent, and I am excited to be working with them all,” Coleman said in the lead-up to his side’s first game this weekend.

These guys are proud of their heritage and what they represent.

NSW Country coach Darren Coleman

Tamworth’s Paddy Ryan will once again skipper the Eagles and also gets the chance to take the field in his hometown, along with fellow Pirates junior Mick Snowden, as part of the side’s continued move to bring their home games to the bush.

“As we have done in previous years, we will spread our home games around rural NSW,” Coleman said.

“The boys are keen to play in different places such as Mudgee, Armidale and Tamworth to hopefully put on a show in front of their friends and family.”

COUNTRY BOY: Cowra's Harry Johnson-Holmes signs an autograph after last year's final round clash at Endeavour Oval, he'll once again don the Eagles' colours. Photo: MATT FINDLAY

COUNTRY BOY: Cowra's Harry Johnson-Holmes signs an autograph after last year's final round clash at Endeavour Oval, he'll once again don the Eagles' colours. Photo: MATT FINDLAY

“It’s a great opportunity to bring a different level of rugby back to the country in a time of the year when there’s not a lot of rugby being played,” Ryan said.

“It’s going to be fun. The ethos around the Eagles is to get in, rip in with the community stuff, to play hard and then to enjoy themselves on the town afterwards.

“There’s a great vibe around the group and I’m really looking forward to getting into it.”

Snowden, who was part of the Eagles’ inaugural squad, is one of two Super Rugby halfbacks Grant will be battling with for the No.9 jersey, with Wallaby Jake Gordon also named.

NSW Country has picked up another handful of notable recruits too, with Grant’s Eastern Suburbs halves partner Mack Mason tipped as one to watch.

“The [Greater] Sydney Rams amalgamated with us and the Rays, so we’ve got a Sydney team and a Country team now, which is kind of the way it should be I feel,” Ryan said.

“That’s meant we’ve got Mack Mason, which is a great addition, Jed Holloway was obviously in career best form at the end of the [Waratahs’ Super] season and (2016 Intrust Super Shute Shield player of the year) Will Miller is playing really well.”

After an opening round bye to accommodate the Shute Shield’s culmination the Eagles’ first game is against the Western Force this weekend, coincidentally the side that knocked them out of last year’s title race – while they were still named the Perth Spirit.

The Eagles were resigned to a disappointing draw with Brisbane City at Orange’s Endeavour Oval in last year’s final round, which left them sweating on Queensland Country’s clash with the Spirit the next day.

BIG PICK UP: Jack Grant's Eastern Suburbs teammate Mack Mason, pictured playing in Orange earlier this year, is a huge addition to the Eagles' squad for 2018. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

BIG PICK UP: Jack Grant's Eastern Suburbs teammate Mack Mason, pictured playing in Orange earlier this year, is a huge addition to the Eagles' squad for 2018. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

NSW Country needed Queensland Country – the eventual champions – to down the Spirit in order to sneak into the finals.

Instead, former Springbok Peter Grant nailed an 81st minute penalty goal to secure a massive upset for the Spirit, ending the Eagles’ campaign in heart-breaking fashion.

“Yeah, last year hurt,” Coleman said.

“It wasn’t the first time we’ve been bumped out in those sorts of circumstances either unfortunately, but that’s just how footy goes.

“We’ve been there or thereabouts and competed well the last few years, so we know within ourselves what we can do to improve.”

The Eagles play the force at Perth’s UWA Sports Park from 3pm on Sunday, the Force downed Brisbane City 47-29 in last weekend’s first round