Tahs turn to clubs for 'help'
Sydney's talented young club players have everything to play for this month as the Waratahs coaching team bid to fill the two remaining places in the 2013 squad.
Next year's Waratahs squad will feature at least five new faces, with three newcomers already confirmed – along with the release of flank Chris Alcock to the Western Force and scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius (to the Cheetahs), creating two vacant positions in the 30-man squad for next year.
Joining the 2013 NSW squad are 20-year-old Wallaby and Manly flank Michael Hooper, Sydney University and former Australian Sevens speedster Michael Hodge and Northern Suburbs and former Brumbies fullback Cam Crawford.
Australia's premier club competition, the Shute Shield culminates with Southern Districts taking on Sydney University in the first grade Grand Final this Saturday, September 15 at Concord Oval.
Since the completion of the Super Rugby season, NSW coaches Alan Gaffney, Scott Bowen and Greg Mumm have attended regular club matches and every Monday receive comprehensive footage of all non-live matches.
On top of their already extensive knowledge of club football, this year's four-week finals format gives them more time than ever, 720 minutes in total, to fully assess all of the players involved in a bid to identify those most likely to become the Waratahs stars of the future.
"A former Manly player and born in Sydney, Michael Hooper has had an outstanding season for the Brumbies and is still only 20," said Gaffney of the player that many believe could prove to be more than just a stand in for injured Wallabies skipper David Pocock, tipping him as a possible long-term successor for the gold No.7 jersey.
Alongside current club captain Pat McCutcheon, who is currently returning from the horror ankle injury suffered in the opening weeks of last season, Hooper gives crucial depth in a key position.
Out wide, talented young trio Michael Hodge, Cam Crawford and Peter Betham add speed and size to the NSW backline.
"Michael Hodge was with us for the whole of our pre-season last year and was involved in both the warm up matches against Samoa and Tonga," said Gaffney.
"At 23, he's already gained valuable experience – and shown his versatility – for Sydney University this season and it's great to welcome him to the squad."
Also 23, Sydney-born Cam Crawford is another young, home-grown talent to have risen through the ranks of Sydney club rugby and his selection comes on the back of several successful seasons for Norths; he was the third highest try scorer (16) in 2010 and 2011 (13).
"Cam is a player with great potential," said Bowen.
"He's got good strength and speed, great intelligence and intuition and he's a player with a good skill set."
Cam comes to NSW on the back of limited game time with the Brumbies last year.
"For whatever reason, he didn't get much of an opportunity in Canberra. Last year was his first year as a fully professional player. We believe there's plenty still to come and Cam is certainly someone we see getting significant game time in 2013."
Another player to be rewarded with a full-time contract is Sydney University winger Peter Betham.
Called into the squad as injury cover in the early stages of last season, Betham made his starting debut against the Crusaders and has been rewarded with a place in the 30-man squad for 2013.
"A big, strong and elusive runner, Peter has already shown plenty of promise. As a full-time member of our squad, next year he'll get the opportunity to realise that potential," said Bowen.
Currently playing for New Zealand premiership side Tasman, 23-year-old Betham will join the Waratahs squad after the completion of his ITM Cup duties in October/November.
Stepping up to the full squad in 2013 are two of Southern Districts' stand out players of the season, Grayson Hart and Lopeti Timani, younger brother of Waratah and Wallaby lock Sitaleki.
Part of last year's Waratahs Extended Playing Squad, both players made the most of their chances, stepping up to Super Rugby action and proving their capabilities in some of the biggest matches of the 2012 season.
In for 2013:
Cam Crawford – Brumbies
Michael Hodge – Sydney University
Michael Hooper – Brumbies
Peter Betham – Sydney University
Grayson Hart – Extended Playing Squad
Lopeti Timani – Extended Playing Squad
Out from the 2012:
Chris Alcock – Western Force
Rocky Elsom – no contract, heading to Japan or France
Brackin Karauria-Henry – NTT Docomo, Japan
Daniel Halangahu – Zebre, Italy
Dean Mumm – Exeter Chiefs, England
Sarel Pretorius – Cheetahs, South Africa
Dan Vickerman – retired
Waratahs squad: Adam Ashley-Cooper (Northern Suburbs), Berrick Barnes (Sydney University), Peter Betham (Sydney University), Tom Carter (Sydney University), Cam Crawford (Northern Suburbs), Dave Dennis (Sydney University), Kane Douglas (Southern Districts), Damien Fitzpatrick (Eastwood), Bernard Foley (Sydney University), Grayson Hart (Southern Districts), Michael Hodge (Sydney University), Michael Hooper (Manly) , Rob Horne (Southern Districts), Sekope Kepu (Randwick), Tom Kingston (Sydney University), Pat McCutcheon (Sydney University), Brendan McKibbin (Eastern Suburbs), Drew Mitchell (Balmain), Wycliff Palu (Manly), Greg Peterson (Manly), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Parramatta), Benn Robinson (Eastwood), Paddy Ryan (Sydney University), Jeremy Tilse (Sydney University), Lopeti Timani (Southern Districts), Sitaleki Timani (Southern Districts), Lachie Turner (Eastwood), John Ulugia (Southern Districts), two TBC.