Two days after the best rugby league teams in Australia contested the NRL Grand Final, a group of men fixated on getting there one day will be in action in Rotorua.
The New South Wales Country Under-23 side, brimming with players teetering on the edge of making it in the NRL, will play a North Island selection, featuring Ōtūmoetai Eels and Mariners players Tama Renton and Pone Kahotea and coached by Pāpāmoa Bulldogs and Coastline Mariners coach Jock Nicholson, in Rotorua tomorrow night.While under-23 suggests relative inexperience, the players are guided by a group of men who, between them, have seen and done it all.
Head coach Josh Cale was a Sydney Roosters and Bulldogs player, trainer Adam Perry played 133 first grade games for the Bulldogs, including the Grand Final win over the Roosters in 2004.
Andrew Ryan, another trainer, played 72 games for the Parramatta Eels and 218 games for the Bulldogs, including the 2004 final alongside Perry. He also represented New South Wales and Australia.
Speaking during a training session at Puketawhero Park on Sunday, Cale said many of the players in his side had been on the fringe of making it in the NRL and were still pushing to do so.
"We've come over here and obviously we want to enjoy New Zealand but we're here for business and when we play we want to get the job done. They know what's at stake every time we put on the Country jumper, it's a proud honour so we want to be able to represent everyone who's put it on before us and do them proud.
"A lot of them have their physiques where they could be in the NRL, a lot of them have been on the fringe and in around a few of the clubs. They look fit and we'll hopefully put a good performance in."
NSW Country will also play a Canterbury representative side in Christchurch during their tour of New Zealand. Cale predicted big and physical opposition in both matches.
"I know they'll offload and throw the ball around so it will be a little bit unpredictable for us. We've just got to make sure our defence is nice and tight, control the ball - I've told them to back themselves and play a bit of footy as well. I think it will be fun."
Perry said he was looking forward to seeing what this group of players could achieve.
"These boys have had a crack at playing NRL and this is a second chance. Everyone's keen, they're all really good players and good to work with. They all listen, they're all keen to learn and keen to have that second crack at potentially making an NRL squad."
Having enjoyed an illustrious playing career himself, Perry said he wished every day that he was still playing but he was enjoying the challenge of coaching.
"This is the next best thing, I love being part of a footy team. All the benefits of being part of a team I still get to experience. I'm enjoying coaching and being able to pass on some of the things I learned over time."
New Zealand Rugby League Upper Central Zone operations manager Hamana Amoamo said the game in Rotorua on Tuesday evening was a great opportunity for locals to see some talented rugby league players in action.
"It's an opportunity that doesn't come along too often. Our North Island team is chosen from Manawatu, Taranaki, Coastline, Northland and Wellington and it's a stepping stone for pathways in representative footy for our senior men's teams in this region."
During his 133-game NRL career, Adam Perry played alongside some of the game's greats. One of his teammates in the Grand Final win over the Roosters in 2004 was Sonny Bill Williams, who is currently in Japan with the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup.
"He's a bit of a freak old Sonny, I think he could probably take up ping pong and be good at it, he's that good of an athlete and he's that disciplined with everything that he does.
"It's no surprise that he excels at boxing, he excels at rugby, he excels at rugby league. All credit to him, he deserves everything that he gets Sonny, he works really hard for it all.
"He always trained super hard, always did the extras and always looked after what he ate and what he drank. He was super dedicated to what he did and that's why he became such a good player."