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Hunter Wildfires Academy program to mark important milestone

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An initiative between Hunter Junior Rugby Union (HJRU) and the Hunter Wildfires, to offer a pathway for local youngsters, will welcome a historic milestone this weekend.

The region has always been known for its strong nursery.

But, until recently, the opportunity for talent identification and higher honours meant leaving behind hometowns and moving to Sydney.

In 2021, HJRU aligned with the Wildfires to create an Academy program, which provides a corridor from under-7s to the Shute Shield and beyond.

Now, on Sunday 12 December, more than 150 junior players will train alongside their senior counterparts in a first-ever combined Wildfires Academy Day at Waratah Oval from 9am until 11am.

With a focus on creating opportunities for local rising stars, HJRU president Kobus (Bok) Hattingh has worked closely with HJRU Wildfires coordinator Ben Emmett, NSW development officer Brent Dale, the Wildfires leadership team and Wallabies legend David Campese to bring world-class coaches to the Hunter.

“When you look at it, Harry Johnson Holmes, Layne Morgan, Jesse Southwell and Maddy Mcarthur are just a few of the homegrown contingent now representing the NSW Waratahs in both under-18s and Super Rugby across 7s and XVs,” he said.

“So, the one Wildfires club set-up (juniors and seniors) must be one of the best stories in Hunter rugby. 

“For me, as well as the junior Wildfires Academy being a real pathway to the seniors then to Shute Shield, the Hunter is now on the radar of being noticed in the wider community and becoming a super zone in NSW Country Rugby.

“Rugby Australia and NSW Waratahs are starting to look at us and this can only be good for all our kids.

“It allows us to produce more Wallabies and Wallaroos – I just love it.”

One of the nation’s greatest players, Campese, said he was “very excited” to be involved with HJRU.

“There’s a pathway now for kids to play top rugby through the Wildfires, all the way from juniors through to the Shute Shield,” he explained.

“Here in the Hunter, there’s more than 2,400 youngsters playing this great game.

“I can see the future is in good hands.”

Hunter Wildfires general manager Stuart Pinkerton is also committed to creating unity and alignment within the local rugby community.

“The talent pool in the region’s immense,” he said.

“NSW Rugby has seen the potential here and is working with us to develop the Wildfires Waratahs Academy.

“The facilities at our partner, University of Newcastle, are first-class and the quality of our program has sky-rocketed.

“HJRU is to be congratulated.

“They’ve done an enormous amount [of work] over the past three years.

“We also understand we are part of the vibrant rugby community in the Hunter and mindful of increasing participation numbers throughout the region and fostering strong ties with the local clubs.

“Ultimately though, girls and boys can dream of playing for the Wallaroos or Wallabies from the Hunter.”

HJRU boasted four rep teams at the NSW State 7s Championships in Foster – in the under-15 and under-17 divisions for both girls and boys.

The weekend showcased the best up-and-coming talent in NSW, with the Hunter under-15 girls taking out second place overall after a narrow 19-14 loss against Manly in the grand final.

HJRU was well-represented among those chosen for higher rep honours, with rising stars Nathan Vaughan (Singleton), Corey McDougall (Nelson Bay) and Sam Mitchell (Nelson Bay) selected for the NSWRU Youth 7s outfits, and Ryvrr Lee-Alo (Hamilton), Hebe Backus (Hamilton), Eve Keeling (Hamilton), Elizabeth Montgomery (Merewether), Maronay Smuts (Maitland), Caoimhe Waldron (Hamilton) and Natayah Wells (Easts) identified for the NSWRU development squad for 2022.

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