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REAL NRL: Lions determined to pounce again in 2024

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They might not have got the chocolates… but the South Newcastle Lions still had much to celebrate in 2023, according to coach Andrew “Bobcat” Ryan.

His gallant outfit fell victim to a red-hot Maitland Pickers 46-10 in the Tooheys Newcastle Rugby League (Real NRL) decider at McDonald Jones Stadium last September.

Nonetheless, the former Canterbury Bulldogs and Parramatta Eels legend was proud of what his charges – and the club overall – achieved.

Andrew Ryan calls the shots at a South Newcastle Lions training session. Photo: Michael Gorton Images

“Initially, it hurts straight away, obviously losing a grand final,” he said.

“But, then you sit back once the dust settles and go ‘you know, we had a really successful year’.

“We had some young guys come into our team and there were some really good performers.

“As well, we had some great social events – a lot of the under-19 boys right through to the first-graders jumped on and we really got really tight; several of our other sides did really well and we had good numbers around the place.

“So, on reflection, it was a very enjoyable season.

“You want to have a great time, and all that, however you want to win, too.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get that done.

“But, from a Lions’ perspective, 2023 was pretty prosperous.”

Ryan admitted South Newcastle was building well for its 2024 campaign.

“We’ve had a little bit of change, not heaps,” he said.

“Our priority was always to retain all of our players and we managed to sign the majority, which was really good.

“Obviously, we’ve lost Brendan Simpson, a long-time player who retired.

“So, we’re keen to secure a middle forward.

“We’ve also picked up a couple of guys, like [Newcastle] Rebels rep Sam Clune from Cessnock and Matt Moon from Macquarie.

“They both boast experience and they’re good guys.

“We just want good people and good competitors at the club… and Sam and Matt are definitely that.

“While pre-Christmas training was about getting the blokes back and connecting, we’re now focusing more about the footy.

“We’ve still got a little while until the competition starts in April.

“However, they’re working hard on the training paddock, getting the kilometres in their legs.

“It might not be enjoyable for them, but it’s enjoyable for me.”

South Newcastle eliminated the Cessnock Goannas from the 2023 premiership race. Photo: Michael Gorton Images

The Real NRL is set to kick off 2024 with the inaugural Magic Round at No. 2 Sportsground on Saturday 13 April.

And, even though last year’s runners up won’t play that day, Ryan is a supporter of the idea.

“It’s a concept that’s been thrown around for a couple of seasons,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.

“We would’ve loved to have played, especially round one of the competition.

“But, someone has to have the bye in an 11-team format.

“So, we’ll just rejig our pre-season focus and it does get a little bit tricky, planning around Easter and stuff like that as well.

“No matter what, we’ll be ready to go in round two.

“However, I’m looking forward to seeing how Magic Round goes… hopefully, the local league community gets behind it.”

One positive for the Lions before a ball is kicked in anger is the fact the ever-popular Sleapy’s Day attains “stand-alone” status in 2024.

A huge crowd converged on Townson Oval, when South Newcastle tackled Maitland, while raising funds for Sleapy’s Foundation.

“Sleapy’s Day has been such a big part of the rugby league fraternity in this area and for Souths as well,” Ryan said.

“For us to have a stand-alone weekend this year, it just goes to show the impact it has on the community, too.

“It’s great that everyone can get there and embrace it in 2024.

“When they originally floated the idea, I didn’t really expect it to happen.

“However, it’s fantastic the league and the foundation could work together and arrange it.

“I didn’t think Sleapy’s Day could get much bigger but it sounds like we’re going to give it a crack.”

Andrew Ryan with South Newcastle skipper Ryan Glanville. Photo: Michael Gorton Images

The number of former NRL stars linking with the Real NRL this season, including Blake Austin, Blake Ferguson and Peter Mata’utia to name a few, is expected to add another dimension to the competition.

“I feel like a lot of sides have gone pretty hard on the recruitment,” Ryan said.

“To be honest, I didn’t think there was a big difference in the comp last year.

“I thought it was still pretty tight… but, now, it’s going to be even tougher.

“It’s the premier competition in NSW regionally.

“And, if you look at the results of Maitland winning the NSW President’s Cup, too, some would say it’s probably number one under the NSW Cup.

“The boys certainly know how strong it is and we’ll need to be good.

“Thankfully, the crew we’ve got here, they just love it.

“They love being around each other, they love training… they’re great fellas.

“They’re motivated to compete.

“Obviously, they want to win but they just love hanging around with each other.

“It’s a good environment.

“We’re also fielding a women’s team, which is unreal.

“With any luck, if we can all play on the same day, that would be perfect for us.

“That’s the plan.

“It was a real challenge in 2023.

“We had an A grade side that played and our women participated in the Lower Hunter competition.

“That made it quite challenging for our volunteers, as well as our fans to try and watch everyone.

“So, ideally, if we can get all sides playing on the same day, we’d be stoked.”

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