When the NSW Country junior sides toured the United Kingdom late last year it was a particularly proud moment for Tony Woolnough.
Not only did he get to watch his son, Campbell, in action on the field, he also got to see a number of players from his Western Rams under 16s side play at the highest level.
Woolnough coached the Rams to the Andrew Johns Cup grand final last season and while they lost that match, six of his players earned NSW Country selection and a ticket to the UK, including Cabonne bookend Jackson Gersbach.
The build-up to the 2020 Andrew Johns Cup, and the Laurie Daley Cup under 18s competition, goes up a gear this weekend when two Rams squads meet the Penrith Panthers in a set of pre-season trials.
Woolnough is returning as the under 16s coach while Kurt Hancock is also back again to continue his work with the under 18s having also fallen one game short of glory last season.
Woolnough has a completely new group on his hands this year but both he and Hancock are hoping Saturday's meeting with the Panthers starts a campaign which ends with more NSW Country jerseys.
"We'll try and do one better [than last year] but I was pretty happy because we got six in the country squad," Woolnough said, while Hancock had eight Rams make the 18s Country outfit.
"That's the main thing, improving the kids and getting them to that level. But if you make the finals you've got a better chance of getting more kids in.
It [UK tour] was a great experience and it was good to see boys from my team make itWestern under 16s coach Tony Woolnough on six of last year's squad making NSW Country.
"It [UK tour] was a great experience and it was good to see boys from my team make it."
The high temperatures and poor air quality around the region in recent times has forced the cancellation of training sessions and Woolnough hasn't spent any time with his squad since it was cut to 23 players in early December.
Hancock has even more players on his hands in his combined 17s and 18s squad but all will come together for training at Manildra on Thursday.
The focus there will be on the games against Penrith, before further trials against the Greater Northern Region Tigers and then a two-day camp at Lake Burrendong follow in February in the lead-up to the 2020 cup campaigns.
"That camp is important," Woolnough said.
"We get everyone together and get things right there. The boys come together for a couple of days to bond and we figure out a game plan."
The game plan for this weekend's matches won't be anything too complex, as Woolnough admitted both sides will be underdone for the games against the Panthers.
But both coaches will still be keeping a keen eye on performances.
"We're just looking for someone to put their hand up," he said.
"Penrith will be big and tough and will keep coming but hopefully some of our boys put their hand up to be picked.
"We're a bit underdone and there hasn't been much training so it will be a bit of off-the-cuff footy but we'll see who steps up."
I love teaching the kids and being in that environment where everyone is keen. I'm keen to teach them.Tony Woolnough
This season marks Woolnough's second season at the helm of the 16s while Hancock has now been around the Rams junior sides for three years.
While the role means there is virtually no off-season it's not one Woolnough thought about giving up.
"I just enjoy it too much," he said.
"I love teaching the kids and being in that environment where everyone is keen. I'm keen to teach them."
The effect of the teachings done by Woolnough, Hancock and others in recent years has been clear to see with a host of Rams juniors now making their way through the grades in Sydney.
Dubbo's Matt Burton played for the Rams just three years ago but last season made his NRL debut with the Panthers while there are a stack of others who will be plying their trade in Jersey Flegg or the Canterbury Cup in 2020.
"The Andrew Johns Cup and Laurie Daley Cup are getting stronger and stronger," Woolnough said.
"As we've seen in the past 12 months and last few years, we've got more kids than ever down there [Sydney]."
The Western Rams' under 16s side takes on Penrith from 1pm at Blayney on Saturday with the 17/18s game following that at 2.30pm.
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