Western Rams under 16s coach Tony Woolnough is no stranger when it comes to the rigours of representative footy.
His side last year were well in contention to make a run at the Andrew Johns Cup finals, before the competition was called earlier and without resolution due to COVID-19.
Before that, he experienced the troubles of an uneven preparation when fire and smoke concerns wreaked havoc with the pre-season training schedule.
So it's no surprise the Rams mentor and leader is excited by a return to a more normal season.
The work is set to begin in earnest this weekend, with a trial match in Forbes against Riverina to help selectors finalise Western's final Johns Cup squad.
"We cut the squad right before Christmas and got together last Thursday, that was a lot to do with testing and things like that, we squeezed in some ball-work at the end, but we haven't had that chance to sit down as a whole and talk as a squad," Woolnough said.
I think the competition this year will be even harder...- Tony Woolnough
"Before Christmas, there was a lot of time together, we had all the 18s, 17s and 16s working together, but we've really just started properly last Thursday.
"We'll get through the trial this weekend and then the one the weekend after and then we'll see what happens."
Following the trials, a team camp will be held at Burrendong toward the end of the month and the Rams will finalise their squads for the first round in Cowra on February 7.
"Right now, we're at a squad of 24, that still needs to be trimmed a little bit more," Woolnough said.
"At the end of the month and we'll look at it then and get that squad down to 20 and then - fingers crossed -that'll be the team we take into the competition going forward."
Woolnough is looking forward to the return of his side and while the under 16s suffered only one loss in last year's campaign, he expects things to only be tougher this time around.
"I think the competition this year will be even harder, Harold Matthews Cup has gone up to 17s and SG Ball has gone from 18s to 19s, so there's going to be a lot of good kids who stick around in this competition and strong crop of kids playing this year," Woolnough said.
Despite the tougher test, one of the most rewarding aspects is still there for Woolnough; seeing the players develop.
"I love dealing with the 16s, the team that made the finals with me two years ago are in the 18s now and it's exciting to see them make that progress and develop, some are even in Sydney now," he added.
The Johns Cup side take to the field against the Riverina Bulls at 5pm on Saturday, January 16 at Forbes' Spooner Oval.
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