When Round 1 of the 2017 National Youth Competition kicks off on Saturday, there’ll be no happier duo than North Queensland Toyota Cowboys under-20s halves Jake Clifford and Mitch Dunn.
The pair has been named as the starting halves combination for the Cowboys, with halfback Clifford, 19, set to make his NYC debut for the club he has proudly followed as a youngster growing up in Tully.
Dunn, 20, is a third-year 20s veteran and will captain the side after two injury-plagued years at the club.
Both young men suffered serious shoulder injuries on the same day in March last year – Dunn while playing for the NYC Cowboys in just his third regular season game after a first shoulder injury in 2015; and Clifford while playing age-group rep footy.
For young Jake, it was also his second busted shoulder after surgery as a 16-year-old playing junior league in Tully.
The similarity of their paths is not lost on the pair – both are jumping out of their skin to take on the young Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“We had our surgeries a week apart,” Dunn said. “It was tough at first, but doing rehab with your mate made it easier. We went through it together.”
Dunn, who is looking forward to cementing the five-eighth position in 2017 after two years of playing as a bench utility, praised the efforts of former 20s strength and conditioning coach Ash Graham in his recovery.
“Ash was really good and a lot of confidence got built into it (the rehab program) coming back from the injury,” he said.
“You always have doubts when you get injured, but I got eager to come back strong when I saw the boys play.”
Clifford, who finally gets to make his NYC debut after those dreams were dashed by injury in 2016, said he was looking forward to forming a strong playmaking combination with Dunn.
“The second time (coming back from shoulder surgery) was definitely a lot harder … it put a big dint in the wall as I had hoped to debut that year,” he said.
“But I’ve come back and the shoulder is stronger than ever and I’m good mates with Mitch off the field so this season is really exciting.”
Cowboys NYC coach Aaron Payne has liked what he has seen from his fledgling halves pairing in the pre-season.
“They’ve been going really well. Both had setbacks last year at the same time … and considering how long they’ve had out of the game, I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve handled themselves,” Payne said.
“Mitch has been biding his time. He’s really looking forward to getting some consistency and getting out on the field. He’s our captain this year and it’s his third year in the system.
“I know he’s ready to spend a lot of time out on the field.”
Payne has named a 23-man squad for the Raiders season-opener, including slotting NRL squad member Kalyn Ponga in at fullback.
North Queensland Toyota Cowboys NYC v Canberra Raiders NYC
3.45pm, Saturday 4 March, 1300SMILES Stadium
1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Michael Carroll
3. Enari Tuala
4. Bacho Salam
5. Nathan Traill
6. Mitch Dunn (c)
7. Jake Clifford
8. Kaleb Fuimaono
9. Calum Gahan
10. Emry Pere
11. Cody Maughan
12. Hiale Roycroft
13. Corey Horsburgh
14. Reuben Cotter
15. Connor Luhan
16. Jayden Stephens
17. Jack Lote
18. Jack Glossop
19. Sam Murphy
20. Kurt Wiltshire
21. Ryan Lloyd
22. Duarne Dempsey
23. Oscar Carter
Coach: Aaron Payne