Group 9’s fiercest rivalry will play out Sunday when Tumut and Gundagai clash at Anzac Park.
Gundagai has dominated the encounter for the past six years, during which time Tumut has inevitably hovered down near the bottom of the ladder, and the Tigers up near the top.
But there’s a new-found buzz among Blues supporters this week, who have reason for a touch of optimism leading up to the impending blockbuster.
While several of Tumut’s new recruits will be experiencing the derby for the first time, local junior and Blues fullback Dean Bristow grew up watching the rivalry and knows all too well its significance in the two towns.
“When the draw comes out this is the game I circle on the calendar,” Bristow said. “Only playing Gundagai once gives it even more significance.
“We’re also back up among the top teams this year, so we’ll go over there with a live chance of knocking them off. That hasn’t been the case for a while.”
Gundagai has dropped just the one game this season to sit equal first on the ladder, while the Blues have lost twice to be placed fourth.
Bristow has the utmost respect for his opponents but believes Tumut shouldn’t be overawed at the prospect of taking on the perennial Group 9 heavyweight.
“Gundagai and South City are the form teams and it’s been that way for a number of years now,” Bristow said. “But I think we’ve shown we’re not far off the mark.
“Even though we’ve only taken one point from our previous three games, all those matches have been close.”
Tumut has fallen 30-26 to Young and 28-26 to South City in recent weeks, along with playing out a 28-all draw with Kangaroos.
In all matches, the Blues had their chances, a point not lost on Bristow, who sees this week as the perfect opportunity to beat one of the top teams.
“If we’re going to do anything in the competition we have to start winning some of those matches against the better teams,” Bristow said. “Gundagai would be a great place to start.
“We’ve identified some areas we need to improve.”
Like most rugby league games, this one is likely to be won and lost in the forwards.
The Blues have assembled a powerful forward pack this season who have steamrolled their opposition most weeks, but on Sunday they’ll come up against the benchmark
The Tigers forwards are widely regarded as the best in Group 9 and feature a four-pronged front row assault consisting of hefty Vince Brown, young guns Joel Field and Matt Henery, and the veteran Kieran Pearce.
It’s a rotation no other team can match and the Blues pack will have their hands full.
The battle of the centre-field throws up some mouth-watering matchups.
The competition’s two most devastating attacking front-rowers, Tamati Ioane (Tumut) and Brown (Gundagai), go head-to-head.
On the edge, Tumut’s inspirational skipper Adam Pearce lines up against Blake Dunn, who gives Gundagai attacking potency on their right side.
On the other edge it’s the more mobile Cameron Woo and Ben Roddy, while locks Jacob McGrath and Luke Berkrey are often the unsung heroes of their teams.
Gundagai’s hooker is the live-wire Brock Dunn; Tumut has the skilful Jacob Toppin.
Out wider, Tumut is likely to be without feisty young centre Michael Clark, who injured his knee against South City and is set to miss a month’s action.
Coach Jarrad Teka is yet to name a replacement, but has flagged the prospect of moving Fijian Masivesi Dakuwaqa into the centres.
Nathaniel Moss and junior Josh Webb are the likely candidates to be called onto the wing.
Bristow, meanwhile, is matched up against the classy Dane O’Hehir, who has developed into one of Group 9’s best players.
While O’Hehir has been in the custodian’s positions throughout his first grade career, Bristow is in his first season in the role.
He admits he’s still getting used to the demands of fullback.
“I’m not sure it’s my best position and I think I’m still finding my feet,” Bristow said. “But Jarrad has given me a role to play and I’m doing my best.”
Bristow, a standout player for the Blues last season during a disappointing year for the team, paid credit to Teka for helping turn the club’s fortunes around.
“He’s innovative and knows how to get the best out of his players,” Bristow said. “I can’t speak highly enough of him.”