The pathway for junior rugby league players on the Far North Coast is set to be enhanced next season with the Jetstar Gold Coast Titans electing to enter a team into the Harold Matthews competition in 2009.

The squad, which contains 13 Northern Rivers players, will contest Under-16 games in Sydney every second week.

Following on from the success of the Jetstar Titans’ inaugural year in the SG Ball (Under-18s) competition, the Gold Coast will become the only Queensland club to field a team in the Under-16s Harold Matthews competition as of next season.

The decision means the next generation of homegrown Jetstar Titans will receive the chance to test themselves against the strongest junior sides in the country over a 13-week competition, which culminates in a finals series.

Titans managing director Michael Searle said the presence of a Jetstar Gold Coast Titans team in the NSW-based Harold Matthews competition would provide the best possible pathway for the club’s juniors from the age of 16 right through to the NYC Under-20s competition.

“The fact our local under-16 players can wear the Titans jersey and play against the likes of the Parramatta Eels, Bulldogs, Manly and all of the other elite NRL clubs is a massive bonus to our boys from the Gold Coast, Ipswich and northern NSW,’’ said Searle.

“They will fly to Sydney every second week and you can’t measure just how much that will help their development as future NRL players.

“It also offers us a great way of ensuring our players can stay on the Gold Coast and still compete in an elite competition week-in and week-out.

“Our club’s philosophy has always been about elite pathways, to ensure that an individual can elevate his skill and fitness level at a young age.

“We only contract 30 players and we invest heavily in their personal and physical development.

“This new initiative is testament to the fact that we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring Gold Coast, Ipswich and northern NSW kids no longer have to move to Sydney to play in an elite competition like the Harold Matthews Under-16 competition.

“The club will also be supporting the Gold Coast Juniors and Gold Coast Rugby League (Under-16s and Under-18s) in the QRL-run competition via a sponsorship and resource sharing perspective in 2009.’’

With much of the Jetstar Titans’ emphasis being placed on homegrown talent, almost 90 per cent of the 27-member squad selected to play in next year’s Harold Matthews competition is from either Gold Coast or the Northern Rivers areas.

Jetstar Titans head coach John Cartwright said it was a further step towards the club’s long-term plan of having players from the Gold Coast, Northern Rivers and Ipswich regions making up 50 per cent of the NRL squad within the next five years.

“Having our own team in the Harold Matthews competition will provide a platform for local juniors to be able to familiarise themselves with the rigours of tough competition on a week-to-week basis, as well as helping them to get used to the travel involved,’’ said Cartwright.

“Given the success we had with our SG Ball team, who made the finals in their inaugural season last year, I’m sure the new-look Harold Matthews team will be a key investment in our future.’’

The Under-16s squad will be coached by Aaron Zimmerle, who is the head of sport at Palm Beach Currumbin High School and last year was the captain/coach for South Tweed’s A Grade team in the Northern Rivers competition.

Zimmerle said the Harold Matthews competition was the best avenue for youngsters who were aspiring to become professional footballers.

“We’re really excited about them playing in an elite competition in NSW because we feel it’s the best way to help their development,’’ he said.

“We have picked squads of up to 30 kids which means that even though a team of 17 is being picked each week to play games, we’ve got another 13 or so kids exposed to a more professional and elite level of training and competition.

“Those kids will then go back to local clubs and help lift the overall standard, so it’s not just about helping to develop NRL players.’’

Both the Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions kick-off on February 21 and conclude with grand finals on May 16. The Titans’ SG Ball squad will again be coached by Jamie O’Connor next season.

Titans Inaugural Harold Matthews Squad 2009:

Matt Beddow (Gold Coast), Zac Campbell (GC), Nick Crompton (Northern Rivers), Jim Dick (NR), James Dunley (GC), Jack Durheim (NR), Zac Friend (Sunshine Coast), James Greber (NR), Mitchell Hall (NR), Jacob Holland (NR), Sam Harrold (NR), Dan Kelly (GC), Ben Marui-James (GC), Corey McGrady (GC), Chris Moke (GC), Jacob Orr (NR), Justin Proud (GC), Nathanial Regueira (NR), Tom Rowles (NR), Jake Sands (NR), Praneil Sewak (GC), Kael Smith (GC), Tom Sunderland (NR), Brendon Tago (South East Qld), Connor Toia (GC), Kyle Vanleeowen (NR), Andrew Vella (Ipswich).