This time last year, the Canberra Raiders took part in the Jersey Flegg Cup Grand Final.
In an exciting encounter, the Raiders suffered a narrow 16-14 defeat against the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Raiders Narrowly Beaten in Jersey Flegg Grand Final
However, fast forward 12 months, and six players from that team will be playing in the NRL as the Raiders travel to Kograh to play the Cronulla Sharks.
Semi Valemei, Kai O’Donnell, Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko all come into the side having already played this season and are joined by Darby Medlyn and Jarrett Subloo who will make their NRL debuts.
Raiders.com.au spoke to the six players as they reflected on the last 12 months and what it meant to them to be playing this week.
The no nonsense forward co-captained the Raiders side in that Grand Final last year was excited to find out on Tuesday that he would be making his NRL debut.
Must watch: Stuart announces four players to make Raiders debut
Medlyn immediately called his parents to tell them the news.
“They were stoked,” Medlyn said. ”I told them that I was playing and they were pretty surprised because it kind of came out of the blue. It was a pretty good moment so yeah it was awesome.”
Having spent three years in the Raiders junior pathways programs, Medlyn has previously represented NSW at U20’s level and feels that the coaching staff at the club have helped prepare him for this moment.
“I think coming into the first grade squad fulltime, we were really well set up with Ash Barnes (U20s coach) and the staff,” Medlyn said. “They did a really good job in giving us an insight into the Raiders culture. That prepared us really well.”
Having seen some of the players he captained already make their NRL debuts, Medlyn is particularly proud of their progress and the faith that has been put in them as they prepare to play against the Sharks.
“They’ve obviously got a lot of faith in us boys and we have faith in each other as well.,” Medlyn said. “I think that it’s a really good sign and we’re all really close here and everyone knows that the next man up is going to do a good job.
“I can’t wait, I think it’s a really good opportunity for us all to see where we are at and give it a good crack.”
Jarrett Subloo missed last year’s Grand Final as he was recovering from injury but the versatile outside back is excited to be making his NRL debut this weekend.
“I couldn’t believe it when Stick announced it in the team meeting.,” Subloo said. “I kind of got all hot and sweaty and I didn’t know what to say!”
Hailing from Innisfail up in Queensland, Subloo called his family as soon as he could to tell them the good news.
“I called mum and dad before and I had to tell mum three times because she couldn’t hear me and she started crying ,” Subloo said. “I think she threw the phone or something and then dad was on the phone. They were pretty stoked so it means a lot to me and my family as well.”
Playing in the NRL is a moment that Subloo has dreamed about for a long time and he even discussed with his housemate Kai O’Donnell the opportunity to play alongside him if the occasion arose.
“Yeah it’s funny, me and Kai, we live together and we were talking about it for a long time like it would be mad if we got to play with each other,” Subloo said. “To be able to play with Harley, Semi, Mokes, Cookie and Darbs as well, pretty much all members of the Jersey Flegg squad, it’s going to be unreal.
“I never thought that the day would come but I’m pretty stoked and looking forward to it.”
Subloo is proud of last year’s Jersey Flegg squad and Ricky Stuart’s show of faith in them all has meant a lot to him.
“It means everything to be honest,” Subloo said. “To get the nod from Ricky to play grade, he’s got the belief that we can get the win against the Sharks this week. There’s no better feeling or reassurance I guess.”
One topic that has been decided is whether both he and Darby will keep their mullets for their debut. The pair are part of a number of Raiders who are raising money for the Black Dog Institute.
“We were talking about whether I should cut it or not but I think I’ll keep it,” Subloo said.
Kai O’Donnell played in the second-row against the Rabbitohs during last year’s Grand Final and was the first of the group to get a chance in the NRL.
The youngster who grew up in the Whitsundays played his first game in round nine against the Melbourne Storm and has played three NRL games so far.
In those matches, he was considered the youngster but with five of his Jersey Flegg teammates playing alongside him this weekend, he’ll be hoping to help them find their feet.
“It’s pretty mental but I’m keen to get out with the boys,” O’Donnell said. “They’ve all worked so hard to get there so I’m proud of them and can’t wait.
Considering where the group was this time last year, O’Donnell said he wouldn’t have believed someone if they told him that all six players would be lining up for the Raiders in the NRL in 2020.
Raider 365 - Kai O'Donnell
“I probably wouldn’t believe it!” O’Donnell said. “We have been talking about it, hoping there was a chance of getting a game if there was a chance of players being rested, but we didn’t think it was really going to happen.”
Now with the group having a chance to impress in the top grade, O’Donnell puts their rapid rise down to the coaching at the club.
“They haven’t put their foot off the throttle one bit, we’ve been developing all year,” O'Donnell said. “They haven’t just written our year off because of covid. They’ve put in a lot of time and effort.”
Matt Timoko was one of the emerging stars for the Raiders at the NRL Nines in Perth earlier this year and received his chance to play in the NRL against the Bulldogs a month ago.
Matt Timoko to debut for the Raiders
Having been named to make his second appearance for the Raiders, the rookie centre is particularly excited to start the game for the first time.
“Yeah first start, so that’s pretty exciting especially on the right edge,” Timoko said. “It will be a good test to see where I’m at.”
When Timoko found out that Darby and Jarrett would be making their NRL debuts - as well as Adam Cook who linked up with the Raiders this season – Timoko gave the trio some helpful advice.
“I told Cooky, Darby and Jarrett just to take it all in, just enjoy it and don’t overthink,” Timoko said. “Don’t over complicate anything, just play your game, you’ve been picked for a reason.
“I’m excited to see them play.”
One thing that particularly excites Timoko is the prospect of lining up alongside his Under 20’s teammates for the first time since their Grand Final which was almost exactly 12 months ago.
“We haven’t got to play with each other since the Jersey Flegg Grand Final,” Timoko said. “It’ll be good to play with them again and have another crack at it.”
With the current batch of Canberra Raiders Under 20’s playing in a Grand Final this weekend, Timoko is hoping that both teams help each other get positive results.
“Hopefully us playing gives them a bit of energy as well because I know we are all excited for them,” Timoko said. “Hopefully we can both get a win on the weekend.”
Timoko knows that Under 20’s coach Ash Barnes will certainly be excited for the weekend of rugby league coming up.
“I think Barnsey will be more excited than all of the coaches combined,” Timoko laughed. “He was our coach last for the 20’s and he coached us all the way through.
“We’ve got a real close connection with Ash Barnes. He always messages us and it’ll be really good to see everyone get a crack to showcase their abilities.”
Semi Valemei has quickly found his feet in the NRL and has been in the side the last few weeks.
The winger was so nearly the hero in last year’s Jersey Flegg Grand Final as he scored a hattrick in the 16-14 loss to the Rabbitohs.
Coming off the back of an impressive two-try performance against the Warriors last week, Valemei is eager to link up with his former Under 20’s teammates once again.
“I was so happy when Ricky named the team,” Valemei said. “I like playing with the boys from last year. They’re making their debut this week, so that’ll be really good for me to play along with them again.”
With Harley Smith-Shields playing at left centre, Valemei is excited about renewing that combination once again.
Semi's family and friends react to news he will be making his debut
“We know each other’s game so it’s going to be good,” Valemei said. “I’ve played alongside Harley since my first year of Under 20’s so we’ve got that combination.”
With a back five of Adam Cook, Semi Valemei, Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Timoko and the relative veteran in Nick Cotric, the Raiders back five will be the third youngest in club history.
Local junior Harley Smith-Shields played fullback in the Jersey Flegg Grand Final and like Timoko really shone in the NRL Nines.
Smith-Shields received his opportunity in the NRL against the Rabbitohs in round 12 this year and impressed in a short stint at centre after coming off the bench.
Harley Smith-Shields NRL Debut
He’ll have his first chance to start this weekend against the Sharks and is excited about playing alongside his Under 20’s teammates.
“2019 with these boys was one of my favourite years no doubt,” Smith-Shields said. ”We just played footy each week and had fun and then after the games we just enjoyed each other’s company. It was really good.”
When the side was announced in the team meeting on Tuesday, Smith-Shields was slightly taken aback by the news.
“That was unreal in that meeting this morning,” Smith-Shields said. “It was probably one of the best meetings I’ve ever had. Finding out that the boys are getting their debuts and we’re all going to get out there together again will be really good.”
With many of the rookies having played together over the last two or three years, Smith-Shields believes that has brought them all closer together.
“I think it’s just the year’s we’ve had together,” Smith-Shields said. “We’d played two or three years together so we’ve built this good culture around each other.”