Hunter superstars Cheech Barker and Maya Stewart are set to defending the Super W title again with two-time champions the NSW Waratahs, after incoming coach Campbell Aitken confirmed they would be included in his 30-player squad for 2020.
Barker and Stewart both played key roles for the Tahs as they battled to their second consecutive Super W title, winning four consecutive matches in the regular season before defeating Queensland 8–5 to lift the trophy at Leichhardt Oval thanks to a moment of magic from selfless star Barker.
While Barker took on a more defensive role in her appearances in the centres and the halves during the 2019 campaign, Stewart clicked in attack to score in two of the four regular-season games for the Tahs last year.
Her debut Super W try came in a tight 15–12 win over Queensland in round 3, and the Nelson Bay speedster added to her haul with another in the opening minute of a 66–12 slamming of the Reds on the road in Bathurst in round 5.
It’s a high-level scoring record she’s kept up into her early representation with Australia’s development program, as she charged in four tries in a 27–5 victory over Samoa in the Oceanic Championship late last month.
20-year-old Lake Macquarie youngster Layne Morgan has also been named in the squad. Morgan has represented Australia at the Youth Commonwealth Games, and forged her name in the AON Sevens with Macquarie over the past two seasons.
Maitland superstar Mahalia Murphy marks the biggest Hunter name excluded from the squad. She is joined in the culled 17 list by Hamilton twins Leilani and Nicole Nathan, who both said they were there to “make the most” of learning with the state squad.
Murphy especially was a shock admission from Aitken’s 30-player roster, after strong showings for both NSW and Australia. The Maitland convert scored once in the 2019 season, in a 26–0 victory over the Brumbies in the season opener.
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Murphy, and the Nathan sisters, missed out at the expense of high-profile Wallaroos stars like Grace Hamilton, Emily Chancellor, Eva Karpani and Iliseva Batibasaga, all of whom give the Waratahs a “really good chance” at the threepeat, Aitken said.
Aitken added it was “tough” to have to put lines through “fantastic” players like the Hunter trio heading back north without a place in the Waratahs squad for 2020, especially considering the “great job” they did in training over the past month.
“It’s always tough leaving players out but I’d like to thank everyone for being part of our pre-season program,” he said.
“We’ve put together a really strong squad, [the staff] are excited about getting stuck into preparations for the season ahead,” he said. “We have developed incredible depth right across the park … and some strong representation at a national level.”
The Super W draw has yet to be released, meaning Barker and Stewart are still in the dark about how their national competition campaign will look heading into 2020. According to sources, however, the league is expected to kick-off in February.