WANDERERS trio Nick Cook and brothers Jackson and Blake Walsh head a list of nine Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union players named in a 27-man NSW Country Colts train-on squad for the Southern States under-20 Championship.
The Cockatoos is the first step towards selection in the Australian side to contest the under-20 World Cup in June.
Reintroduced this season, the Southern States tournament, in Adelaide from February 22-24, will feature teams from NSW Country, ACT, Queensland Country, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia.
A Southern States team will be selected to play matches against the Reds and Waratahs Colts, to act as a trial for the Australian team.
The Wanderers trio and Kiama prop Daniel Grenhan are the survivors from last season's Cockatoos Colts.
"We have a halfback [Cook], a hooker [Jackson Walsh] and two props [Blake Walsh and Grenhan] from last season, and I'm expecting those guys to really step up and lead," NSW Country coach Matt Thomas said.
Newcastle and Hunter, who drew 5-5 with Central West in last year's Country Championship final, have the largest contingent with nine. The other NHRU players are Tanner Felix (Wanderers); Jaden Hetherington, Connor O'Leary and Mackenzie Rae (Merewether); and Jackson Paul and Hamish Austin (Maitland).
The squad will be trimmed to 25 after a training camp in Sydney on February 8-9.
"This is a great opportunity for the players to push for Australian selection," Thomas said. "Obviously that is a big task, but in the past unless you lived in Sydney or Brisbane you didn't get a look in. This gives good young players a pathway and a reason to stay in the country.
"The Australian Rugby Union has realised that there is so much talent in country areas and this is a way of identifying it."
The Southern States tournament was finalised in December, which limited preparation and the selection process.
Meanwhile, the NHRU second-tier competition will revert to three divisions: President's Cup, Patron's Shield and C Grade.
The NHRU board had turned second division into two 11-team competitions, but it has agreed to return to the former model.
The main issue with the two competitions was separating two-team clubs in certain rounds and allocating some clubs to a higher division than they had nominated.
Six teams are in the President's Cup (formerly A grade) and Patron's Shield (B grade).
Singleton, Muswellbrook, Southern Lakes and Cooks Hill will have a team in each.
East Maitland (A grade) and Maitland (B grade) will be paired for the purposes of the draw, as will Griffins (A) and Merewether (B).
C Grade will comprise Medowie, Cessnock, Wanderers, Hamilton, Southern Beaches, Lake Macquarie, Singleton Army and Pokolbin.
Draws for the competitions are expected this week. Premier Rugby remains 10 clubs playing in first, second and third grades and colts.