WELCOME to the next level.
The Riverina Rhinos were given a tough initiation on the weekend as they took on some of the state's best young junior sides at the Bathurst Cup, their first pre-season competition since the team's inception.
All four Rhinos grades entered the tournament but only one, the under 13s, made it into Sunday's finals at Proctor Park.
Football Riverina development manager and Rhinos technical director Blaise Fagan said it was a stark reminder of what will be required of local players this year in the team's inaugural Football NSW Regional League campaign.
"The good thing about the Bathurst Cup is that it allows us to get lots and lots of games in conditions they're not used to - it's faster, it's quicker, the players they come up against have a lot more experience," he said.
"The decision making has to be a lot quicker, the movement has to be quicker - everything has to go up a level.
"It's a steep learning curve but it'll be a good experience for them in the long run."
While the under 13s went the furthest, winning their quarter-final but falling 2-0 to the Rockdale City Suns in their semi-final, Fagan reserved special praise for the under 12s, coached by Ross Morgan.
"They played football the way it should be played," he said.
"They like to maintain possession, knock the ball around, and they stuck with the plan all the time.
"I was very impressed with the way Ross' team played. It was very mature."
Fagan said the teams that adhere to the Rhinos' possession-first style of play and not resort to the old school kick-and-rush football will not only be more successful, but will develop their technical and tactical skills quicker.
"The older boys have got a lot of bad habits they've accumulated over the years playing football in their hometown," he said.
"They're all very talented but can sometimes rely on their physicality to get by. Being bigger, stronger and faster will only get you so far."
Fagan said it was important the Rhinos take the lessons from the Bathurst Cup and put them into practice at training ahead of the start of the Regional League next month.
"The under 12s did that - they treated it like it was a training game," he said.
"After the boys played multiple games, tiredness crept in and they started to fall back into their old habits.
"That's when coaches have to reinforce that effective possession game, which will help develop our kids the best way - that's the most important thing."