NEWCASTLE Rebels coach Aaron Watts has been forced to make several changes to his representative squad ahead of Saturday's clash with Canberra at Maitland Sportsground.
Five-eighth Dylan Phythian (leg) was ruled out with injury this week while forwards Luke Higgins (ankle) and Joe Bromage (ribs) were recently added to the casualty ward from club games.
Henry Penn, originally named as 18th man, is also unavailable.
Watts narrowly avoided another two switches with halfback Adrian Davis (dangerous contact) and substitute Matt Moon (shoulder charge) both eligible to play despite taking early guilty pleas this week and copping one-match suspensions, which won't be served until the next round of Newcastle Rugby League.
"First and foremost AJ and Moony are right to play and that could have been a real drama," Watts said.
"Phyth is out with a leg issue so for a while we were potentially without both of our halves from the first game.
"He [Phyth] was really good for us down in Illawarra. Just takes a bit of pressure of AJ kicking wise and is a strong defender."
Watts was initially unsure about who would wear the No.6 jersey on June 26, either reshuffling from within the squad or calling up another playmaker.
However, following training at Kurri Sportsground on Wednesday night, Mitch Cullen was revealed as captain and moved from the second-row to five-eighth.
Jarred Anderson has been reeled in for the back-row.
Best and fairest from last year's grand final Connor Kirkwood comes off the bench to start at lock for Higgins, who was leading the Newcastle RL player of the year points when he went down earlier this month.
Bromage's departure opens the door for Rebels debutant Joseph Gardiner as an interchange player.
Matt Soper-Lawler will also be a substitute.
The new 18th man is Kurt Donoghoe.
"The rep games don't come around that often," Watts said.
"We're at home, there's a couple of debuts and just the camaraderie in the group ... we don't want to waste an opportunity."
Newcastle opened their 2021 campaign by defeating Illawarra 36-4 in Wollongong last month.
Saturday's main game kicks off at 3pm. Earlier, the Rebels and Canberra also do battle in the under 20s age group (1:30pm).
NEWCASTLE: Cameron Anderson, Joe Woodbury, Royce Geoffrey, Tyrone Roberts-Davis, James Bradley, Mitch Cullen (c), Adrian Davis, Jayden Butterfield, Billy Gilbert, James Taylor, Wyatt Shaw, Jarred Anderson, Connor Kirkwood, Matt Moon, Joseph Gardiner, Robert Tuliatu, Matt Soper-Lawler.
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