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Reigning Mal Meninga Cup champions Townsville Blackhawks will relish the challenge of defending their 2016 title this season, according to coach Roy Baira.

The 2017 season will be Baira’s first in charge of the champion Blackhawks side and with a core group of premiership players at Under 16 and Under 18 levels, the club will be vying for a fourth consecutive Mal Meninga Cup title.

“We have retained a lot of the young boys, they’re the nucleus of our group. We’ve added a few local players and a few players from Darwin too,” Baira said.

“Our nucleus of about 10 or so players are out of that group that made the Australia National Club Championship grand final against Cronulla in 2015, so they will be handy for us.”

This season’s Mal Meninga Cup competition will feature 16 sides battling across an eight-round season before a grand final at Dolphin Oval on May 7.

The Blackhawks begin their premiership defence with a 2016 grand final replay against Norths Devils at Bishop Park on Sunday afternoon.

Townsville were comprehensive 38-16 winners in last year’s decider, but face a tough challenge against a Devils side looking for redemption.

“Norths are a great club. They’ve always been in top group of teams, so it’s going to be a big challenge – but the boys are excited and ready for the challenge,” Baira said.

With the Townsville-based side to play three of their six fixtures in South East Queensland, the squad will have to adapt to extra travel in comparison to previous seasons.

The squad are choosing to look at the extra travel as an opportunity to test themselves against the best Under 18 players across the state.

“With the way the draw has changed this season and playing against a few more Brisbane-based teams, I think it will be a lot more difficult, but the boys are up to the task,” Baira said.

“The travel will be a bit different for the boys, but I’ve spoken to them about it and they seem to have their heads switched on. We just now have to make sure they prepare well.”

The restructuring of the QRL’s major competitions in 2017 has established a clear pathway for aspiring senior footballers, which Baira believes is an integral element of junior football.

“It’s good that the pathway is clear now and it’s all laid out in front of the players. It’s all about their efforts now and the desire to get there,” he said.

“There’s also the support system within the grades now. The senior squads look after the Under 20s and then the Under 20s look out for us and so on.”

Download the full Mal Meninga Cup draw here

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