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Burleigh Bears: Cup gains and losses for 2024

Tyler Szepanowski always knew the door at the Burleigh Bears was open for him.

The Rockhampton-born talent has this season made his return to the Gold Coast, signing with last year’s grand finalists with a lot more experience under his belt than the last time he was here.

Signed to the Gold Coast Titans in 2017, Szepanowski spent his late teens and early 20s coming through the Titans and Bears’ under 20s systems, learning the ropes from some of the best in the game.

By 2021 he was back home in Rockhampton, where he made his Hostplus Cup debut with the Central Queensland Capras.

But there was a part of the now 25-year-old that knew his time at the Gold Coast wasn’t over.

“I was really lucky that I left the club on good terms and they always said I was welcome back,” Szepanowski said.

“I sent (Bears Cup coach Luke) Burty a text to see if he was keen on it. I always knew the Goldy was home for me and my now wife. It just made sense.”

Szepanowski in Burleigh pre-season. Photo: Jorja Brinums/QRL
Szepanowski in Burleigh pre-season. Photo: Jorja Brinums/QRL

The forward has arrived at Burleigh after a bit of a rocky 2023 season.

At the end of 2022, Szepanowski was one of four Capras players given a pre-season train-and-trial deal with the NRL Dolphins, which saw him not only play against his Central Queensland teammates in a trial clash, but also in the Pre-Season Challenge against the North Queensland Cowboys.

However, it was in this game that Szepanowski suffered a dislocated shoulder, which ruled him out for the majority of the season.

It was his first “major injury” and he did not return to the field with the Capras until Round 20 in August.

“It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least,” Szepanowski said.

“It’s taught me a lot and made me really realise how much footy means to me. And it made me realise how quick it can get taken away.

“It was tough. (The rehab) is a long, long, onerous process… especially since I spent time down at pre-season with the Dolphins boys and then I missed out on that time with the Capras boys.

“Trying to feel a part of that group when you’re not playing, it was pretty tough. But they’re a great bunch of lads there and the coaches were awesome and made sure I was included as much as possible.

“I was helping out with drills at training and that sort of stuff when I was in the sling. Then they worked really hard with me to get me back on the field as quick as possible so yeah, the Capras were more than supportive of me and my family during that time.

“Everyone around me, they just kept saying I had to tick all my boxes and do what I have to do and hope that I come out the other side sweet and obviously I have.

“I’m really making the most of every moment now and enjoying it.”

Bears coach Burt: 'We want to get bigger and better'

The change of scenery has come at the right time for Szepanowski, who said he had missed the Gold Coast lifestyle.

Having come through the under 20s at Burleigh, there’s plenty of familiar faces for him as well, including fellow forward Lochlyn Sheldon and veterans Sami Sauiluma, Pat Politoni and Sam Coster.

With the Bears coming off a successful 2023 – which saw them fall short on grand final day to the Brisbane Tigers – Szepanowski is seeing a lot of promising signs for the year ahead.

“The boys have welcomed me back with open arms,” he said.

“It’s a pretty new group of players. A lot of the same senior boys are still here but I feel like I’m still yet to earn my stripes here. I came through the 20s but this is a different level.

“It says a lot about the club and a lot about them as individuals too that they’re still here.

“Since they’ve been here, the club’s been really successful and I remember looking up to them in 20s and they were always the ones driving the standards at the club, throughout all the grades.

“They were the lads we looked up to so it’s cool to be alongside them now and I hope I can continue to carry that on when those boys move on eventually.

“The boys are really disappointed coming off last year, naturally, as you would be. But we spoke about it on day one and promised not to talk about it again.

“We made it clear that winning the big one at the end of the year was our goal and ambition for 2024. We haven’t spoken about it since then.

“We’re making sure we’re getting the most out of each session each week and that’s working so far.”

As well as the familiar faces from his past, Szepanowski has been joined by a player that he knows brings out the best in him, with former Capras teammate Bailey Butler joining him at the Bears.

Szepanowski in action for the Capras. Photo: Zain Mohammed/QRL
Szepanowski in action for the Capras. Photo: Zain Mohammed/QRL

Butler has spent most of his pre-season with Burleigh NRL affiliate, the Brisbane Broncos, and Szepanowski said he knew their combination was one he thrived off.

“First things first, I’m glad I don’t have to play against Bailey,” Szepanowski said.

“It’s cool because we had a really good combination at Capras and it would be good for both of us to continue that on. We bring the best out of each other and I was pretty stoked to hear that he was coming with.

“I knew for quite a while that I was moving down but Butsy sort of mentioned something to me after we finished our season at the Capras.

“That’s how I found out. I didn’t believe him at first, to be honest. I thought he was talking rubbish. But it’s cool to have him here too.

“Bailey is a fair bit more of an aggressive player than I am. I’m not too much of an aggressive person so he brings that side out in me. I know that he has my back and I have his, so that’s cool.”

As well as Szepanowski and Butler, the Bears have also recruited Tigers premiership-winning forward Charlie Murray and Western Clydesdales winger Mitch Watson, as well as a duo from New South Wales in Shannon Gardiner and Ethan O’Neill.

They will also benefit from their new partnership with the Broncos, with former Bears half Josh Rogers likely to reunite with playmaker Guy Hamilton through the alliance.

With the team’s focus set on making back-to-back grand finals, Szepanowski said his goal for 2024 was simple: be the best he can be and reap the rewards from there.

“I’ve always taken the stance that I want to be the best that I can be,” he said.

“It’s exactly what I said 12 months ago (when with the NRL Dolphins). If I can be the best that I can be, if that’s as an NRL player or Cup player, I’m happy with that.

“That’s all you can ask of yourself. Footy was taken away from me last year and really made me realise how much it actually means.

“I’m grateful to be back playing and looking forward to hopefully playing a full season this year.”

Burleigh Bears 2024 gains and losses


Bailey Butler (Central Queensland Capras), Shannon Gardiner (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Charlie Murray (Brisbane Tigers), Ethan O’Neill (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Tyler Szepanowski (Central Queensland Capras), Mitch Watson (Western Clydesdales)


Dylan Kelly (retired), Toby McIntosh (Grafton), Emry Pere (Western Clydesdales),  Jayden Sharp (Townsville Blackhawks), Vaka Sikahele (Tweed Seagulls), Tom Steadman (Tweed Seagulls)

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