Cessnock and Kurri Kurri face two of the toughest tests in Newcatle Rugby League to open their campaigns on the weekend.
The Goannas travel to Harker Oval on Sunday to take on the talent-laden Western Suburbs, while the Bulldogs host a recruit-bolstered Central Newcastle at Kurri Kurri Sportsground on Saturday.
Cessnock coach Steve Kidd has his sights set on playing finals again and will have plenty of options in the halves and at dummy half with Jordy Worboys, Theeran Pearson and Jake McNamara likely to start in the key roles on Sunday, with hooker Jake Watts unlikely to return from a hamstring injury.
The Goannas lost key personnel in the off-season with the Metcalf brothers moving to Central and halfback Liam Foran heading to the Central Coast.
But Kidd has boosted his halves and will be looking for his young forwards to take the next step, under the guidance of Marvin Fillipo who has been in great trial form.
Bulldogs coach Ron Griffiths said he and his team were excited about their start to the season facing Central and then Wests in their opening two games.
“We talked about it and it is the ideal start. It’s a great challenge to let us know where we stand in relation to two teams who should be near the top of the competition,” he said.
The Bulldogs have a largely unchanged roster from last year, but forward Mick Steele and centre Tyme Dow-Nikau are playing full-time with the club this year after juggling club and NSW Cup commitments with the Knights.
Griffiths is expecting big things from a core of youngsters including Hayden Grainger, Jayden Young, Ethan Niszczot, Jonah Lisiua, Kade Hardy and 2017 recruits Jarom Haines and Tyrone Walsh who were part of a record Bulldogs contingent in the Newcastle Rebels under-23 trials.
“We have a full squad to pick from, our biggest issue is that we missed out on two trials. We didn’t play enough trial games for players to get injured so that at least is a positive,” he said.
Griffiths said there was real competition for first grade places this year with plenty of options in key positions such as hooker and lock, freeing captain Terence Seu Seu to remain in the halves.
Last year’s starting No. 9 Corey Holman, Jonah Lisiua and Hayden Grainger are all part of rotational plans.
“They are three guys who have been exceptional through the preseason,” Griffiths said.
“Their effort at training has been outstanding. I think between the three of them they’ve missed three sessions in total, one each.
“I think Hayden is probably more of a hooker than a half and over the next 12 months I think he will find his feet there. Defensively he likes the contact and he is a good thinker and distributor of the ball.
“If we start one on the bench you are swapping like for like. The bench players are as equally as important as the starters. It’s probably something lost on younger guys, you need them to understand that their role is equally as important.
“It’s not the jumper that makes the player, it’s the player that makes the jumper. It’s no longer about one to 13, it is one to 17.”
Griffiths said the benefits of having Steele and Dow-Nikau full-time were already evident.
“They’ve obviously been a part of what we did last year, but we get them full-time they get to spend more time with the boys and there is a lot more cohesion,” he said.
“They’re not worried about juggling the demands of two different clubs and different roles.”
Griffiths said he the players had been given a lot more ownership of the club’s goals.
“We’re just changing the way we play a bit. We have set structures for various field positions but once an attacking opportunity presents the players are play what is in front of them,” he said.