Big, strong and talented, the Cessnock Goannas are the talk of the Newcastle Rugby League ahead of the 2018 season.
New Goannas coach Alan Lantry has assembled a squad which should not only play semi-finals but give the premiership a red-hot challenge.
Former NRL players Paul Carter (Sydney Roosters) and Chanel Mata’utia (Newcastle Knights) headline the signings, but there are plenty of quality additions to a team which was set to make the top five last year until injuries finally took their toll.
Halfback Riley Brown will partner Carter in a halves combination which has already been touted as the best in the league.
Last year’s star signing giant forward Kurt Warden is joined by the equally big Alex Mammone from Halifax FC in the UK.
The depth has been boosted across the ground with Royce Geoffrey (Macquarie), Josh Adu (Leigh East), Jordan Stratton (Windsor) and Jacob McKendry (Central) joining Cessnock in 2018.
Depth, size and talent have been the key ingredients in Lantry and the Goannas recruiters' strategy and they have succeeded.
“We’ve had a good pre-season, it will be good to face Maitland and see how we are going.
It’s hard to pinpoint just the one player who will make the difference. Riley Brown coming back into the halfback role being a very talented, skillful and tough as hell will be vital to me.
“In saying that you’ve got the blokes outside him Carts running off him, and Royce Geoffrey and Chanel in the centres.
Our two front rowers have been outstanding in the trials. If we can keep the go forward going from them they are going to be ones to look out for as well.
”The biggest thing I wanted to do was bring competitiveness for the players for positions, so they’ve got someone on their heels every week from reserve grade pushing through putting pressure on them.
“You can’t let off for a game because someone is always wanting to push through for a position.
“It’s come in handy already with myself and Sammy Apthorpe both injured in the trials we had the depth to put blokes in.
“There’s going to be injuries throughout the year but now it’s a matter of who is in form who will get the call up.
Lantry will undergo a fitness test but is likely to line-up against Maitland in the season opener at the new Maitland Sportsground.
Sam Apthorpe (ankle) is likely to be back in round three after suffering a ligament strain in his ankle.
He is part of a young trio of forwards along with Reed Hugo and Blake Andrews who have impressed Lantry.
Andrews will start at lock against the Pickers, reward for a great pre-season.
He will be joined in the back row by Goannas’ favourites Marvin Filipo and Kori Barber.
“Blake has been very impressive in the trials and deserves his spot,” Lantry said.
“It was always the thought I’d start, but Blake has earned his spot.”
The bench will be from Lantry, Brendan Hlad, Reed Hugo, Jordan Stratton and Jake McNamarra.
Josh Dymock will be the starting hooker and a youthful backline includes Connor Kirkwood and Joe Woodbury on the wings and Harry O’Brien at fullback.
“There’s a couple of boys pushing for the position but Josh has been my No.9 from the start.
“There’s still a few to pick from in the outside backs, it’s been a while since Cessnock has had depth in that area.
I’ll be looking at Connor Kirkwood on one wing and Joe Woodbury on the other.
“A lot of people were questioning Harry O’Brien’s size at fullback. I just said to him ‘play your game, size won’t matter, speed will beat size any day’.
“He has been unreal and I can’t wait to see him playing throughout the year.”
In more good news for the Goannas, Nick Lawrence is on the comeback trail from knee surgery last year.
“Nick trained last week. No one expected him to come back before July but now it’s looking like June, which is an incredible effort.
Cessnock Goannas squad
INS: Alan Lantry (captain coach); Alex Mammone (Halifax FC); Paul Carter (Sydney Roosters); Chanel Mata'utia (Newcastle Knights); Royce Geoffrey (Macquarie); Josh Adu (Leigh East); Jordan Stratton (Windsor); Riley Brown (Denman); Jacob McKendry (Central)
Outs: Jordan Worboys (West); Oliver Powell (West); Zeb Dunstan (Kurri); Robert Tuliatu (Asquith); Theeran Pearson; Jai See (Branxton); Cal Orchard (Branxton); Tory Neville (Branxton)
Equally importantly they have boosted their depth across the park and retained key locals Kori Barber, Joe Woodbury, Sam Apthorpe, Reed Hugo and Marvin Filipo.