Cessnock Goannas and Kurri Bulldogs aiming high as Newcastle Rugby League season kicks off this weekend

QUALITY SIGNING: Former Brisbane Broncos under-20s player Gerome Burns in action for the Cessnock Goannas at the Charity Shield.
QUALITY SIGNING: Former Brisbane Broncos under-20s player Gerome Burns in action for the Cessnock Goannas at the Charity Shield.

Cessnock coach Todd Edwards expects his side will have a target on their backs after last season's against-the-odds grand final victory.

Down the road, Kurri have gone the other way: they will go into the new Newcastle Rugby league season having flown completely under the radar in the COVID-hit 2020 season - just the way they like it.

Both teams kick off this season at home on Saturday; the Goannas in a grand final replay against South Newcastle, and the Bulldogs in a local derby against Maitland.

The lead-ups couldn't be any more different, but make no mistake, both clubs are aiming high.

CESSNOCK

Edwards won't make any big statements.

"I'm not going to say top three or anything like that, but if we get the effort areas right, we'll be tough to beat," he says.

The Goannas go in after two pre-season hit-outs, the latest their Charity Shield win, and is pleased with what he sees.

"We haven't played anywhere near our best, but had two tough wins" he said. "We have good depth in the forwards - we basically have two first grade packs to choose from.

"We have to set a high standard and keep those effort areas up - and believe me it's easier said than done - but if we do that there's a lot of talent in this club. Young talent too."

The potential holes in the side - which were mainly around depth in outside backs - seem to have been nicely filled.

AGAINST THE ODDS: Cessnock Goannas captain Reed Hugo and coach Todd Edwards after last year's grand final victory. Picture: Smart Artist

AGAINST THE ODDS: Cessnock Goannas captain Reed Hugo and coach Todd Edwards after last year's grand final victory. Picture: Smart Artist

The arrival of the Burns brothers from Ipswich, halfback Gerome and outside back Denzel, has made a huge difference.

"Both really good players. Gerome is clever, you don;t play under-20s for the Broncos is you're not a good player, but he has aspects to his game we're working on," Edwards said. "He'll only get better. Denzel is very fast, reminds me a bit of Bevan French, the way he can leave defenders grasping. He beat six guys from a standing start in a 40 metre run to the tryline against Macquarie that you had to see to believe. "

On top of that another quality centre, Tyronne Roberts-Davis is back at the club after trialling with the Wests Tigers in the NRL.

"He played in the Charity Shield and we had to introduce him to 90 per cent of the boys before the game," Edwards said.

"So obviously you're not going to have combinations at this stage, but he has NRL experience and is still only 23."

And if you're looking for a fan favourite, new hooker Billy Gilbert might be the one.

"He's a real bushie, a very funny guy, but geez he's tough."

With Central Coast heavyweights Wyong and The Entrance playing this season, it will be harder than ever.

But it's fair to say Edwards likes what he sees.

STAR RECRUIT: Former Newcastle Knights player Nathan Ross will return to the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs in 2021.

STAR RECRUIT: Former Newcastle Knights player Nathan Ross will return to the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs in 2021.

KURRI KURRI

While Cessnock were winning in Newcastle, and the Maitland Pickers were winning the Presidents Cup, Kurri took the low-key approach to 2020, only fielding a reserve grade in the COVID-hit 2020 season.

It means that going into this season, there's hardly been a mention of the Bulldogs - just how they like it.

But while they were low-key, they certainly weren't inactive.

Former Kiwi international and Sydney Roosters premiership player Frank-Paul Nu'uausala is on board and played strongly against Cessnock in the Charity Shield.

Two other big name recruits, Nathan Ross and Tyler Randall, were rested from the Charity Shield but will be right to go when Kurri open their premiership campaign against Maitland - a match they'd love to win.

Experienced prop Peter Cronin is back from Maitland along side his brother Jesse, tough centre Jarred Anderson is good to go, and depending on what happens with the Knights, the club is still hopeful of powerful centre Henry Penn being there too.

Little wonder club president Mick Alchin is upbeat ahead of the season.

"We're looking to win it," Alchin said. "That's every team's goal. It has been a long time but that has to be the goal.

"We have a lot of good forwards ... Brodie Hammond, Brock Gilmour, the Cronin boys, Ben Wyborn, Frank-Paul of course, my son Reid.

"So much so there's a good chance that captain-coach Mitch Cullen will move from the back row to play alongside Tyler Randall in the halves. He's such a versatile player Mitch and he's handled number six before."

LEADER: Mitch Cullen will captain-coach the Bulldogs this year.

LEADER: Mitch Cullen will captain-coach the Bulldogs this year.

The area of concern for Alchin is match fitness, especially in the early rounds.

"Because of a lot of our guys didn't play last season, they're got to get back up to speed with their fitness," he said.

"You can train hard all you like, there's no substitute for a match. And in my view the competition is getting faster all the time. Certainly the Charity Shield the other night was fast.

"So for us to have a good season, I think if we can get a couple of wins up early in those first two or three weeks, it would give us the confidence we need.

"If we are going to get caught out with fitness, that's when it will be.

"But a couple of wins will help us pull a big crowd through the gate again which is what makes the Graveyard such a hard place for teams to come.

"On paper we have the talent and we have the experience across the park. I'd love a couple of wins early."

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