Hamilton Hawks ready to reclaim Hunter crown

HAMILTON

Coach: Scott Coleman

Last premiership: 2010

Last year: 2nd

Gains: Tiueti Asi (Auckland), Travis Soulsby (retirement), Jarrod Clayton (Tahs), Shane Laloata (Merewether), Paul Dan (work)

Losses: Jodan Perry (work), Damien Wells (Perth), Ricky Mavin (Tahs), Nat Heath (retired), Mark O’Brien (Southern Beaches), Andre Holmes (work), James Sneddon (Wanderers)

Player to watch: Ben Harriss. Exciting fullback. Selected in the NSW Country senior side despite being eligible for colts. Only slight but is light on his feet and invariably beats at least one tackler. If he doesn’t get you with an in-and-away, he dances back on the inside. A goal-kicker to boot.

Bottom line: Such is their consistency, you can pencil the Hawks in for a top-three place without looking at the roster. They supplied 12 players and the coach to the successful Newcastle campaign. Paul Dan returns after a season off and is a ready-made replacement for Wells. Spring-heeled second-rower Nick Palmer is the most improved player in the comp and provides a constant stream of ball from the lineout, and the back-row of Va Talaileva, Steve Sione and Chris Stratton packs a punch. Out wide, Lewie Catt and Pat Kilmurray are tackle busters. Without Wells, they miss an X-factor, but Coleman has a direct line to Auckland and rarely comes up empty. A third premiership in five years would be a nice way for Coleman to go out.

Prediction: 1st

WANDERERS

Coach: Ellis Meachen

Last premiership: 2009

Last year: 4th

Gains: Damian Winter (Wellington), Asa Lehauli (Wellington, NZ), Zion Takarua (Shannon, NZ), Anthony Savovski (Randwick), Marcus Simpson (returning), Corey Te Koeti (lower grades), Dan Kevill (Merewether), James Sneddon (Hamilton), Joe Shelton (Byron Bay), Matt Yeomans (Sth Beaches), Ben Chessum (Tasmania )

Losses: Tom Gilmore (Brisbane), Jarrod Wilson (Brisbane), John Totini (Canberra), Ezra Luxton (NZ), Dave Walton (Bathurst)

Player to watch: Damian Winter. Some people are born to run. This powerful Kiwi prop was put on Earth to pack into scrums. Built like a VB stubby, standing 188centimetres and weighing 126kg, Winter can play either side, but does most damage at tight-head. NSW Country have already snapped him up. Given Wanderers traditionally struggle at the set piece, he could be the most important signing in a decade.

Bottom line: Have a remodelled side to go with a redeveloped home at No.2 Sportsground. Highly credentialed Kiwi Ellis Meachen takes over the reins. Have recruited in areas of need, essentially the tight five. Winter and Takarua add much-needed size and power to the scrum. Kevill is back after a year at the Greens. He won the Anderson Medal the last time the Two Blues won the premiership. Ball-winning breakaway Corey Te Koeti has his hunger back and Auckland recruit Asa Lehauli completes a dynamic back row. The backline remains intact. They finished third last season without really threatening the top two. Have the cattle to go all the way this time round.

Prediction: 2nd

MAITLAND

Coach: Geoff Golledge

Last premiership: 1999

Last year: 5th

Gains: Ryan McCormack (University), Mick Howell (Brumbies academy), Dillon Rowney (Nelson Bay), Rhys Lloyd (Wales), James Howell (Nelson Bay RL), Adam Perkins (lower grades), Jon Runchel (retirement)

Losses: Jake Howard (overseas), Sam Austin (overseas)

Player to watch: Mick Howell. Has benefited from a stint at the Brumbies Academy. A massive unit, he will most likely slot into the second row but has the mobility of a back-rower. Big, strong, skilful and will do some damage.

Bottom line: There is a real sense of anticipation at Marcellin Park. The Blacks have enough quality forwards to fill two first-grade packs. Out wide is where the problems have been. But the arrival of McCormack and Rowney gives them direction and pace. James Bonomini also returns after an injury-plagued year. Finally they might have the pace to go with the power.

Prediction: 3rd

MEREWETHER-CARLTON

Coach: Stacey Sykes

Last premiership: 2011

Last year: 1st

Gains: Gareth Ernst (Singleton), Joe Andrew (Singleton)

Losses: Dylan Evans (Sydney Uni), Mark Wade (Knights), Dan Lewinski (Darwin), Dan Kevill (Wanderers), Jay Strachan (US), Bill Coffey (US), Ryan Lamb (US), James Bertsos (retired), Shane Laloata (Hamilton)

Player to watch: Sam Clifton. Livewire fullback who had last season cruelled by a shattered collarbone. The best broken-field runner in the competition. Will sneak into first receiver when the opposition are stretched or tired and is capable of turning a game in an instant. Last season’s leading point-scorer despite missing the final two rounds.

Bottom line: The Greens won everything but the state election last year. Success came at a price with six of the champion side now calling somewhere else home. Lewinski and Kevill leave the biggest holes. But given Merewether have won the past seven club championships they shouldn’t have to look too far for replacements. They have four in the NSW Country under20s. Classy halfback Gareth Ernst has come down the highway to play finals football. The Greens will do that, but the challenge of backing up from a perfect season will be a test for second-year coach Sykes.

Prediction: 4th

SOUTHERN BEACHES

Coach: Tim Chidgey

Last premiership: None

Last year: 3rd

Gains: Mark O’Brien (Hamilton), Adrian Sutter (army), Bleddyn Gant (Eastwood), Tim Riley (NZ), Corey Nash (Merewether)

Losses: Matt Yeomans (Wanderers), Nigel Miller (Nelson Bay), Charlie Hay (Nelson Bay), Cal Burns (Tahs)

Player to watch: Bleddyn Gant. Returns to Newcastle after a season at Eastwood. Can play anywhere across the front three and is likely to be pop up at No.8 as well. A natural leader, he will get the Beaches on the front foot.

Bottom line: Came of age last season. Chidgey added professionalism to a talented player pool. The result was a first trip to the finals. Now for the tough part of backing it up. They failed to snare Va Talaileva, but Gant will add some grunt and it wouldn’t surprise if Chidgey had another card up his sleeve. The absence of Mick Delore (knee) until August is all that stands in the way of another step up the ladder.

Prediction: 5th

LAKE MACQUARIE

Coach: Danny Maiava

Last premiership: 2001 (first division)

Last year: 10th

Gains: Dave Alo (Parramatta), Ray Alo (Parramatta), Junior To’o (Gordon), Brendan Holiday (West Harbour), Mika Taafua (Mackay), Paul Walker (Wanderers), Meheka Tulu (Sunnybank), Nat Walker (returning), Sam Fitch (England), Matt Clarke (Warringah)

Losses: None

Player to watch: Brendan Holiday. He was man of the match in the Hawks’ 2010 grand final victory before heading to West Harbour where he played first grade. Brilliant with the ball, he showed all his class to steer Newcastle to a fifth Country title. Will benefit greatly with good players around him.

Bottom line: The wildcard. Embarrassed last season, the Roos have undertaken their biggest recruitment drive since they entered premier rugby a decade ago. On paper they look capable of winning the grand final. The Alo brothers, Clarke and To’o have extensive experience in Sydney first grade. Taafua was a class act when he was last at Walters Park in a side that had little else. The key will be ensuring they all stay committed.

Prediction: 6th

THE WARATAHS

Coach: Greg Doolan

Last premiership: 2006

Last year: 7th

Gains: Tau Mataafa (Brisbane), Ricky Mavin (Hamilton), Todd McDean (University)

Losses: Jarrod Clayton (Hamilton), Hayden Pedersen (Tamworth), Karl Manu (overseas), Lolo Mohu (Singleton)

Player to watch: Francis Deng. Sudanese winger in just his second season but an absolute flyer. Well balanced, deceptively strong, knows his way to the tryline and a real crowd-pleaser.

Bottom line: The loss of Pedersen is massive. Throw in the mid-season no show of Karl Manu and it is hard to see the Tahs threatening. But new coach Greg Doolan is optimistic. His mission is to rebuild the club and he is confident they will improve weekly. Mataafa played for Samoa at an under-20 World Cup and is out to resurrect his career after a serious knee injury. Doolan is well connected in New Zealand and reinforcements could only be a phone call away.

Prediction: 7th

UNIVERSITY

Coach: Eti Filipo

Last premiership: 1988

Last year: 6th

Gains: None

Losses: Luke McBeath (Sydney), Dave Kennedy (overseas), Matt Dun (retired), Ryan McCormack (Maitland), Todd McDean (Tahs), Louis Gray (Brisbane)

Player to watch: Sam Berry. King of the kids. The former Newcastle fullback is likely to make a permanent move to the pack. His experience and direction will be invaluable.

Bottom line: School’s out. It is a changing of the guard at University. While most clubs have looked across the ditch for reinforcements, the Godfrey Tanner Bar has been the source of the Students’ new boys. Talent won’t be the problem. Jack Rixon and James Callaghan head a list of 10 graduating from colts to first grade. They will be brilliant at times, brittle at others. Somewhere in the middle would please coach Eti Filipo.

Prediction: 8th

SINGLETON

Coach: Scott Dalibozek

Last premiership: 1997

Last year: 8th

Gains: Christopher Boyce (Parkes), Kane Forrester (Adelaide), Steven Foley (Perth), Matthew Gardner (Canberra), Hoani Harris (NZ), Ihaia Harris (NZ), Lolo Mohu (Tahs), Michael Nicholson (Sydney)

Losses: Gareth Ernst (Merewether), Joe Andrews (Merewether), Jon Richards (travel), Ryan Thompson (Canada), Jon Hill (Canada), James Callinan (work), Peter Shumack (lower grades), Tim Fairnsworth (lower grades)

Players to watch: Harris brothers Hoani and Ihaia are a double act, albeit contrasting styles. Prop Hoani is a powerful scrummager and mobile for a big man. Ihaia is a flashy five-eighth in the mould of former All Black Carlos Spencer.

Bottom line: It’s hard to get a read on the Bulls. They are forever turning over players. Their better young ones are lured to the bright lights and universities of the major cities. The ones who stay have shift work to contend with. Ernst’s departure will hit hard but they are a resilient mob at Rugby Park. Lachlan Gulliver (winger) Des Trent (prop), Andrew Wadsworth (hooker) and Alex Dunn (wing) were a part of the successful Newcastle 20s. The evergreen Steve Merrick and Anthony Partridge will start the season in the lower grades but it wouldn’t surprise to see them kick-off at 3pm at home.

Prediction: 9th

NELSON BAY

Coaches: Michael Maher and Ken Cooper

Last premiership: 1999 (first division)

Last year: 9th

Gains: Nigel Miller (Sth Beaches), Charlie Hay (Sth Beaches), Ofeina Hushon (Tahs)

Losses: Dillon Rowney (Maitland)

Player to watch: Marty Lisiua. The Castle, Leroys and the Jolly Roger were still the rage when Marty first started terrorising opposition forward packs. He may be closing in on 44 but little has changed. Has slid from prop back to No.8 in recent years but that is the only part of his game that has gone backwards. Rumbles across the advantage line with monotonous regularity and super effective at the breakdown.

Bottom line: It’s a fresh start for the Gropers. On the surface the new coaching partnership has their work cut out. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it is going to take a while for Strong Oval to become a fortress. The Bay won’t do anything fancy. They have a strong forward pack and play an uncompromising style. Like most clubs they have cast a net over the Tasman and if they can pick up a couple of quality backs will test most teams.

Prediction: 10th

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