NEWCASTLE representative coach Paul Skovgaard has warned his side against believing their own publicity as they prepare to kick off their NSW Country Divisional Championships title defence on Saturday.
The Rebels will start raging hot favourites to beat the Central Coast at Cessnock Sportsground when they field a star-studded line-up with plenty of NRL and NSW Country experience.
Last season Skovgaard, in his first season in charge, guided the Rebels to end Illawarra’s four-year dominance of the divisional championships when they won the final at Cessnock 28-24.
Illawarra were eliminated by the Central Coast 29-22 on June 2 at Morry Breen Oval, and if Newcastle can beat their southern neighbours they will face the winners of Canberra and Northern Rivers in the decider.
It is widely believed that the local competition has risen in quality this season due to the addition of former NRL stars Terence Seu Seu and Riley Brown.
Many think that will translate into an even more dominant country campaign for Newcastle.
‘‘People outside are talking it up and saying it’s a better side, but looking back, those guys last year came together very quick as well,’’ Skovgaard said.
‘‘And look at what those players have gone on to like [Knights NSW Cup players] Mitch Williams and Josh Mantellato.
‘‘I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is a better side.
‘‘These boys still need to prove themselves.
‘‘While they might have experience on paper, I still think they have two games to really prove themselves to be as good as last year.’’
The limited preparation is one factor Skovgaard must overcome. Last season Newcastle beat Canberra (24-22) and Northern Rivers (36-10) on the road to the final.
Skovgaard is nervous about having one less match this season to prepare his squad.
‘‘Because it’s our first game and we’re going straight into a semi-final, I think it’s more difficult given the fact Central Coast have already played a game and we go in not having played together,’’ he said.
‘‘A lot will come down to attitude, and if that’s right, I think that will go a long way to winning the game in itself.’’
Central Coast will field a formidable side, including former Canterbury Bulldogs second-rower Jamie Feeney.
There was an injury cloud over Maitland lock Billy Towers, who required surgery after a dislocated finger pierced the skin, but he has trained strongly and will play off the bench.
■ The Newcastle Rugby League will hit the airwaves on regular basis for the first time this Sunday with the launch of online commentary.
Darren Forward and Tim Butler will call the match of the day every Sunday live for All Sports Radio, starting with this weekend’s Western Suburbs and Maitland grand final replay at Harker Oval.
Last season Forward and Butler called South Newcastle home games from Townson Oval, but this year they will rove around the grounds in the lead-up to the grand final.
Follow the link off the NRL website to listen to the call from 2pm.