SOUTH Newcastle captain-coach Matt Shipway believes his Lions can begin a dramatic march through the Newcastle Rugby League semi-finals now they are nearing full strength.
Throughout the season Souths have struggled with injuries, but their big guns are all available at the pointy of the year.
Standing in their path are minor premiers Cessnock.
The Goannas host the sixth-placed Lions (19 points) today at Cessnock Sportsground in the final round of the regular season.
The equation is simple for Souths – lose and the season is over. If they win and either Kurri Kurri (20) lose to Macquarie or Maitland (20) are defeated by Lakes United they will scrape into the top five.
Three weeks ago Cessnock handsomely beat Souths at Townson Oval 44-12, but today Shipway has the benefit of picking a full-strength side barring prop Courtney Rolff (leg) and utility back Matt Ireland (shoulder).
‘‘Every time we get this side together without any injuries, nine times out of 10 we win,’’ Shipway said.
‘‘I think if we can win on the weekend and sneak into the semis we’d be a real good chance.
‘‘When we get that full-strength side we get a lot of confidence and feel like we can beat anyone.’’
Some Bulldogs officials labelled last weekend’s disaster against Western Suburbs at Harker Oval as one of the darkest days in the club’s history.
Kurri lost first grade 54-0, reserves 94-0 and forfeited third grade.
That performance has only further heightened Shipway’s confidence that a win against Cessnock will open the door for the semi-finals as he believes Macquarie will defeat the Bulldogs today at Kurri Sportsground.
‘‘It looks like they’re on the slide a bit which is another reason why we really want to get in there,’’ he said.
‘‘We actually think we’d be good chances for the first couple of weeks in the semis if we sneak in and take some form into it.
‘‘Over the last couple of years we’ve had the wood on Maitland and also Macquarie.’’
If Souths were counting on Cessnock coach Todd Edwards doing them a favour and resting his key players, then they are sorely mistaken.
Forwards Dan Metcalfe (back), Junior Afu (away) and Ryan Gregory (knee) are unavailable, but their stars Terence Seu Seu, Sam Wooden and Riley Brown are all set to play.
‘‘We’ve set a standard early on and we’ve spoken about how we don’t want to go below it,’’ Edwards said.
‘‘We went below it a bit last week against Maitland, but we need to keep the standard high and everything will fall into place.’’
Cessnock have already earned next weekend off and will play the winners of the qualifying semi-final between Wests and Macquarie.
But Edwards is confident the pride within his team will not allow a Souths victory on their home turf.