Newcastle Herald rugby writer JAMES GARDINER previews the new season. Merewether and Wanderers again look the teams to beat after their epic grand final last year.
Coach: Scott Coleman
Last premiership: 2008
Finish last year: 3rd
Gains: Jordan Kohn (Canada), Monty Simes (Wanderers), Erik Lolohea (Uni), Sean Connery (RAAF)
Losses: Tom Shannon (Easts Syd), Paul Crozier (Lennox Head), Travis Soulsby, Andy Kilgour, Steve Maxwell (retired), Matt Dan, Paul Dan (UK), Tom Joseph (Randwick)
Player to watch: Charl van Niekerk. Built more like a halfback than a hooker, but boy what a goer. The teenage South African would tackle a wildebeest if it ran at him. With the ball, he is just as deceptive and rarely fails to get over the advantage line. His lineout throwing needs work, but he is close to the complete package.
Bottom line: Never underestimate the Hawks. They were in a similar position last year after losing a host of key players but rolled along virtually unaffected. Of the departures, Shannon will be the hardest to replace. Coleman has a vast network of contacts and normally strikes gold on the recruitment front. Last year it was van Niekirk, before him there was Shannon, Steve Lamont and Va Talaileva. This year Coleman has sourced Canadian centre Jordan Kohn. A fringe international, he caught the eye in the pre-season in sevens and tens tournaments and will enjoy playing outside Damien Wells. Make no mistake, the Hawks will be up there.
Coach: Des Tufi
Last premiership: 2001 (first division)
Finish last year: 6th
Gains: Jarrod Clayton, Todd Gisondi (Uni), Christian Desacola, Des Bower, Daniel Bower (Tahs), Matt Ryder (Darwin), Callum Nolan, Osika Lolohea (Sth B), Blake Paterson (work commitments)
Losses: Marty Lisiua (Bay), Rob Brynes (Dubbo Rhinos)
Player to watch: Aidan Kwast. Big and strong, Kwast is the prototype modern-day back-rower. He would have benefited from his time in the Newcastle squad, and with Blake Paterson back to do a lot of the tidying up, it should free up the No.7 to unleash his running game.
Bottom line: Tufi makes his senior coaching debut. There is plenty of good talk coming out of Disneyland. They have been busy on the recruitment front and there appears genuine competition for places. Paterson will give them leadership and direction. Again they will be led by an uncompromising pack, which will spoil and scramble and generally make a nuisance. There is no Lisiua to rumble forward, but the biggest question mark is over the backline. Brendan Holiday is expected back from overseas mid-season, but he won't perform miracles. The Roos will cause some headaches but lack the class to take them to the next level.
Coach: Geoff Golledge
Last premiership: 1999
Finish last year: 5th
Gains: Jon Runchel (Canada), Sam Austin (Norths colts)
Losses: Darren Dimmock (retired), Jono O'Toole (injured), Tim Gibbs (retired), Adam Perkins (lower grades)
Player to watch: Nick Davidson. The latest in a fine line of Maitland back-rowers, he is compact but packs a power punch. He regularly puts a dint in the defensive line and is a terrier at the breakdown. Played an integral part in Newcastle's Caldwell Cup success and is destined for bigger things.
Bottom line: The Blacks threatened for much of last season. They turned Marcellin Park back into a fortress, their backs scored some spectacular tries but when the pressure was on at the business end they were unable to find another gear. The semi-retirement of Adam Perkins leaves a massive hole. Davidson is the next-best thing and along with a host of other young stars will have grown from a full year in the top grade. Classy playmaker Matt Jarrett will be refreshed after enjoying his first off-season in three years. Former Country prop Dan Runchel adds to an already powerful scrum. A trip to Marcellin will be feared but the Blacks must improve on the road to be genuine contenders.
Coach: Tony Munro
Last premiership: 2007
Finish last year: 2nd
Gains: Christian Carswell (returning), Daniel Spiteri (rugby league), Shane Laloata (Bay), Eric Fabian (Pokolbin), Lachlan Mitchell (Gordon)
Losses: Nathan Forshaw (University), Barney MacKenzie (retired)
Player to watch: Daniel Spiteri. Pure excitement machine. Returns to rugby after six years playing league which included a stint at the Knights. Can turn a game quicker than a lizard's lick and is assured to get the Green Room into a lather with his light stepping and ability to spot an opening.
Bottom line: The Green Room brigade are still shaking their heads after last season's epic extra-time grand final loss to the Two Blues. More importantly, it has lit the fire in the belly of the players. Spiteri adds another dimension to an already electrifying backline, not to mention the addition of former Gordon top-grade outside back Mitchell. Up front Dylan Evans will monster opposition tight heads. Blake Creighton, Aiden Kelso and Adam Princehorn are headed overseas mid-year, but there is no shortage of replacements. An easy start to the campaign - they play four of last season's bottom sides in the opening five rounds - will be the launching pad for a year of the redemption. The Greens can hurt you from anywhere and are the team to beat.
Coach: Darren Stewart
Last premiership: 1999 (first division)
Finish last year: 10th
Gains: Marty Lisiua (Lake Mac), Matt Kerr (NZ Army), Rhys Ling (England), Marcus Sale (England), Lachlan Bassett (Inverell)
Losses: Rhys Cutbush, Blaidd Jenkins (Northern Blues RL), Shane Loloata (Merewether), Scott McLean (England), Casey Dunning, Richie Gamble (retired)
Player to watch: Dillon Rowney. Home-grown youngster ready to make an impact in his second year of first grade. A member of the NSW Country under-20 squad, he has been used as makeshift playmaker but is at his best when given more space and able to run at defenders.
Bottom line: The Gropers have brought in hired gun Lisiua in a bid to climb off the bottom. Disastrous is the only way to describe last season. Stalwart Stewart takes over the reins and his first job is to fix a defence that leaked 881 points. Don't expect too many spectacular sweeping backline moves. With Lisiua at No.8, the Gropers will return to the bash-and-barge forward game which proved so successful in the first half of the decade. They have been boosted by arrival of Kiwi Army prop Matt Kerr and English duo Rhys Ling (prop) and Marcus Sale (halfback). Under Stewart the set pieces will improve, but his main priority will be putting a bit of pride back in the jumper. Regardless, it's hard to see the wooden spoon travelling away from the peninsula.
Coach: Shane Thompson
Last premiership: 1997
Finish last year: 9th
Gains: Peter Shumack (Uni), Robert Thraves (returned), Anthony Partridge (work), Jimmy Bonnar (Forster), Charlie Mitchell (Kings Old Boys), Andrew Dopson (Qld)
Losses: Jacob Miller (Easts)
Player to watch: Jimmy Bonnar. Fijian-born flyer who will start the season on the wing but is expected to end up closer to the action. Similar in build and style to last year's Anderson Medal winner Mosese Voka. If he can have the same impact, the Bulls are sure to play some exciting stuff.
Bottom line: The Bulls can be bustling one week, brittle the next. Shift work and seven-day rosters make training and travelling difficult. On the plus side Newcastle hooker Shumack is back and lineout linchpin Anthony Partridge has committed to a full season. Much rests on the impending return of Fijian No.8 Voka. The flashy back-rower brought the crowd to life at Rugby Park with his broken-field running. Visa permitting, he is hoping to bring his brother out with him to join fellow Pacific Islander Bonnar. The Bulls also have a good crop of colts coming through. They won't win the competition but they will entertain and give the odd big gun a scare.
Coach: Steve McPherson
Last premiership: None
Finish last year: 8th
Gains: Peter Kelleher (Ireland)
Losses: Chad Slaby (US), Callum Nolan (Lake Mac), Tyler Ostle (West Harbour)
Player to watch: Bryce Robertson. In a team boasting three Delore brothers, this old-style breakaway has flown largely under the radar. He is strong at the tackle contest and gets through a power of work. In the RAAF he has represented Combined Armed Services. Beaches need him firing if they are to make the semis.
Bottom line: A year older, light years better. That is the hope of the crew at Belmont. Beaches have made no secret of the their desire to make the finals. They have the nucleus of a side capable of achieving that feat. Ben Smit and Nigel Miller provide a platform up front and the Delore boys, Michael, Martin and Andrew, add the sparkle. Unfortunately, they spent most of last season defending. They have replaced US prop Slaby with former Ireland under-19 hooker Kelleher. Other than that, changes have been minimal. McPherson coached a number of the players as juniors and apart from Smit and the Delores will be looking to the seven Newcastle under-20 representatives to step up. Talent is certainly not the issue, but whether they will handle the week-to-week grind of first grade remains the question.
Coach: Tim Chidgey
Last premiership: 2006
Finish last year: 7th
Gains: Chayce Bambach (Uni)
Losses: Winston Wilson (Canberra), Doug Sanderson (retired), Nick Starr (Uni), Liam Byrnes (Uni), Alija Hromadzic (Knights), Christian Desacola, Daniel Bower, Des Bower (Lake Macquarie)
Player to watch: Chayce Bambach. Composed playmaker who is out to make the No.10 jumper his own. An ankle injury stalled his progress just as he was starting to make an impact at Uni last year. But he showed for Newcastle under 20s how he can take control of a game.
Bottom line: You never know what to expect from the Waratahs. On the surface it appears to be a rebuilding year. The departures have outweighed the arrivals, but with rep props Tim Ahoatu and Ronnie Kivalu and the experienced Chris Young at the scrumbase they have the foundations to build on. Chidgey is back in charge after a successful representative campaign and is bound to have something up his sleeve. Dismiss them at your own peril.
Coach: Eti Filipo
Last premiership: 1988
Finish last year: 4th
Gains: Nathan Forshaw (Merewether), Liam Byrnes, Nick Starr (Tahs), Sam Jackson (Gunnedah)
Losses: Peter Shumack (Singleton), Erik Lolohea (Hamilton), Chayce Bambach (Tahs), Tim Hickey, Chris Hickey (Sydney), Aaron Fleming (Brisbane), James Adie (WA), Anthony Don (Coffs Harbour), Ben Wynn (overseas), Jarrod Clayton, Todd Gisondi (Lake Macquarie)
Player to watch: Dave Kennedy. Will miss five weeks on NSW Country duty but won't let that stand in the way of defending his leading point-scoring title. A goalkicker of El Masri proportions, "Snowy" is also a quality finisher. He has trained with the NSW Waratahs and will be out for a big year before heading overseas.
Bottom line: University usually operate in a four-year cycle. Once they graduate, inevitably only a loyal few stick around. As a result rookie coach Eti Filipo has an exciting group of freshman at his disposal. The biggest turnover has been in the backline where Country winger Kennedy and the versatile Sam Berry are the only familiar faces. In the pack Matt Dun, Luke McBeath, Tom Torrance and Greg Smith-O'Neill provide the backbone. The loss of Shumack will impact on the lineout and they also have to find a couple of props. They won the Laffan Cup (inter-university challenge) in the pre-season and will only get better as the year progresses. Uni holidays pose a perennial problem, but they have enough firepower to suggest they will push for the finals.
Coach: Dan Beckett
Last premiership: 2009
Finish last year: 1st
Gains: Anthony Barrett (Macquarie RL), Marcus Simpson (overseas)
Losses: Warren Randall (Norths), Rob Aston (Adelaide), Nick Watson (Balmain), Gideon Lambrechts (South Africa), Monty Simes (Hamilton).
Player to watch: Anthony Barrett. Powerhouse centre who returns to the fold after a year on the dark side playing for the Scorpions. A veteran at 27, he was a member of the Two Blues' 2001 premiership side and has since had stints at Manly, and in Italy and Ireland. Will straighten up the attack and add bite to the defence.
Bottom line: Beckett achieved the minor-major premiership double in his rookie year, but he faces an even bigger challenge in year two. Not only do the Two Blues have to carry the weight of being defending champions, they have lost wrecking ball Aston and South African tyro Randall. To accommodate the redevelopment of No.2 Sportsground, Wanderers start the season with five straight home games. They spend the next nine weeks on the road, and play their final four home games at No.1 Sportsground. Nevertheless they have enough quality to mount a challenge for back-to-back titles. Barrett and Simpson add to a three-quarter line that includes Sherwood brothers, Mark and Luke, and the dangerous Paul Mlotkowski and Luke Simmons. Set pieces are a problem area, but they have arguably the two best back-rowers in the comp in Dan Kevill and Corey Te Koeti. Maitland were the last team to win consecutive titles in 1998-99.