THERE is a touch of the old and new in what shapes as one of the tightest Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union competitions in years. Herald rugby writer JAMES GARDINER runs the rule over the contenders.
Last season: 8th (won 6, lost 9, drew 1)
Captain-Coach: Marty Lisiua
Gains: Marty Lisiua (Kurri Kurri rugby league), John Mafi (Parramatta), Paul Kakoulidis (returning), Lauina Lauina (returning), Frank Colo (returning), John Colo (returning), Tonga Taue (Brisbane), Todd Gisondi (rugby league), James Latu (Sydney)
Losses: Matt Cole (knee), Luke Brogan (work commitments), Nathan Tule (England), Troy Kempnich (work commitments), Paul Brogan (rugby league)
Bottom line: Former NSW Country prop Marty Lisiua heads a list of returnees that includes 2004 premiership winners Lauina Lauina, Tala Filipo, Tonga Taue and Paul Kakoulidis. They will provide the grunt for an exciting backline spearheaded by Parramatta recruit Johnny Mafi and Saint Finau. Fans at Hexham Oval are in for some spectacular rugby. If they all stay on the field, Easts will go close.
Last season: 4th (won 10, lost 5, drew 1)
Coach: Scott Coleman
Gains: Billy Kamisi (Auckland), Steve Lamont (Norths, Sydney), Jim Galbraith (returning)
Losses: Andy Kilgour (lower grades), Nick Kuras (knee), Trent Slatter (work commitments), Ben Young (Lake Macquarie)
Bottom line: The Hawks are still smarting after surrendering a healthy lead in the grand final. Kamisi is a good pick-up and adds to a back row that boasts Anderson Medal winner Va Talaileva. The Hawks' game is based on retaining pressure and grinding the opposition into the ground. But with Kilgour gone, they lack a genuine gamebreaker out wide. They had the worst attack by nearly 100 points of the semi-finalists. If they can improve their ability to get over the white line, a premiership beckons.
Last season: 10th (won 4, lost 12, drew 0)
Coach: Danny Maiava
Gains: Ben Young (Hamilton), Tim Montgomery (returning), Pat Walsh (University), Aidan Kwast (Tamworth), Blake Patterson (returning)
Losses: Merv Ngaheu (shoulder), Scott Tuimauluga (The Waratahs), Stuart Barnes (England), Ryan Wheeler (Sydney), Joe Bradford (Darwin), Lachlan Hornsby (Merewether), Trent Gerrard (lower grades)
Bottom line: Maiava takes the reins on his own and will also wear the club president's hat. At 40-plus, the former Samoan prop also hopes he does not have to anchor the scrum. The Roos have some young talent on the up but appear headed for another tough season. A trip to "Disneyland" is never easy for visiting teams, but the Roos lack the class and depth to challenge for the finals.
Last season: 6th (won 8, lost 8, drew 0)
Coach: Steve Scobie
Gains: Ben Emmett (Darwin)
Losses: Darren Dimmock (retired), Shayne Vonbun (Griffith), Steve Belcher (eye)
Bottom line: Maitland minus Darren Dimmock it doesn't seem right. Regardless, the Blacks showed enough last season to indicate they could give the finals a real shake. Adam Perkins takes over the captaincy, and Emmett will give them power up front. There is the danger of second-year syndrome for young backs James Bonomini, Jake Morris, Joe Lavis and Jono O'Toole. But if they improve as the same rate as last season, look out.
Last season: 1st (won 12, lost 3, drew 1)
Coach: Tony Munro
Gains: Mick Gill (South Newcastle rugby league), Blake Creighton, Calyn Parkinson (Southern Beaches), Lachlan Hornsby (Lake Macquarie)
Losses: Nick Leseberg (San Diego), Tristan Hough (knee), Peter Sales (Bahrain), Barney Mackenzie (study), Anthony Rouse (retired), Shane Shelley (retired),Tristan Cady (Sydney), John Hall (retired), Sam Gilmour (work commitments), Wade Gibson (shoulder)
Bottom line: Munro could not have asked for a tougher first senior assignment than defending the club's first premiership since 1989. Surprisingly, the losses far outweigh the gains. Kent Hatchwell is the sole survivor from the premiership-winning backline. Nick Leseberg is the notable omission from the pack. But the Greens do have depth in their favour, evident by their two lower-grade titles. Expectations are high, and rightly so.
Last season: 9th (won 5, lost 11, drew 0)
Coach: Matt Thomas
Gains: Adam Cullimore (Auckland), Shaun Austin (Grafton)
Losses: Shane Laloata (Brisbane), Casey Ross (NZ), Blaidd Jenkins (Wales)
Bottom line: A former back-rower at West Harbour and Drummoyne, Matt Thomas has come out of retirement to lead the Gropers campaign. They strayed from their 10-man game last season, but with Kiwi halfback Casey Ross, Welsh five-eighth Blaidd Jenkins and Dhane Laloata gone, the wingers' main function will be to return kicks. The Bay will cause the odd upset but should be safe to book their end of season trip for September.
Last season: 7th (won 7, lost 8, drew 1)
Coach: Al Barker
Gains: Phil Parata (returning), Clint Ratatagia (Southern Beaches)
Losses: Ryan McCormack, Adam Gleeson (University), Rowan Newton-Smith (work commitments)
Bottom line: Barker takes over at Rugby Park after a volatile off-season in which the Bulls senior coaches, led by former Wallaby Steve Merrick, stepped down. Front-rowers Tim Farnsworth and Peter Schumack will have benefited from their Newcastle experience and form the basis of a solid pack along with Anthony Partridge, Brodie Marr and James Callinan. Out wide the Bulls appear slim.
Last season: 11th (won 1, lost 15, drew 0)
Coaches: Eti Filipo and Ben Coker
Gains: Sam Littlewood, Ben Jones (Wanderers), Matthew McGavin (Wellington, NZ), Brian Hope (Medowie), Tristan Hinds (Gold Coast)
Losses: Ben Smit (Norths, Sydney), Blake Creighton, Calyn Parkinson (Merewether), Clint Ratatagia (Singleton)
Bottom line: After recording their first win in premier rugby last season, Beaches' next assignment is to move off the bottom of the ladder. Of more concern is that some of their best colts have been snapped up by rival clubs.
Last season: 5th (won 9, lost 5, drew 2)
Coach: Wayne Baggs
Gains: Ryan McCormack, Adam Gleeson (Singleton), Nat Jones, Mark Gardner (returning), Greg Smith-O'Neil
Losses: Dave O'Neil (Brisbane), Mark Heard (Canberra)
Bottom line: The old days of starting each season from scratch are a thing of the past for the Uni boys. The nucleus of last year's squad is back, while former Students Jones and Gardner have returned. Injuries, particularly in the front row, will test the Students. Other than that, they look like the real deal.
Last season: 2nd (won 12, lost 3, drew 1)
Coach: Tim Chidgey
Gains: Scott Tuimauluga (The Waratahs)
Losses: Luke Troy (Tuggeranong), Doug Haslem (retired), Mitchell Seears (work commitments)
Bottom line: The dominant team of the past five years, The Tahs are at the crossroads. Haslem and Troy are gone, and there are doubts over the availability of Ben Petersen, Aloisi Sefo, Lolo Mohu and Chris Mikulski. Chidgey intends to promote their better colts into first grade and normally has an ace up his sleeve. One thing is assured the Tahs will get better as the season progresses.
Last season: 3rd (won 10, lost 5, drew 1)
Coach: Steve Lee
Gains: Luke Miller (Medowie), Monty Simes (Petersham), Mitchell Gibson (Southern Beaches), Marcus Christensen (Knights), Jason Herft (returning), Luke Barker (returning)
Losses: Greg Thompson (retired), Adrian Turner (Canberra), James Janke (Canada), Rhys Moore (Norths, Sydney), Marc Unthank (retired), Dan Kevill (rugby league), Mick Lee (Eastwood)
Bottom line: The Two Blues are in for a rebuilding year. They have some exciting youngsters coming through the ranks and a nice sprinkling of youth and experience in the pack. Much will depend on how the young front row aims up. They have a backline capable of racking up points.
ROUND ONE, SATURDAY
Hamilton Hawks v Merewether Greens at Passmore Oval, 2.30pm (Mark Eades); Lake Macquarie Roos v Wanderers at Walters Park, 3pm (Mark Farrar); Nelson Bay Gropers v University at Strong Oval, 3pm (Rob D'Elboux); Maitland Blacks v The Waratahs at Marcellin Park, 3pm (Paul Ryan); Easts v Singleton Bulls at Hexham Oval, 3pm (Peter Cooke).