Following an off-season full of twists and turns, the 2018 Central North Rugby Union season will kick off this Saturday.
The Narrabri Blues Boars will jump straight into the deep end when they travel away from home to challenge heavyweights and 2017 grand finalists Walcha.
During the off-season a merge with New England Rugby Union looked set to see the introduction of a new-look 14-team first grade competition.
However, after a structure for the competition could not be agreed on, that merge was put on hold.
CNRU lost one club for the 2018 season, but has welcomed another.
The Tamworth Magpies have left the competition in all grades, but the Gwydir River Rats (Bingara) Rugby Club has joined up with the Barraba Rams this year as an independent club, playing in the Barraba reserve grade spot.
Those changes mean that both first grade and second grade will now function as nine-team competitions.
Each team will play 16 regular-season matches, and will have two byes.
Teams will play under a home and away-style draw, with CNRU moving away from the tiered structure it played under in previous years.
This season the CNRU has also adopted a different format for its finals series.
In previous seasons six teams have qualified for post-season matches, but in 2018 that has been reduced to four.
There will be four weeks of finals this season.
The teams ranked third and fourth will contest an elimination final in week one.
In week two the teams ranked first and second will play a qualifying final.
The winner of the qualifying final will go through to the grand final, while the loser will play the winner of the elimination final in a preliminary final in week three.
In 2018 Narrabri’s junior side will play Friday night matches.
It will be an under-18 side, coached by Josh O’Shea, which will play matches either at home or as far as just one hour away.
The junior competition is scheduled to begin in May.
A full story on the junior setup will be included in a future edition of The Courier.
Last year the Narrabri Blue Boars first grade side finished sixth, which saw it qualify for tier two.
It then qualified for the finals series, where it knocked off rivals Moree Bulls in the first week.
The side crashed out the following game in a loss to Gunnedah.
Coach Dylan Duncan said that this year’s roster had what it took to go further.
“We have a few new players that will go straight into first grade, and will make our side noticeably stronger than it was last year,” Duncan said.
“I’m pretty excited about it.
“I think we can go further than what we did last year, and I think across the park our squad would be 20 per cent better, so I expect to be at least one or two places higher than what we were last year.
“Our goal is to win the grand final, that’s always the goal here, we play to win.
“We have a whole new front row for the first game.
“We have Will Turner who is from Bellata and is coming back from uni at Albies, Scott Dale has come down from Gatton and Beau Brummell has come back from playing at Walgett.
“That will make our set piece a lot better than what it was last year, that’s where we really struggled.
“We also have Callum Styles as a new five-eight.
“Having two number 10s with Jake Packer and Callum will be really good, the ball is going to move quickly.”
Adding to the inside backs will be Matt Schwager, who is expected to return to the Blue Boars this season.
However he will be unavailable this weekend due to injury, and Jydon Hill will start at halfback.
Matt McDonnell will skipper the Blue Boars in 2018.
Described by Duncan as a “game-turner”, McDonnell’s class showed last season when he won both the first grade and club best and fairest awards.
Duncan said that the skipper would have a positive impact on the playing group this season.
“Matt is probably the best player consistently within the club,” Duncan said.
“He shows that leadership quality and he doesn’t have anything bad in his game and he plays the game as tough as anyone.
“The other guys all look up to him and that’s the best choice for a captain.”
Duncan identified outside centre Jacob Booby, fullback Will Morley and skipper McDonnell as three of the key players in the side who would have the ability to change games for Narrabri in 2018.
He said that Toby Bentley, who has joined the club from the Narrabri Blues rugby league side, would be a young player who would be an exciting prospect in 2018 and would be pushing for a first grade spot.
Following a tough pre-season, Duncan said that his men were ready to go for the weekend’s game against Walcha.