There is an air of excitement and anticipation as the Nelson Bay Gropers kick off their 2019 Newcastle & Hunter Rugby Union premiership campaign confident the first grade side can build on last year's top four placing.
Uncompromising back-rower Adam Edwards returns to the coaching role alongside another player-coach, Ben Whaler, eager to carry over the momentum from 2018 where the Gropers cracked a semi-final birth for the first time in more than a decade.
The club lost two players from that squad in Sapati Peniata and Michael Wiringi, but recruited well during the off-season with the signing of Northern Suburbs sharpshooter Chris Smith and the return of backrower Brendan Haddad.
Another major change has been the shifting of perennial fullback Chad Northcott to partner Michael Hotene in the halves, a move which paid huge dividends in the Gropers opening round 43-15 thrashing of University at University Oval last Saturday.
"Our numbers for the pre-season training were the best for a long time ... we have over 45 players registered for two teams," said Edwards.
"The Medowie experiment [playing as the club's third grade] will be continued this season and there numbers have been bolstered as well.
"The NHRU have scrapped the Colts division for this season and the under 18s have stepped up to fill the early time slot.
One of the club's big off-season improvements has been around junior development, the 18s train with the senior boys every Tuesday night."
Edwards is excited about the prospects of at least two players from the 18s - the rangy Boston Kerapa and Jack Vincent. "The NHRU has ruled they must play under 18s first but there is no doubt they are ready for senior level and we hope to be using them at some stage."
Edwards said that the club had also for the first time appointed a director of rugby in Bryan Hudson, who doubles as an assistant coach to the Australian Defence Force rugby team. "Bryan has been awesome for us and is a great connection between the RAAF and the Gropers club."
Of the newcomers, Edwards singled out centre Chris Smith for special attention. "We are excited to see what he can bring to the backline."
Edwards indicated that as in 2018, the Gropers game plan in 2019 would be structured around a big, mobile pack of forwards. "We need to play to our strengths."
"We have Chad [Northcott] and Michael [Hotene] orchestrating the backline who can hammer our attack."
Having only dropped the one game at home last season, the Gropers are looking to improve on that record by ensuring that Bill Strong Oval becomes an impenetrable fortress.
The club will host its first home game for the season this Saturday against the mighty Merewether club.