Cessnock and Kurri Kurri face two of the toughest tests in Newcastle Rugby League to open their campaigns on the weekend.
The Goannas travel to Harker Oval on Sunday to take on the talent-laden Western Suburbs, while the Bulldogs host a recruit-bolstered Central Newcastle at Kurri Kurri Sportsground on Saturday.
Bulldogs coach Ron Griffiths said he and his team were excited about their start to the season facing Centrals and then Wests in their opening two games.
“We talked about it and it is the ideal start. It’s a great challenge to let us know where we stand in relation to two teams who should be near the top of the competition,” he said.
The Bulldogs have a largely unchanged roster from last year, but forward Mick Steele and centre Tyme Dow-Nikau are playing full-time with the club this year after juggling club and NSW Cup commitments with the Knights.
Griffiths is expecting big things from a core of youngsters including Hayden Grainger, Jayden Young, Ethan Niszczot, Jonah Lisiua, Kade Hardy and 2017 recruits Jarom Haines and Tyrone Walsh who were part of a record Bulldogs contingent in the Newcastle Rebels under-23 trials.
“We have a full squad to pick from, our biggest issue is that we missed out on two trials. We didn’t play enough trial games for players to get injured so that at least is a positive,” he said.
Griffiths said there was real competition for first grade places this year with plenty of options in key positions such as hooker and lock, freeing Bulldogs captain Terence Seu Seu to remain in the halves.
Cessnock coach Steve Kidd has his sights set on playing finals again and will have plenty of options in the halves and at dummy half with Jordy Worboys, Theeran Pearson and Jake McNamarra likely to start in the key roles on Sunday, with hooker Jake Watts unlikely to return from a hamstring injury.
Kidd has boosted his halves and will be looking for his young forwards to take the next step, under the guidance of Marvin Fillipo who has been in great trial form.