The Kurri Kurri Bulldogs may have fallen short to a red-hot Maitland Pickers in the final of the A-Plus Contracting Hunter Valley Nines but there were plenty of signs to excite Dogs fans.
New recruits and future stars were unveiled on the day, but it was the ominous form of veteran utility Ben Wyborn that had his good mate and new coach Mitch Cullen smiling broadest.
After struggling with injury last year, Wyborn was back to his hard-hitting best, each tackle was made with venom and the skills were silky smooth.
"He looked like Benny from three or four years ago when he dominated the competition," Cullen said.
"Ben has had a big pre-season. He said from the start when I took over that he was in for a big season.
"I really like what I saw from him on Saturday.
"Blokes really knew they were hit, which is the Benny Wyborn style we like to see."
The Pickers unveiled several of their new signings from a busy off-season and showed enough to suggest they will firmly be in the running for this year's Newcastle RL premiership after going through the tournament undefeated and winning the final 14-5.
The Bulldogs have been more reserved but been astute in their recruiting, adding South Newcastle centre Henry Penn and former Sydney Roosters prop Frank-Paul Nu'uausala to a team which was boosted by the arrival midway through last year of former Canterbury centre Jarred Anderson.
Nu'uausala did not play on Saturday, but Cullen is confident a contractual dispute between Nu'uausala and Singleton should be resolved within the next two weeks.
Penn and Anderson were both strong performers.
"We're hoping Frank-Paul will be available for our first trial on March 14. Henry Penn was very impressive on Saturday. He is very strong and ready to go.
"It's only a Nines tournament but you can see who is ready to go and who's not.
"Brady Hammond looked fit, he hasn't missed a session all pre-season.
"He has always been able to play anywhere. He can play in the outside backs if needed and on the edge too. He is built strong enough to play in the middle for long periods of time."
The Bulldogs took the opportunity to blood youngsters Brodie Linnane and Jack Tamburrini from the under-19s at a higher level. Lewis Hughes, who is also available for under-19s, also had a fine tournament scoring several tries and looking very comfortable at dummy-half.
"Nines suits Lewis's game, he gets out of nine pretty quick. He likes to take the line on and made the most of it. He still has a lot to learn but I thought he played well," Cullen said of the youngster who is likely to play the majority of the season in reserve grade.
"The young blokes stepped up. It was better to give them a chance now than throw them in the deep end mid-season when everyone is hardened."
Despite winning just their opening pool game, the Bulldogs made the semi-finals with the best for and against across the tournament outside the three pool winners.
They made the most of their opportunity beating South Newcastle 14-0 in a hard-fought semi-final.
"To be honest I had given the boys the nod to go home after our loss in the final pool game. I thought that was it for us," Cullen said.
"Then big Mick Campton told me to tell the boys to hold on and then it was confirmed we had got through as the team with the best for and against.
"It was good to give some of the boys a hit-out, get some extra yards in their legs and importantly come out injury free."
The Bulldogs have their first full team trial on March 14 against Central Coast team the Toukley Hawks who also took part in the Hunter Valley Nines.
The Toukley trial is followed by the annual Charity Shield against Cessnock at Kurri Kurri on March 28 and a final trial against Lakes United on April 4.
Cullen is getting married on April 4 and he and several senior players will miss the Lakes trial.
"We'll probably get a reasonable squad together for Toukley, give everyone half a game just to get used to each other and then be at full strength against Cessnock," Cullen said.
Cullen said he expected another tough and even season of footy in 2020.
"I think the whole comp is going to be hard all year," he said.
"We won't have a full-strength team until round four when I get all the blokes suspended back. Jarred Anderson will be a big loss for the first three rounds.
"He will play in the middle, everything he does is 100 per cent. He runs the ball flat out, tackles flat out. It's probably been what we've been missing in the middle, a bit of that aggression he brings.
"I think he will enjoy the role more as he loves having the ball in his hands and you can get starved out in the centres. It will be him or Benny at 13."