ASSISTANT coach Mark Wilton's long-standing link to the Aberdeen Tigers could provide the winning edge for the Cessnock Goannas in this weekend's Newcastle Rugby League decider against the South Newcastle Lions.
The Hunter Valley Group 21 club's highly-respected stalwart joined forces with former team mates Liam Foran, Hamish Wolfgang and Guy Thompson at the Coalfields outfit for the COVID-19 impacted season.
And, the partnership's already paid off.
The Todd Edwards-mentored Goannas stunned Western Suburbs 38-14 in the knockout semi to set up a clash with the Lions, who sent minor premiers Wyong Roos packing, at the Maitland Sportsground on Sunday.
"It's a terrific achievement for Cessnock," Wilton said.
"Originally, they thought about pulling the pin on 2020 due to coronavirus.
"The Goannas were really struggling for numbers.
"So, I put it out there - in the hope of attracting some local players.
"I'd been involved with Foz (Foran) and Thomo (Thompson) for a few years at Aberdeen while I've known Hamish, through reps, since he was a teenager.
"It's great seeing them have a crack in the Newcastle competition; and doing so well.
"Even though Foz and Thomo are no strangers to high-level league, there's always an opportunity to learn something new.
"As for Hamish, this experience has assisted his game big time.
"Plus, it's unreal to have four blokes who've played at the Tigers participating [for Cessnock] on grand final day.
"It would be even better to lift the trophy on Sunday afternoon."
Ironically, South Newcastle also boasts an Aberdeen legend in Daniel Hoogerwerf as well as ex-Scone Thoroughbred Lachlan Walmsley.
"It's a good sign for Group 21 that its players can stand up in Newcastle Rugby League," Wilton said.
"Daniel's performed strongly in recent weeks, while Lachlan is a very talented fullback.
"We've got Tom Baker (Singleton Greyhounds) and Jesse Hourn (Scone) in our ranks, too.
"Both guys have been impressive."
So, what's Wilton expecting for the season finale?
"The Lions were good at the weekend to eliminate Wyong," he admitted.
"No doubt, it'll be tough.
"But, if we play at our best, we should be okay.
"One of our strengths is our young forward pack - they don't take a backward step.
"I believe there's a bright future ahead for Cessnock."
The match kicks off at 3.15pm.
Wyong faces Western Suburbs in reserve grade from 1.15pm, following the under-18 encounter between Central Newcastle and Lakes United.
Maitland and Souths meet in league tag at 9.30am.