AFL North Coast: The long wait is over
AFTER the longest pre-season in memory, AFL North Coast is ready to launch all junior and senior competitions this weekend.
Players, coaches, officials, and volunteers will be rewarded for their patience and diligence in following COVID-19 protocols when the senior competition tips off on Saturday before the juniors follow suit on Sunday.
In the seniors, flag holders Coffs Harbour Breakers start their premiership defence at home to the Grafton Tigers.
The Breakers have a settled line-up, with coach David Velt retaining the core of last year's premiership heroes, who are well placed to go back to back.
While they have lost a couple of young guns in Shaydan Close and Ben Gibbeson to Labrador footy club, and experienced heads Chris Frangos and Shannon Burow to Northern Beaches Blues, new players to the club in Jake Hayes (Ballina), Cebastian Isherwood (Illawarra), Shaun Jackson, and Jak Jowett (both Moorabbin) are expected to fill the void.
Grafton have endured a lean spell in recent seasons, but early signs suggest they can look forward to a more fruitful season in 2020.
The return of club icons such as Lee Anderson, Luke Stanford, and Sam Morrison, combined with talented local juniors stepping up to seniors full time, and the inclusion of Blake Richards (South Australia) and Callum O'Loughlin (Armidale) will see a stronger roster for returning premiership Coach Adi Campbell to work with.
The other senior fixture sees Port Macquarie Magpies play host to the Sawtell Toormina Saints.
The Magpies were narrowly beaten in last year's grand final, which should be a great platform to build from, but half of that team have moved to pastures new. This includes captain/coach Tom Marmo (Darwin), reigning league best and fairest winner Kyle Bray (Queanbeyan), and runner-up Brayden Saggers (mixed martial arts).
New coach Blake Nelson has to quickly cobble together an unfamiliar team into a competitive force and will be looking to imports such as Dylan Rumble (Lake Macquarie), Harrison Hampshire (Geelong), Damien Bell (Hampden), Jack Gooden (Collingullie), Zac Madden (Ainslie), and Max Bylsma (Orange) to hit the ground running.
The Saints endured an uncharacteristically challenging season in 2019 and will be looking to return to recent glories quickly.
A positive for the club last season was the emergence of young players who were doubling up from the under-17 ranks such as Angus Anderson, Tyler Donovan, and Jonah Horan, and these players will be better prepared for senior footy in 2020.
They will be joined by newcomers to the club in Angus Elder (Newcastle) and Jack Abbott (Tamworth), while the coaching reins will be back in the hands of Brandt Lee.
Northern Beaches Blues have to wait until round 2 to make their much anticipated return to the senior ranks, but do host newcomers Nambucca Valley Lions in reserve grade.
The Blues are defending premiers in this grade but are expected to field a vastly different line-up in 2020 with a number of key players pushing up to the senior ranks.
However, some of these individuals may make a one-off appearance with no senior grade fixture giving reserves a means to build some much needed match fitness.
While it's been a long off-season for all clubs, it's been even longer for the Nambucca Valley Lions. In fact, it's been eight years since the Lions last fielded a team in a competitive fixture. Momentum and interest has been building since the Lions joined the junior competition in 2017 and Saturday's match is just reward for months of hard work by the committee.
In the women's competition, Northern Beaches Blues are at home to Sawtell Toormina Saints, making it a double header at Centennial Oval.
The Blues will be standing on their own two feet this season after bringing an ent to last year's partnership with the Grafton Tigers.
The interest in the Northern Beaches women's side has been huge and the team will be looking to build upon the solid foundation last year to be genuine premiership threats in 2020.
Star players Deanna Paul and Britt Hargreaves have both joined the Blues from the Tigers, while Zoe Goodsell (Lismore) should be an excellent recruit for coach Adrian Roberts.
Sawtell lost a thrilling 2019 grand final by less than one goal and will be looking to reclaim the crown they won in the inaugural season in 2018.
State representative Ahlani Eddy has moved to Coolangatta and there are doubts over Kacee Uikelotu, but the side welcomes back Bec Minichilli and will once again look to Keira Basset to provide plenty of threat up forward.
New coach Mick Britton's role will be to develop a predominantly unchanged line-up while integrating the talents of a number of players who are new to the code.
Full details of the draw can be found at aflnorthcoast.com.au.