Four time premiership player and now Traralgon coach, Paul McCulloch will have a big task on his hands when the Maroons travel to Sale to take on the reigning premier in Saturday’s Gippsland League season opener.
The Magpies will use the match to unfurl just its second premiership flag in 26 years.
“We have a massive task on our hands this weekend; they will be a very good outfit and they are very well coached and I’m sure (coach Matt Ferguson) has got them up and going,” Traralgon president Andrew Quenault said.
The new look Sale outfit will be bolstered by the return of Jacob Schuback to his former club.
Fresh from two premierships at Sale City, Schuback will line up alongside two of his Bulldogs teammates; Rowan Bell and Michael Walsh.
However, the reigning premier will be without a promising duo Ferguson has labelled as two of the best juniors in Gippsland; teenagers Josh Dunkley and Nash Holmes.
They will miss the opening round due to Gippsland Power commitments but are likely to return to the Magpies’ line up for round two.
With 20 players in the Gippsland Power system, Sale is spoilt for choice.
“We think we have got the team to do it again. We are a new look team, we are a lot younger, but we will be hard to beat,” Ferguson said, who returns to the helm for a second year.
Fresh from 14 consecutive wins, Sale is vying to become the first Magpies team since 1975 to win 15 on the trot, a feat not seen at the club since 1973 when it went undefeated from rounds four to 18, before going on to win the flag.
Last year Sale defeated Traralgon by 58 and 67 points in their respective encounters, but the Maroons, who finished fourth last year, will be bolstered by the inclusion of several new and returning players including Leigh Cummins, Matthew Fitzgerald, Michael Burge, Tim Northe, Darren White, Des Brunt and Dale Fleming.
“Initially we are looking for a top three finish, with the aim of improvement straight away,” McCulloch said.
Moe v Maffra
Maffra will showcase its newest recruit Darren Sheen when it travels to Moe to take on the Lions.
Despite an ongoing knee injury, coach Hayden Burgiel is expected to line up for the Eagles in his 199th senior game.
“We are hoping to put on a good performance; we sort of took a different approach with recruiting this year and we are hoping for a big game from our new forward,” Burgiel said.
The match against the side, which has had a decade-long reign in the top half of the Gippsland League, will be a tough ask for Jason MacFarlane’s Moe which last year finished with the wooden spoon.
Bairnsdale v Leongatha
Fresh from some big recruiting in the off-season, Bairnsdale will play host to Leongatha.
Bairnsdale’s two-time premiership coach in the East Gippsland League, Shaun Mooney, will make his long awaited return to the top job.
While the Redlegs will open their season at home, Mooney admits his side, which travels further than any other in the competition, must improve its record on the road.
Wonthaggi v Morwell
Morwell and Wonthaggi, who finished fifth and sixth respectively last year, will be hoping to kick off their seasons on the right foot.
The Tigers will be without their two big name recruits in former Collingwood players Tarkyn Lockyer and Anthony Rocca when they travel to the coast to take on the Power. It paves the way for the Tigers’ other recruits in former Gippsland Power player Dean McDonald and former Yallourn Yallourn North players Tom Hutton and Tim Phillips to make their mark.
Like Morwell, Wonthaggi has had a change at the helm with Leigh McDonald’s return to a co-coaching role at Churchill paving the way for Rob Railton to take the reins.
In the final game of the opening round Warragul will host Drouin in the local derby on Sunday.
Warragul welcomes back its 2003 premiership coach Ash Green.
Drouin also has a new man at the helm in Robert Johns.
Johns, who replaced Ben Soumilas, said he was determined for the Hawks to play finals, while Green was hoping the Gulls would pick up where they left off in the second half of the last year.