IS Group 10 the strongest competition in the Western Region or is Group 11 of a higher quality?
It is a question that has long been asked, but in season 2022 there will finally be a definitive answer. It's because Group 11 clubs have joined Group 10 outfits in the new Peter McDonald Premiership.
As is the case at the start of most seasons, there has been plenty of player movement and optimism created by slick trial performances.
But just which side will reign supreme - well that remains to be seen.
So let's take a look at the 13 teams who form part of the new premiership and what they bring to the title battle.
FOR most sides that had lost a premiership winning halfback, hooker and second rower, a Western representative plus a star recruit before the start of a new premiership, there would be some sense of trepidation.
But Bathurst Panthers aren't like most sides.
Despite losing the likes of Doug Hewitt, Nick Loader, Blake Seager and Abel Lefaoseu as well as having the recruitment of former NRL second-rower Chris Grevsmuhl fall through, Panthers are full of optimism.
Under new player-coach Jake Betts, Panthers won the Bathurst knockout in the pre-season as well as a trial against Orange Hawks.
Betts still has plenty of talent at his disposal and it means he is aiming to add the inaugural Peter McDonald Premiership trophy to the back-to-back Group 10 titles they won in their last completed seasons.
"You always set a goal of winning, especially because it's a new competition and a new season, so we want to win and the first goal is to just make the top three and be competitive," he said.
"We're poking along and ticking our boxes and hopefully we keep improving throughout the year.
"There's always that bit of talk, who's better? Group 10 or Group 11? So we'll sort that out pretty early I suppose."
Betts nominates Blake Lawson, who is returning from a knee injury, and five-eighth Joey Bugg as Panthers to watch this season.
"Blake, he's as fit as I've ever seen him and in and around the ball he's pretty dangerous. Joey Bugg has been training unreal too," he said.
CAPTAIN-COACH: Jake Betts.
IN: Jordan Price (Eugowra), Noah Griffiths (Newcastle), Mackenzie Atkins (Penrith), Tevita Lucas (United Warriors), Bailey Lanham (Goulburn Bulldogs).
OUT: Doug Hewitt, Nick Loader, Blake Seager, Abel Lefaoseu (Oberon), Trent Hotham (Beachwood RLFC), Hayden Taylor (Mudgee).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 4 (2006, 2007, 2018, 2019).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Blake Lawson, Joey Bugg.
FROM little things, big things grow - that is the sort of approach St Pat's captain-coach Zac Merritt will adopt for the Peter McDonald Premiership.
Like all skippers, Merritt has a burning desire to be the first to win the new premiership. He thinks it is something the Saints can achieve by setting, then ticking off, short term goals.
"We definitely want to win it, I don't think that changes. You've always got that goal, the big picture of holding the trophy up," he said.
"For us, I've always said it, it's about focussing on us, not other stuff, and trying to get us prepared as best as possible.
"Obviously the big goal, the big picture is to win it, but at the moment we'll focus on the short term little week-to-week sort of stuff and making sure each and every player is on the same page."
The Saints squad Merritt hopes to steer to glory is similar to the one which contested last season's Group 10 premiership, but with some key additions.
Former Saints star halfback Tim Holman is back and will be on the wing for round one, Blake Fitzpatrick has made the move from Oberon and will fill the five-eighth role, while former Forbes Magpie Hayden Bolman will be a player to watch at hooker.
"It's going to be pretty exciting think with the [player] points system too - you just can't go out and buy everyone, you've got to use your local boys which I think is good," Merritt said.
"That's what I wanted to do coming back to Pat's, get those locals, bring them through and make them feel that they can play first grade."
CAPTAIN-COACH: Zac Merritt.
IN: Corey Averio (Raymond Terrace), Jarrod Xerri (Riverstone), Hamish Mapp (Brothers St Brendans), Joe Noon (Workies), Hayden Bolam (Forbes), Blake Fitzpatrick (Oberon), Tim Holman.
OUT: Tyler Willott (Sydney Roosters).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 6 (1968, 1973, 1989, 2001, 2008, 2014).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hayden Bolam.
HE'S spent more than a decade in the top grade, but Cowra Magpies' hooker Jack Nobes hasn't felt this excited about the start of a season for some time.
Nobes has been charged with leading the Magpies in the new Peter McDonald Premiership, a role he will share with another star recruit in Jack Buchanan.
"I've never seen a pre-season like it, the excitement is back, we've been getting awesome numbers right across the board," Nobes, who played with Orange CYMS last season, said.
"We're always fairly optimistic but things have come together really well, especially with Jack [Buchanan].
"I'm really excited about the year, the way we look and the attitude of the boys."
Buchanan joins the Magpies after stints in the NRL, with the Toronto Wolfpack in the English Championship, Burleigh Bears in Queensland and Orange CYMS.
He, Blake Duncombe and Will Ingram will spearhead the Magpies' forward pack.
CO-COACHES: Jack Buchanan, Jack Nobes.
IN: Jack Buchanan (Orange CYMS), Jack Nobes (Orange CYMS), Jake Frendo (Chinchilla QLD), Makisi Paea (Chaffey Titans), Tuit-Alau Sika (Waves Tigers QLD), Andrew Cutmore (Cargo), Wade Jones-Newham (Workies), Charlie Frendo (Milton/Ulladulla), Glen Ridgeway (Campbelltown Warriors), Cameron Picker (Goulburn).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 4 (1978, 1983, 1992, 1995).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jack Buchanan.
IT'S not just Dubbo CYMS' first grade side who are excited for the new Peter McDonald Premiership, but the club as a whole.
"We're super excited, it's not something we've been pushing at, but encouraging people to do it for a couple of years," coach Shawn Townsend said.
"I think it will be good and exciting, there is plenty of excitement around our club."
Townsend and the rest of the club have several good reasons to be excited too, with one of the strongest squads on paper in the whole competition.
Townsend all but confirmed star signing Tom Hughes would miss the season after tearing his pectoral in a trial game, an injury which required a recent surgery.
But across the board the likes of Jyie Chapman, Jeremy Thurston and Jarryn Powyer will no doubt be chomping at the bit to run onto the field for round one.
COACH: Shawn Townsend.
OUT: Jack Smith (Sydney), Joe Yeo (Sydney), Braye Porter (Canterbury Bulldogs).
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 14 (1969, 1971, 1975, 1986, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007,2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jayden Merritt.
AFTER a number of hugely disappointing seasons, the signing of Western Rams skipper Alex Ronayne as captain-coach was meant to launch a new era of success at the Raiders.
But in the past two years the chance of winning a first premiership since 2012 has been ruined by COVID. The 2020 campaign was cancelled altogether, while the Raiders were firmly in the title race when last year's competition was abandoned ahead of the final round of the regular season.
But with Ronayne settled in his role and some more strong recruitment during the off-season, the Raiders look a top contender in 2022.
"I'm very excited," Ronayne said.
"You look at the leadership group there with blokes like Colt [Tairua], Coxy [Corey Cox] and Josh Nixon and there's some blokes here not many people have seen play.
"I think it's a premiership-winning team this year. All the boys are on the same page, they all want to win and they're all up for it."
Ronayne has nominated brothers and Josh and Jai Merritt as players to watch.
As much of a cliche as it is, the returning Raiders juniors have trained as hard as anyone during pre-season to get themselves fit and firing.
"Jai hasn't missed a training session yet and Josh said this is the most he's trained in about six years," Ronayne said of his halves.
"I'm very excited to see what he can bring this year and everyone knows what a player he is.
"They've brought plenty to the club and they've brought a spark, so there is big hype around those boys."
CAPTAIN-COACH: Alex Ronayne.
IN: Josh Merritt (Nyngan), Jai Merritt (Wellington), EJ Fernando (Wellington), Wade Peachey (Wellington), Corey Cox (Wellington), Colt Tairua (Wellington), Johnny Mafiti (Dubbo Kangaroos rugby union), Josh Nixon (Coonabarabran), Jack Kempston (Wellington), Harry Kempston (Wellington), CJ Ralph (Wellington).
OUT: Nick Harvey (Kurri Kurri), Rob Mafi (Blacktown Workers), Richie Peckham (Wellington), Jack Kavanagh (Mackay Cutters), Wyndham Peachey, Sam Coe.
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 10 (1959, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1985, 2001, 2007, 2012).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Josh and Jai Merritt.
TALENTED youngsters, experienced and proven performers plus a mission to improve their completion rates - that is what the Forbes Magpies bring to the Peter McDonald Premiership.
Coach Cameron Greenhalgh has been impressed by the numbers and commitment shown during pre-season training and is eager to see what his Magpies can do after the opening round bye.
"We were quite young last year, so the older boys we have brought back have helped the young fellas get their confidence back," he said.
"The chat from the experienced boys on the training track has also been really important, they make sure no one is cutting any corners, and the young boys see that, respond to it, and work even harder.
"This year we want to hang on to the ball as much as we can because we have have a bit of a habit in Forbes of defending too much, which is great at the pointy end of the season but not great for a coach during the season."
While finding it tough to single anyone as the one player to watch this season, Greenhalgh has been impressed with what the experienced Brad McMillan, Jake Grace and Mitch Andrews have done during the pre-season.
"The way Jake goes about things, he doesn't want anyone to beat him at all, in anything, and he's looking in ripper nick," Greenhalgh said.
"Brad is also going really well and he's been pushing the young fellas, while Mitch has gotten over some niggles and got through the pre-season injury-free. He's one of the best trainers I've ever worked with, so he's always impressive."
COACH: Cameron Greenhalgh.
IN: Jake Grace (retirement), Dawson Nanai (Temora), Alvin Maungaati (Western Suburbs), Brad McMillan (Eugowra), Ben Robinson (retirement).
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 8 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1977, 1987, 1998, 2016, 2018).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Brad McMillan, Jake Grace, Mitch Andrews.
NEW Lithgow coach Greg Alderson's got one goal on his mind for the Peter McDonald Premiership - that is "just to be a competitive side again".
"The past two years have been hard for us, along with everyone else with COVID," Alderson said.
"We have lost a lot of players that have retired and players that have moved away. It's been a tough rebuilding stage for Lithgow Workies.
"But with a few key signings and some talented locals coming back, I think we can give the competition a real shake up this year."
Amongst the new faces at Lithgow are three players who bring with them the experience of being part of the Penrith Panthers' junior system - Isaac Thompson, Hayden Bonanno and Matthew Faauila.
Both Narromine native Thompson and Bonanno are halfback options and centre Faauila is potent in attack.
Alderson said the Wolves' efforts during the pre-season had been good and he is looking forward to playing some "good footy". However, he knows the new premiership will be tough.
"This year will be the first time Group 10 and Group 11 merge to create a competition for the Ace McDonald Premiership," he said.
"Every team we play will always have players to watch, but I guess the standouts are Jack Littlejohn from Mudgee Dragons and Daniel Mortimer from Orange CYMS. Both are classy players that captain-coach their sides.
"Bathurst Panthers are a well-drilled side all across the paddock. They have proven how good a team they are the past three to four years, so we are going to have to be on our game when we play them in the last round."
CAPTAIN-COACH: Greg Alderson.
IN: Lomano Lufe (Blacktown), Isaac Thompson (Narromine), Grant Rhodes (Portland), Joel Cable (Lower Blue Mountains), Ryan Richardson (Narromine), Joseph Ma'u (Asquith), Johnny Aiaga (Lithgow Bears), Hayden Bonanno (Penrith), Matthew Faauila (Penrith).
OUT: Wade Jones-Newham (Cowra), Joe Noon (St Pat's).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 4 (1960, 1991, 2005, 2012).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hayden Bonanno.
WINNING a premiership has been, and always will be, the ultimate goal for the Mudgee Dragons, but heading into 2022 the club is also just hoping to have the opportunity to play finals.
In 2020 the Dragons did not get to play after COVID-19 saw the season abandoned before it began, while last year the spread of the virus in regional NSW saw the finals series cancelled.
"It's been a bit of a longer wait this year because we didn't get to play finals last year, so we're pretty excited, all of the boys are pumped up," Dragons captain-coach Jack Littlejohn said.
"To play a full season would be nice. We've been cut short for two years because of COVID, so hopefully we'll get a bit of finals footy."
Mudgee has already begun it's campaign with a win, downing the Macquarie Raiders 34-26 last Saturday as they played a a curtain-raiser to the Manly-Canberra NRL clash at Glen Willow.
"It's hard because you're playing against teams you've never seen play before, you don't know their calibre of players. It was a bit daunting not really knowing what you were up against," Littlejohn said after that success.
CAPTAIN-COACH: Jack Littlejohn.
IN: Ben Thompson (Dunedoo), Hayden Taylor (Panthers), Nick Bligh (Camden), Tom Shearman (Dunedoo).
OUT: Leroy Murray (Redcliffe), Harry Siejka (Cessnock), Cody Lucas (Macquarie Scorpians), Cody Lawson (St Mary's).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 6 (1986, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2016).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cody Gooden.
THE Nyngan Tigers have always prided themselves on their ability to punch above their weight.
That remains the same this year as the smallest town in Group 11 prepares to become the smallest town in the Peter McDonald Premiership.
It hasn't been the easiest off-season at Nyngan as there was initially opposition to the change of competition structure in the region, while captain-coach Jeremy Smith and a number of other top players left the club.
Tigers stalwart Jacob Neill has taken on the top job again and while there will be challenges, he's certain that fighting spirit and town pride will be on show again.
"We're the smallest town in the comp, but we're going to have a heap of locals who were born and bred here playing," he said, adding there was a strong group of local juniors stepping up again this year.
"They'll put up a fight. They got a taste of it last year, but this year will be another step in their progression as first graders.
"There's no expectation with us apart from effort. These guys love playing for Nyngan and the jersey means a lot to them.
"The only thing I've asked for all the time is effort. I'm confident the guys will give that and the results will be what they end up, but first we'll just look to have strong effort."
A star through his junior days, Jak Jeffery looked at ease in the halves in first grade last year and is the kind of player who doesn't have a bad game.
Neill has nominated him as a player to watch and while he's still only 21, Jeffery will be asked to take on even more responsibility.
"I'll be looking to Jak to really stand up," Neill said.
"He really grew over the season last year and he's maturing. He's been a leader of the young kids coming through, so he's someone I'm looking forward to seeing progress.
"He's thrown into a leader's role at a young age."
CAPTAIN-COACH: Jacob Neill.
IN: Hewett Haycock (Dubbo CYMS), Viliame Latenacolo (Nyngan), Livai Vota (Ashford).
OUT: Josh Merritt (Macquarie), Jeremy Smith (Laurieton Hotel Stingrays), Jake Hawkins (Mackay Cutters), Darryl Cubby (Dubbo CYMS), Guy Thompson (East Campbelltown).
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 0.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jak Jeffery.
AFTER clinching last year's Group 10 minor premiership before COVID saw the finals series cancelled, Orange CYMS are hungry to prove a point in 2022.
It means that coach Daniel Mortimer is looking to go all the way in the inaugural Peter McDonald Premiership.
"You play to win, the ultimate goal is to win a competition and that's why everyone is here," he said.
While there hasn't been a lot of joy in the pre-season with no wins in the Bathurst knockout and a loss to Dubbo CYMS in their trial, Mortimer is happy with what he's seen.
"There's been some good signs, we had a full-strength team play the first half against Dubbo and some of our young boys stepped up as well," he said.
After playing in between grades last year, Mortimer will be looking for lock Liam Kennedy to step up in the new competition after the loss of several middle forwards.
CYMS will also benefit from recruiting Hawks star Ethan McKellar, who is a replacement for Cowra-bound Jack Buchanan. They've also lured across barnstorming centre Marcel Ikinofo from their Orange rivals.
COACH: Daniel Mortimer.
IN: Ethan McKellar (Hawks), Marcel Ikinofo (Hawks), Hayden Robinson (Peak Hill), Kurtis Munro (UC All Stars), Flynn Fahey (Manildra), Will Cusack (United Warriors), Dion Jones (United Warriors).
OUT: Jack Buchanan (Cowra), Jack Nobes (Cowra), Joe Duffy (Burleigh Bears).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 12 (1952, 1953, 1954, 1958, 1959, 1987, 1988, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Liam Kennedy.
IT will be a new-look Orange Hawks side which embarks on the Peter McDonald Premiership as the club brings through several juniors after the loss of important first graders.
Captain and assistant coach Alex Prout said his side will be a "week by week" proposition with an eye for improvement every round.
Lachie Lawson is one junior Prout is looking forward to seeing in action, with the centre looking to make his mark in first grade.
Lawson will come into the season off the back of captaining the under 18 Western Rams in the Laurie Daley Cup.
The skipper crossed the paint against Illawarra South Coast Dragons and Riverina Bulls in the early rounds as the Rams finished sixth with three wins from five games.
COACH: Shane Rodney.
INS: Harrison Gersback (Molong), Mitch Gallagher (Molong).
OUTS: Ethan McKellar (Orange CYMS), Marcel Ikinofo (Orange CYMS), Willie Heta, Toby Westcott (Queensland), Talon Hodge (CSU Mungoes).
GROUP 10 PREMIERSHIPS: 3 (1955, 1999, 2003).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Lachie Lawson.
FREE-flowing, attacking football - that is what Parkes captain-coach Jack Creith is looking for his Spacemen to deliver in the Peter McDonald Premiership.
Having secured the services of New South Wales Country back rower Will Wardle, who has moved to Parkes for work after playing with the Thirlmere Roosters last season, Creith is confident his side can deliver on that goal.
"He's [Wardle] a real hard-running back or front rower, and he's always prided himself on his defence, but what I'm really excited about are his skills. He can kick the footy, pass it well and catches the ball out in front like an AFL player," Creith said.
"We want to play really free-flowing footy in attack with nothing set in stone. We have some really skilful outside backs and two really talented back-rowers in Jordo [Pope] and Will and what we also have is most of us have been playing together since under 10s, so we are just a really close group and know how each other play so well.
"I'm really confident we'll be successful this year; you have to be real fit to play our kind of footy and it will be a nightmare for our opposition to defend."
CAPTAIN-COACH: Jack Creith.
IN: Will Wardle (Thirlmere Roosters), Joe Dwyer (ACL injury).
OUT: Bailey Hartwig (Wynnum Manly Seagulls).
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 9 (1954, 1972, 1973, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2010, 2013)
PLAYER TO WATCH: Will Wardle.
JUSTIN Toomey-White was aware of all the outside noise and off-season rumours.
The Cowboys had no players, the club was folding, and the captain-coach himself was signing for a western area rival.
But on the inside there was no such turmoil. Yes, it's been a tough off-season as a host of players have departed and some sponsors have been lost due to the impact of COVID, but things don't change for a club that means so much to its community.
With some familiar faces back at the club and local juniors coming through, there's still plenty of optimism.
"It's a new year and new squad but expectations don't change," Toomey-White said.
"We're going out there to do what we want to do and that's to win. We will take it one week and one training session at a time, and it will come for the young guys as they get more games under their belt.
"We know where we want to be."
Richie Peckham is back home after a stint with Macquarie and Toomey-White has been impressed by his effort and leadership during pre-season.
A tough and versatile player, Peckham will partner the reliable Mason Williams in the halves this season.
CAPTAIN-COACH: Justin Toomey-White.
IN: Richie Peckham (Macquarie), Jade Hooper (Macquarie).
OUT: EJ Fernando (Macquarie), Wade Peachey (Macquarie), Dennis Moran (retirement), Will Lousick (Newcastle), Colt Tairua (Macqaurie), Corey Cox (Macquarie).
GROUP 11 PREMIERSHIPS: 8 (1946, 1948, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 2019)
PLAYER TO WATCH: Richie Peckham
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