THE strength of the 2012 Murwillumbah squad can be gauged in the four men who will initially sit on the bench when the Mustangs host defending premiers, Grafton Ghosts, in the Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League major semi-final at Stan Sercombe Oval tomorrow.
All four men - Lionel Foster, Shaun Dorney, Michael Keating and Sam Ross - would be automatic first-team selections in any other side in the competition.
The winner of tomorrow's 2.45pm clash will host the grand final on Sunday, September 2, while the loser will next week play at home against the winner of today's minor semi-final between Byron Bay and Ballina at the Bay's Red Devil Park.
Mustangs coach, Troy McLean, is "quietly confident" his team will take the short route in the game that matters.
"We will take just so many positives into the game," McLean said.
"We have every player in the squad available, all of them are fully fit, we have worked the place down at training over the past fortnight and well, just have a look at the bench players - we are blessed with a tremendous depth in quality footballers."
McLean also says the long trek down to Grafton to watch the Ghosts beat Byron Bay in last Sunday's qualifying final was worth the effort.
"The Bay looked a bit flat but nothing can be taken away from the Ghosts' win," McLean said.
"They played really well and certainly look determined to retain their title.
"Their two 'go-to' men, big second-rowers, Ryan Danvers and Aaron Hartmann, had great games and the back three were very good at running back the ball.
"Hartmann and Danvers worked the edges of the rucks by running at the smaller blokes and that is something we have worked at countering at training this week.
"I picked up a couple of areas in their play which we can exploit."
"Ask no questions, get told no lies," McLean quipped.
This really is a formidable Mustangs squad - rock-solid backs and big, powerful and skilful forwards who can rip any defence apart.
The return of Luke Covell to the team has pushed Sam Ross on to the bench but Covell was always a laydown misere to return to the starting line-up once fully recovered from knee surgery.
Covell's class, experience and will-to-win will inspire his fellow pigs to put-in against a pack which was not down the back of the queue when toughness and skills were being handed out.
I am expecting a big game from towering prop Lynden Murphy whom, whilst playing well, has not shown the rip-snorting form of 2012 but that can be put down to a few other forwards stepping up to the mark to take on the workload.
The bench gives McLean plenty of options in resting players - Keating will at some time slot into the centres with Damien Quinn moving into the backrow - that allows McLean to fully utilise his forward replacements.
Other key men for the Mustangs will be five-eighth, Matt Goodfellow and rampaging second-rower, Tim James.
James has been on fire all season and his blockbusting runs close to opposition tryline haas earned him 19 touchdowns.
Goodfellow's long kicking game will be of vital importance in keeping the Ghosts penned down deep in their own half when starting their sets.
1 Dylan Smith
2 Troy Macarthur
3 Caleb Howell
4 Damien Quinn
5 Michael Forrester
6 Matt Goodfellow
7 Nathan Jordan (c)
8 Lynden Murphy
9 Sam Panting
10 Shane Kight
11 Luke Covell
12 Tim James
13 Jarred Flick
Bench: 14 Lionel Foster 15 Shaun Dorney 16 Michael Keating 17 Sam Ross
Today, Red Devil Park, Byron Bay
Under-18: 11.30am, Ballina v Marist Brothers.
Reserves: 1pm, Northern United v Murwillumbah
A-grade: 2.45pm, Byron Bay v Ballina
Tomorrow: Stan Sercombe Oval, Murwillumbah
Under-18:11.30am, Mullumbimby v Grafton Ghosts
Reserve Grade: 1pm, Mullumbimby v Grafton Ghosts
A-grade: 2.45pm, Murwillumbah v Grafton Ghosts
Gates open 9.30am. Entry $8 adults, kids under 16 free.
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