NEW Glen Innes Magpies coach Sam Key is enjoying his first experience in the role of head coach.
The Group 19 season starts this weekend with Key and his Magpies tackling new side, Moree Boars, who have transferred from Group 4.
The Magpies are at home tomorrow (3pm kickoff) while Ashford hosts Tingha, Goondiwindi travels to Moree to play the Boomerangs and Armidale Rams are at Woodville Oval, Uralla playing the Uralla Tigers.
All games are timed for 3pm starts tomorrow, with the Inverell Hawks enjoying a first-round bye.
At Kerry Mead Park, Glen Innes the home side has a different start, tackling a Moree Boars for the first time in a couple of decades.
Key is keen to kick it all off.
“It has been a real eye-opener for me,” he admits.
“I didn’t realise how much running around, how many phone calls were involved on top of the actual coaching and training. But it’s good.”
The Magpies started pre-season training a fair bit earlier than in past years and Key admits he benefited as much as anyone from that.
“I had an arthroscopy on my knee (which troubled him late last season) and needed to get fit again, so we started early,” he says.
“The whole squad has gained from that and, once we get ‘footy fit’, I think the extra work should show.”
He expects defending premiers, Moree Boomerangs, to again be the team to beat.
“They’ve gained a couple (of players) from last season,” he says.
“It’s a good thing for the community out there that they are strong again and they’re playing with pride and passion and will be very hard to beat.”
Key says the signing of former local junior star Nick Ehsman after a few years in the Under 20 national competition and NSW Cup is the biggest gain for the Magpies.
“He is a clever footballer, he’s versatile and he really hits hard in defence plus he has a great kicking game, so he adds a lot to our team,” he says.
“Plus (big prop) Mone (Lokete) is back and Kiwi (Mark Ierome) is playing again.
“Nobody likes tackling big mobile blokes like them, so that’s another bonus.”
“We’ve lost Shawie (Adam Shaw) and you don’t replace blokes like him but Esh will be a huge plus factor for us.”
Premiership-winning prop Jared Willis was back in town and training with the squad but has now moved to the Gold Coast for work.
Key said Willis was an outside chance of playing for the Magpies but admits the prospect is a long shot.
The Magpies have also gained prop Josh Neilsen, probably the biggest player in the club, who has been training hard and impressing with his skills while winger Lachie Manschild impressed with his pace and toughness at the recent gala day at Moree.
Young Jayden Ehsman, brother of Nick, is expected to push hard for a first grade spot before the season is over.
He is a skilful ball player and exceptionally quick and, although still a junior, Key sees him as having the ability to fit into the top grade.
Key will commence the season wearing the number six at five-eighth but is keeping his options open.
“Having Esh there gives us the ability to switch him to No 6 and move me out to centre where I can run a bit more, but we’ll wait and see,” he says.
Meanwhile, he is looking forward to the season opener against Moree Boars who he watched closely at Moree.
“I played Jersey Flegg at Manly with Matty Marshall (at Boomies last season) and he’s just one of a number of quality players they have,” he says.
“I expect them to be really tough to beat.
“From a personal point, it will be great to be playing again.
“I’ve had a good off-season and it’s a while since I’ve started a new season with no niggling injuries.”