Gunnedah coach John Hickey has underlined the challenge facing his side against North Tamworth at Kitchener Park on Saturday night, labelling the Bears a potential Clayton Cup-winning outfit.
But for that to happen, Hickey said, the Scott Blanch-led Norths would need to remain undefeated this season.
The Clayton Cup is awarded annually to the NSW country rugby league side with the best record.
The prospect of a vastly improved Gunnedah facing one of the best Group 4 sides of recent times in the final round, is a challenge that Hickey views with great excitement - given the Bulldogs have secured fourth spot for the finals.
He said it was a "great opportunity" for Gunnedah to "test" themselves against the competition's longstanding benchmark.
"If we're gonna be a force, then we need to know how to tackle them," he said.
The turning point for Gunendah this season, Hickey said, was the side's 38-34 loss to the Magpies at Werris Creek on July 27 - a kind of victory-in-defeat scenario.
For while Gunnedah lost the match, they played most of it with 12 men after Blake McIlveen's send-off. They then played part of the second half with 11 men after Aaron Donnelly' sin-binning.
They were down 28-6 at half-time.
"I think when we got down to playing with 11 men at Werris Creek, with a pretty lopsided penalty count, I think the boys found out, really, how much they can fight, and I think we were unlucky not to win that game, still," Hickey said.
Hickey said that performance was "probably the catalyst" for his side having confidence in their "fighting" qualities and ability to "handle tough situations".
"I think that will hold us in good stead," he said.
"But the most important thing now is for each player to find something that really challenges them in this game [against Norths].
"And this is the No.1 side. As I said, the best side for many, many years ... So there's a lot to be gained by just playing well against this team.
"I seriously think if they go through and win the grand final without losing, they do get the Clayton Cup - it will be that simple."
Norths won the Clayton Cup in 2014. They beat Gunnedah in the grand final that year, and have remained premiers since then.
Since losing to the Magpies, Gunnedah have notched impressive away wins over Narrabri and Dungowan.
One of the Bulldogs' best players this season has been lock Matt Baker, who joined the side in 2019 after five seasons of first grade in Newcastle. Hickey said the former Sydney Roosters under-20 player had been "inspirational".