Manning Ratz seek berth in Lower North Coast Rugby grand final

Forster-Tuncurry's pacey winger Jack Nicholson.

Forster-Tuncurry's pacey winger Jack Nicholson.

MANNING River Ratz have an infuriating seven-year itch, a problem which inevitably comes with six successive winless premiership winters of the Lower Mid North Coast rugby union competition.

Incurable, they feel, the problem is not.

There is a quiet conviction within the club that they can topple the odds-on favourites and minor premiers, the Forster-Tuncurry Dolphins, first and foremost in Saturday's major semi-final at the Dolphins' home ground, Peter Barclay Field, Tuncurry.

The Ratz led 12-11 after 76 minutes when the teams met in the first round at Taree Rugby Park only for an agonising, injury-interrupted 10 more minutes to elapse before referee Duncan Clarke whistled an end to the game, by which time Matt Nuku had driven over the critical penalty goal for the Dolphins' win, 14-12.

The Ratz prefer to regard their return clash as "an aberration", much the same as the Australian Wallabies like to turn a blind eye to their recent 51-20 demolition by the New Zealand All Blacks at Eden Park. It is not freely discussed in Manning Valley circles, but the Ratz went down, 71-17, in the return encounter and 20-25 in their last game.

Over at their rivals' headquarters, Forster-Tuncurry's assistant coaches and ex-premiership first grade champions, Mark Hudson and David Birch, will be objective observers for a very good reason. Club affiliations aside, the pair are the coaches of the Mid North Coast Colts representative team for next year's NSW Country Championships on the South Coast.

Players from the Ratz they will focus their attention on tomorrow are prop Lachie McCormick, centre Izak Solomon and flanker Nick Mylonas as well as Forster's dashing wingers, the pair of 17-year-olds, Justin Hassett and Jack Nicholson.

McCormick is a good lump of a young scrummaging forward while Mylonas has the pace and hunger of a breakaway and the long pass and vision of a halfback. It was centre Solomon who caught the eye of Hudson in a recent game with his ability to make a break and carry on a movement.

In a Dolphins backline which has proved the most penetrative in the competition, Nicholson is the team's leading try-scorer with 11 tries. Hassett has scored eight. Both wingers are in their initial season of senior rugby, both possessing exceptional speed, Nicholson having put aside soccer and beach sprinting to try his luck in rugby this year.

The only concern about Hassett is that he is seeking to enter university, and will almost certainly be obliged to leave the Great Lakes region, if not permanently.

Whatever the backs do, movements and try-scoring only come about due to the scrummaging, lineouts and breakdown work of their forwards.

As always, it will be a battle royal up front tomorrow, the Dolphins' hooker James Clarke going head to head in the scrums with Mid North Coast representative rake, Jon Annand, while Sean Hassett, "Buka" Naqito and Troy Haines will oppose the Ratz's Sam Hartnett, Mylanos and Chris Fitzsimmons in the lineouts. Both are tough calls.

Earlier this season the Ratz were unfortunate to lose the MNC Axemen's backrower Mitch Carter with a shoulder injury. This game could be a significant moment for this invaluable forward to make his return.

In the early game at Peter Barclay Field, Tuncurry, third-placed Wallamba Bulls meet Gloucester Cockies in the sudden-death semi-final kicking off at 1pm. Provided skipper Jamie Andrews and Chris Marchant are back in the team, Gloucester have the scrum and strategy to upset the Daniel Hessing-inspired Cockies.

NB: Rugby union fans should be aware that due to Boronia Park being waterlogged, three Football Mid North Coast Premier League preliminary finals have been transferred to Harry Elliot Oval opposite Barclay Field.

Parking could be difficult.