DESPITE finishing the game with 12 players on the field Macleay Mustangs opened the Group Three Rugby League season in ominous fashion when defeating Old Bar 38-18 in the first round game at Old Bar.
The Mustangs are the popular elect for this year's premiership, even at this early stage of the campaign. Their performance against a youthful Old Bar side only enhanced this rating.
However, it wasn't all good news for the Kempsey-based combination, with five-eighth Stephen Blair sent off by referee Cory Ricahardson 10 minutes from fulltime following an incident involving Old Bar centre Bailey Farr. A groggy Farr was assisted from the field and took no further part in proceedings.
Macleay led 28-18 when Blair was given his marching orders. However, they didn't miss a beat in the time remaining, with two tries to electrifying fullback Owen Blair finishing off the Pirates.
There were positives for the Pirates.
Winger Joe Hinton, who played halfback in last season's under 18.5 grand final for the Pirates finished with two tries to be the pick of the younger brigade. Captain Shannon Ellem and second rower Jared Wooster made metres in the middle while Corey Sheehan, also in his first game with the club, was industrious in the forwards. Old Bar's best moment of the game came just after halftime and involved three teenagers, with Wooster making a break before linking with centre Joel Minihan, who positioned Hinton to score in the corner. In all Old Bar fielded five first grade debutantes.
Macleay captain-coach Richie Roberts said the Mustangs are determined to put last year's horrors behind them.
"A win's a win, it was't our best performance but I think our forwards were reasonable,'' Robert said.
"We're trying to get better, that's the main thing.''
Roberts agreed the Mustangs have plenty of strike power.
"We have the two Blair boys and they can score from anywhere - they're natural footballers,'' he said.
"Chris Piper can create anything with his offloads. We're pretty solid all over the field and we just have to keep imrpoving every week - it's a new side this season.''
Halfback Tyreece Sines turned in an eye catching performance for the Mustangs. He's also new to first grade but he led the side around the field and threw one cutout pass that led to a try in the second half. He also scored a try and kicked five conversions.
Stephen Blair had a hand in two tries and produced scored the best individual try of the game just before halftime when he kicked short into space, gathered the ball, threw a dummy and raced to the line. With five minutes remaining in the first half the scores were locked at 10-10 but the Mustangs scored two tries in that time to go to the sheds leading 22-10.
On five occasions Old Bar managed to either managed to send a kickoff into touch on the full, or cough up possession from a re-start. Owen Blair's try nine minutes from fulltime came when he joined in a backline raid from a scrum win after Old Bar knocked on a line drop.
Old Bar coach Jamie Moorehead said it was always going to be a tough ask for his young side against the premiership favourites.
"This Old Bar breeze - it's a killer,'' he replied when asked about his team's problems with re-starts.
Moorehead said mistakes were costly for the Pirates.
"Their first three tries in the first half came off our errors,'' he said.
Captain and co-coach Shannon Ellem agreed.
"Obviously the silly errors are disappointing, but we have a few blokes to come back so we'll only get better,'' he said.
"The five young blokes who debuted today really impressed. Joey Hinton had a real good game on the wing. scoring a double.''
He added that Sheehan, a former Wingham stalwart, will be a handy gain for the club.
"We're happy to have him out here,'' Ellem said.
Roberts said the Mustangs have set a goal of finishing in the top three.
"We don't care where - just as long as we're in the top three,'' he insisted.
Well, that's a safe bet.
Macleay 38 (O Blair 2, C Lardner, T Sines, J Douglas, S Blair, C Carr tries, T Sines 5 goals) defeated Old Bar 18 (J Hinton 2, S Ellem, C Taylor tries. J Minihan goal).
Reserve grade: Old Bar 32 defeated Macleay 28
Under 18.5s: Old Bar 14 defeated Macleay 10
League tag: Old Bar 24 defeated Macleay 4.
Wauchope v Taree City
First grade: Wauchope 32 defeated Taree City 22
Reserve grade: Taree City 18 defeated Wauchope 14
League tag: Taree City 22 defeated Wauchope 4.