THE Muswellbrook Heelers kicked off their Newcastle-Hunter Rugby Union divisional title defence in style at the weekend.
On a hot day at Empire Park, and with just one reserve available, the Heelers produced a gutsy display to upstage Cooks Hill 18-17.
The 2019 squad looked a different outfit on Saturday than its last game.
A few of the premiership-winning team are missing and a bunch of fresh new faces have joined the club.
Despite no match time together, the Heelers' structure worked well and they soon pressured the Cooks Hill line.
Captain Cameron Young was able to take advantage of some infringements and slotted two penalty conversions for a 6-0 scoreline.
Cooks Hill hit back with an unconverted try.
The steamy conditions and match fitness were always going to plague both sides and the fixture fell into the grind.
The first half ended with the Heelers clinging to a narrow 6-5 lead.
Unfortunately, the drinks break was far too short for most of the lads.
New recruit Heath Talbot was able to cross for the first Heelers try for 2019 and Muswellbrook extended its advantage to 13-5.
Not to be outdone, Cooks Hill retaliated and soon scored another unconverted try.
The Heelers now enjoyed a 13-10 margin.
Fatigue then set in for both sides.
The Muswellbrook boys scrambled well and just held it together.
When they did retain the ball, they maintained their structure and made some ground.
But, there were far too many turnovers.
This gave Cooks Hill a couple of opportunities.
The hosts scored a converted try late in the second half and looked to have sealed the victory at 17-13.
However, a courageous and very tired Heelers outfit worked its way patiently up the field, on the back of penalties and a very dominant scrum.
It was off a scrum that No.8 Atu Katonitabua was able to pick up the ball close to the line and crash over for the try.
Young missed the conversion attempt but with only a minute left on the clock, the 18-17 victory was secured.
"It was a great effort by the team and nearly everyone had an impact on the game," president Michael Hall said.
"But, the hot conditions and lack of bench certainly had the boys working hard.
"We now travel to the Infantry School at Singleton for this weekend's showdown.
"The Army side is coming off a big 36-12 win over Griffins in round one.
"So, we're hoping to have a few more players registered and available for the game."
Hall said the competition had been thrown into chaos with the late inclusion of Premier division teams from Merewether Carlton and University.
"With the Colts' format folding, both clubs have more players than sides - and requested a berth into our competition," he explained.
"With general rugby participation numbers down, their inclusion is strategically warranted.
"But, with the season already planned, the draw post round one has been thrown out and the NHRU is frantically trying to establish a new one."
There will be no union on Saturday, April 20.
The Heelers play their first encounter at Highbrook Park on Saturday, May 4, against long-time rivals Cessnock.
Coach's points: 1 Harry Hobden, 2 Cameron Young, 3 Sam Heriot
Players' player: Sam Heriot