AN under-strength Muswellbrook Heelers team was mauled at Lone Pine Barracks by the Singleton Lions 38-10, in a match that leaves last year's premiers with a win and a loss in the opening rounds.
The locals were up against it from before the match started.
There were a number of key people missing through work and family commitments that culminated in the Heelers only fielding 14 players to start the match, while conversely the Lions had a full sheet of 25 fit and eager members.
Muswellbrook's short numbers forced the hand of coach Mick Hall to pull the boots on and try and plug the gap.
President and first grade coach Michael Hall has had more comebacks than John Farnham but ever the team man, wanted to support his troops.
The Heelers started well, posting first points through the boot of captain Cameron Young taking an early penalty.
The Lions hit back shortly after with a converted try and the Muswellbrook side soon lost Isaac Scholes through injury and the team went down to 13.
To their credit they kept toiling away, retaining possession well with ball in hand, but ultimately giving too much away with poor kicking options.
They were able to post their only try late in the first half, after a great midfield run was recycled quickly, allowing fly half Mitchell Fagan to find some space down the right flank.
Fagan hit a rampaging Atu Katonitabua with a great ball on the chest, and he proceeded to pin his ears back and beat a couple of players to score close to the posts.
The Lions hit back again with an unconverted try to end the half leading 12-10.
The Heelers were still in it, but the second half was going to be a challenge with the depleted team.
The Lions came out all guns blazing in the second half.
Unable to find the gaps through the middle third of the field, the army side finally changed their game plan to work the edges and stretch the already thin Heelers' defence.
The Lions hit Muswellbrook with four more tries to close out the game and take the match 38-10.
The Heelers didn't give up all day and although the score line was lopsided, there were plenty of positives taken from the game and the spirit of those that played was unquestionable.
Ben Heriot led the forwards all day, playing the whole game and trying to the end.
Young had another quality game and steered the team around the park and led by example in attack and defence even after an early shoulder injury.
"It is a loss, but it is a proud moment as a coach and a club," Hall stated.
"The 14 players can hold their heads high; they didn't stop trying and forced the Lions to score out wide, the score could have been bigger."
The coach listed his votes as follows: 1 - Sam Heriot and Heath Talbot; 2 - Cameron Young and Ben Heriot; and 3. Mitchell Serhan.
Players' player once again went to Cameron Young.
The Heelers get a week off with a full round bye for the Easter long weekend.
The next match is another away game on April 27, against Easts at Danger Park, Mayfield.
Both sides are sporting a win/loss for their respective games with Easts sitting in forth on the 'for and against' to the Heelers seventh position.
The away side are confident they can pull the team together and fix the numbers issue, but they can expect a similar result if they field a similar side in the next round.
The Easts team are a physical team and the Heelers will need to be at full strength to beat them at home.
The club is urging any Newcastle based players and supporters to come along to the game and give them some support.
They'd like to thank those that travel and follow the team each week and emphasise the players and committee do notice the support and feed off the enthusiasm.