Orange Emus coach Paul Ringland has no clue what to expect from Mudgee on Saturday, none whatsoever.
For the first half of the season the Wombats looked hard-pressed to win a game and then to compound the club’s player shortage former NSW Country Cockatoo Adam Rayner announced his retirement, due to health issues.
But despite that massive loss Mudgee has surged in recent weeks, winning two of three starts since the halfway point of the 2017 Blowes Clothing Cup season.
Mudgee, stunningly, reversed round one’s 95-14 loss against Parkes to won the corresponding round 10 fixture 17-14.
Then the Wombats downed Dubbo Rhinos 36-14, with a loss to Bathurst Bulldogs in between.
In short, there’s plenty of reason for hope at Jubilee Oval, although both of the side’s wins have been there.
Performing on the road is a whole other kettle of fish, particularly when that road leads straight to fortress Endeavour, where Emus have only tasted defeat three times since the start of season 2014 – twice to Orange City and most recently to Forbes.
None of those losses have come in 2017.
“Mudgee looks in pretty good nick, they’ve won a couple recently so it seems like they’re stronger than were earlier in the year but no, we’re not really sure what to expect,” Ringland admitted.
“I think they are still struggling a little bit for players, particularly in the lower grades, but I guess we can’t really read into that too much.
“We can only prepare as best we can, and we’re preparing the same way we would if we were playing one of the sides at the top of the table.”
With that sense of unknown in mind, Ringland said his side’s focus has been inward this week.
Although the greens haven’t been hit by injury anywhere near as hard as the likes of Orange City, the two-time defending premiers haven’t been able to field the same XV in consecutive weeks for some time.
“We’ve been chopping and changing a bit, with injury and unavailability. We’ve had guys in and out, which hasn’t been ideal,” he said.
“It has left a bit to be desired in terms of cohesion, the combinations certainly haven’t been as crisp as they were earlier in the season.
“That’s the real battle for us at the moment, regaining that cohesion.”
It does highlight just how valuable the club’s much-touted depth and holistic approach to the top two grades has been in 2017.
Ringland and co-coach Jeremy Wallace also coach Emus’ second grade side, a move designed to try and create a seamless transition when they’re forced to call on the club’s lower graders.
“That has helped, it’s certainly proven that you can’t rely on 15 players and you need a good 22 or 23-man squad at least to be around the top,” he said.
“We’re lucky that we’ve had plenty of quality players to call on when we’ve needed to, which we’re doing again this weekend.”
While lock Nick Hughes-Clapp returns to Emus’ side, speedster Carter Hirini has been struck down by injury and Levi Russell shifts from fullback to the wing as a result, allowing Emus’ 2016 player of the year AJ Sykes to slot into the custodian role.
Mitch Evers returns to the top grade in Sykes’ vacant No.10 jersey, while Matt Findlay comes into the starting side at hooker, replacing the injured Keith Howarth. Regular hooker Tom Goolagong also remains sidelined.
Kick-off at Endeavour Oval is at 3.15pm.
- ORANGE EMUS: 1 Nas Havealeta, 2 Matt Findlay, 3 Michael Graham, Nick Hughes-Clapp, 5 Harry Hamilton, 6 Andrew Selwood, 7 Jack Marchinton, 8 Rob Thorburn, 9 Sam Green, 10 Mitch Evers, 11 Tom Green, 12 Lachie Harris, 13 Nigel Staniforth ©, 14 Levi Russell, 15 AJ Sykes