By DAVE MORRISON
IT'S a replay of last year's grand final to kick off the 2006 Far North Coast Rugby season when the Mighty River Redmen travel top Ballina today, seeking to overturn their thrilling loss to the Seahorses in the 2005 decider.
Grafton has some changes to the side that went close last year, headed by this week's signing utility back, the mercurial Ray Mercy, who will be making his rugby debut from the bench.
Redmen coach Gary Powell is excited by his new signings headed by Mercy, in the knowledge that they will give his side more attacking options to complement Grafton's traditional strength up front.
Fullback Aaron Taylor is another newcomer who has already shown in trial game form that he will cause plenty of defensive headaches to opposition sides this year, particularly on counter attack.
Former junior Jono Speechly makes his first grade debut in the back row and provides mobility and lineout prowess to complement the attacking options out wide.
With last season's attacking trio of Jon Chevalley, Scott Lloyd and Justin Spurway also on deck, the Redmen seem to have far more points in them this season.
And they will need this added strike power to counter the attacking brilliance of the Seahorses, who blew the Redmen away out wide in devastating fashion in the early stages in last year's grand final.
Ballina are an unknown quantity this year, but their pedigree as defending champions on their own turf in likely windy and greasy conditions make them terribly difficult to beat.
Aside from the obvious threat posed by their three quarters, in particular playmaking centre Luke Sullivan, the Ballina backrow must be nullified if Grafton are to have any chance of the season's first, albeit minor, upset.
The Grafton backrow of Speechly, veteran Rob Brown veteran Rob Brown and Paul Cameron has a good, agile look to it and are certainly capable of taking the game right up to the highly respected Ballina back three.
The game could well be won by who comes out on top in this battle, especially who can slow the others' game down at the tackle contest.
In a tough season opener, Grafton's lower grades play Ballina too and will know that there are no easy points on offer.
There will be a full report on the Redmen's opening game of the season in Sports Monday.
The bus to the game leaves the Jacaranda Hotel at 10am.
REDMEN: Dan Hayne, Gary Powell, Scott Forwell, Mark Robinson, Matt Runge, Paul Cameron, Rob Brown, Jono Speechly, Brett Graham, Jason Landrigan, Tom Gerrard, Jon Chevalley, Scott Lloyd, Justin Spurway, Aaron Taylor, Ray Mercy.