Rebels second-rower Craig Waters and Xavier Sullivan hit hard in defence on Adam Slater during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field.
Rebels second-rower Craig Waters and Xavier Sullivan hit hard in defence on Adam Slater during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Ghosts, Rebels, Magpies mid-year report card

RUGBY LEAGUE: With the June Long Weekend signalling the halfway point in the local rugby league seasons, The Daily Examiner sports editor Moose Elkerton has run all three Clarence clubs through a strict report card.

From the Grafton Ghosts sitting pretty atop the Group 2 ladder to the Lower Clarence Magpies outside the NRRRL top five, we analyse where your side has gone wrong and right so far this season.

The long weekend also gave each side a chance to rest up for a week and gave injured players an extra week of rest, so the sides should come back fit and firing when they return this weekend.

 

GRAFTON GHOSTS

What's working: Simplicity. If you ask Ghosts captain-coach Danny Wicks about rugby league, he will tell you it is a simple game. Whoever holds the ball the longest, scores the most points, and wins the game.

It is a mentality the Ghosts relied on heavily in their Clayton Cup winning season last year, and they have definitely not tried to reinvent the wheel this season. They rely on a high completion rate and playing smart football.

 

Carson Galloway made a long-awaited return for the Ghosts during the Group 2 first grade clash between Grafton Ghosts and Orara Valley Axemen at Frank McGuren Field.
Carson Galloway made a long-awaited return for the Ghosts during the Group 2 first grade clash between Grafton Ghosts and Orara Valley Axemen at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Also, the Ghosts' wingers have been putting in massive efforts. Both Carson Galloway and Jay Olsen were not Wicks' first choice flyers at the start of 2018 but they have made themselves invaluable in recent games. It would be hard to shift either when Mitch Gorman does come back from injury.

Needs work: The Ghosts biggest downfall this season has been the number of freak injuries at the club. From dislocated shoulders to ligaments torn off the bone, the Ghosts are yet to run out with a full-strength outfit since Round 1. With a lack of bodies generally comes to a lack of consistency and the Ghosts have faced that in 2018.

 

Panthers front-rower Josh Cockbain struggles for metres during the Group 2 first grade second round clash between Grafton Ghosts and Sawtell Panthers at Frank McGuren Field.
Panthers front-rower Josh Cockbain struggles for metres during the Group 2 first grade second round clash between Grafton Ghosts and Sawtell Panthers at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Under the pump: It should come as no surprise the man tasked with steering the Ghosts, Jake Frame, is the man with the most pressure on him. Without Clint Greenshields, Frame has been tasked with leading an inexperienced duo alongside Jacob Cameron-Clarke but has stepped up with precision.

 

Ghosts halfback Jake Frame throws a wide ball during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field.
Ghosts halfback Jake Frame throws a wide ball during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Prediction: The most clinical team in the competition is unsurprisingly leading the Group 2 first grade ranks, and with more players returning each week they should be hard to stop from here. I expect them to finish first.

 

SOUTH GRAFTON REBELS

What's working: After trialling close to six different halves combinations this season following the departure of Premiership-winning five-eighth Hugh Stanley it appears the Rebels have found one that could stick in the Battle of the River.

Both Allan McKenzie and Phil Bundock are new to the South Grafton fold but they are learning quickly what it means to have pride in the red and white. McKenzie is a livewire talent and possesses the ability to break open the game, while Bundock is a sound playmaker who possesses a deft running game.

They are like strawberries and cream and could provide the sweet success that South Grafton desperately needs.

 

South Grafton half Allan McKenzie looks for support out wide  during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field.
South Grafton half Allan McKenzie looks for support out wide during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Needs work: While it is a position that may quickly be shifting, the halves has been one area where the Rebels have struggled in 2018. The merry-go-round of players started well before the season, and it has taken the side too long to find a combination that fits.

The Rebels have also struggled in the middle third of the field against the more robust packs in the Group 2 competition. While gladiators Xavier Sullivan and Grant Stevens have returned, and Luke Welch is only a week or two away, the Rebels have lacked a young forward stepping up into the void.

 

Rebels' Jeff Skeen pushes through the Macksville defensive line during the Group 2 first grade clash between the South Grafton Rebels and Macksville Sea Eagles at McKittrick Park.
Rebels' Jeff Skeen pushes through the Macksville defensive line during the Group 2 first grade clash between the South Grafton Rebels and Macksville Sea Eagles at McKittrick Park. Matthew Elkerton

Under the pump: From where they are on the ladder it is going to take a seriously considered effort from multiple players in the team.

While he is only a few weeks back from a full knee reconstruction, Grant Stevens natural leadership ability means players will instantly turn to him. He was unstoppable for the side in 2015 and even better after getting the captaincy in 2016. If he can reclaim even half of that form, the Rebels will go deep into the finals.

They found an extra gear against the Ghosts to no avail before the break, if they can do that to other teams there will be no stopping them. The heart and courage is definitely there.

 

Rebels centree Luke French goes on the burst during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field.
Rebels centree Luke French goes on the burst during the Battle of the River Group 2 local derby between Grafton Ghosts and South Grafton Rebels at Frank McGuren Field. Matthew Elkerton

Prediction: There was a lot to like about the Rebels performance in the Group 2 local derby. If Stevens can continue to play more minutes each week, and eventually go back to his customary 80, they will improve out of sight in the second half of the season. At the moment they sit sixth on the ladder, but I think they can climb as high as third.

 

LOWER CLARENCE MAGPIES

What's working: Heart. It's the one foundation of the Lower Clarence club that will never be missing. There is something about the pride these players have in the black and white that is unmistakable.

The Magpies have improved out of sight since last season's tough return to the top grade, and with the roster they have at their disposal (if everyone is fit) they should be knocking down the door of the top NRRRL sides.

The Magpies second-row has been their biggest asset in 2018 with Dan Randall and Grant Brown both putting in unbelievable displays at Yamba League Field this season.

 

Magpies enforcer Grant Brown goes on the burst during the NRRRL first grade clash between Lower Clarence Magpies and Northern United at Yamba League Field.
Magpies enforcer Grant Brown goes on the burst during the NRRRL first grade clash between Lower Clarence Magpies and Northern United at Yamba League Field. Belinda Martyn

Needs work: While injuries have not helped the Lower Clarence side this season I think their problem position is the dummy-half.

Losing the services of leader Tom Martin earlier this year was a disappointment for the club. Why he left is uncertain, but his loss is definitely one that has been felt.

Under-18s rising star Tom Simpson performed admirably in the role, and has been a good Mr Fix-it for the side, but he lacks the experience needed in such a crucial role on the field. He also lacks a bit of size when it comes to the defensive end.

Nathan Essex has been an option for the Magpies, but without stringing two games together in a row it has been hard to truly see what he is capable of.

Under the pump: I really think if this Magpies side is going to succeed in the back half of the season they need to look to front-rower Ryan Binge.

He is quite possibly one of the best tacklers I have seen outside the NRL and has the ability to turn the momentum of a match with one hit. He has also formed a strong partnership with raging red Dalton Shaw this season.

Shaw has improved out of sight since the first round, and if he keeps getting consistent minutes alongside Binge he will only get better. Not a big talker, Binge leads by action on the field, and the Magpies need that this season.

 

Magpies workhorse Dalton Shaw pushes into the defensive line during the NRRRL first grade clash between Lower Clarence Magpies and Cudgen Hornets at Yamba League Field.
Magpies workhorse Dalton Shaw pushes into the defensive line during the NRRRL first grade clash between Lower Clarence Magpies and Cudgen Hornets at Yamba League Field. Belinda Martyn

Prediction: They sit eighth on the NRRRL ladder but with how tight the northern competition has been this season there is no reason they couldn't finish inside the top five sides and play finals football. But they need to jag a few results against the sides above them on the ladder. If they can shock Tweed Coast this weekend that will put them well on the path to glory. I predict them to finish 7th.



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