TOP TALENTS: 7 rising stars of Group 2 first grade
RUGBY LEAGUE: We're almost a month into the 2018 Group 2 season and already the gulf between the top end of the competition and the rest is being formed.
Sawtell Panthers have proven to be the surprise packets of the first grade competition, establishing a sizeable unit in a relatively quiet off-season at Rex Hardaker Oval.
They sit undefeated after three rounds, and quite easily pulled off the club's most dominant performance at the weekend scoring 64 points in one half of football against a depleted Nambucca Heads outfit.
Group 2 perennial achievers Coffs Harbour Comets also sit atop the pecking order undefeated, after securing its first win at the South Grafton Rebels fortress McKittrick Park since 2014.
But regardless of where they sit on the ladder, each club has put in the effort this season and it is showing in the rising crop of young talent on show.
The Daily Examiner sports editor Moose Elkerton has picked a rising star from each squad to carry the flag club into the next generation.
DAMIEN DUMAS, Sawtell Panthers
While the Panthers have been impressive right across the park, and their shock win over the Grafton Ghosts was definitely a team effort, it all starts at the back with live wire fullback Damien Dumas.
Dumas gets every Panthers set of six off on the right boot, with his kick returns averaging around 30 metres a carry. He ducks, dives, dips and dodges his way around initial defenders to steal every extra possible metre.
Produce a broken line in your kick chase and expect the fullback to exploit it. He's the smallest bloke in a Panthers jersey, but that doesn't stop him pulling more than his weight for the team.
While he has been a bit lean on the score sheet in terms of tries this season, don't expect that stat to last long.
SIMON BRITTAIN-SNOWDEN, Coffs Harbour Comets
Not a newcomer to the Group 2 ranks, Brittain-Snowden has come alive in 2018 outside Nathan Curry and will only get better as the season progresses.
He missed the Comets upset win at McKittrick Park on Sunday through injury, and that is one thing that could get in the way of a perfect season in the number six.
With a sizeable forward pack in front of him, and the experience of Nathan Curry in the half-back role, allows Brittain-Snowden to play his natural carefree style which will cause plenty of headaches for defences.
COOPER WOODS, Grafton Ghosts
For anyone who asked what are the Ghosts going to be like without the prowess of Mitch Lollback, they got their answer in the Battle of the River local derby in Round 1.
The talented Woods is the most recent in a long line of try-scoring machines at the back for the Ghosts, with each one paying on the favour to teach their successor.
He has learnt plenty from Lollback, and it is noticeable in Woods running style. He uses speed and precision to hit holes in the defensive line at pace, but then has the added advantage of a strong passing game.
His ability to command the defensive line and marshal his troops off the ball has also been great in the early rounds.
MICHAEL 'BUDDY' HART, Orara Valley Axemen
While not a new name in Group 2 by any stretch, with the opportunity at more first grade game time this season, Hart has rejuvenated himself at the Axemen.
The former Tomahawks junior has linked well with fellow former Comet Liam Dunn in the halves, and has been lethal when linking up with the Orara Valley left edge this season.
There is plenty of pressure on the men from the Valley to perform this season after the impressive list of off-season recruits who arrived at Coramba.
While they struggled to find the combinations in the opening round, they have only improved since and Hart has been the linchpin in that success.
He also impressed for the Group 2 representative side earning selection in the North Coast Under 23 squad.
LUKE FRENCH, South Grafton Rebels
If rumours about this centre turn out to be anywhere close to what they suggest, expect French to blow the Group 2 competition wide open this season.
A late-comer to the Rebels side, French made his debut against the Comets in Round 3 and despite not crossing the chalk was voted South Grafton's Players' Player for the clash.
He is the brother of former Parramatta Eels fullback Bevan French, and was contracted to the Eels before ultimately deciding to return to the bush.
If he can find a combination with new Rebels half Jerome Green early in the season, expect the Rebels to return to their best and quickly.
KAJI BUCHANAN, Macksville Sea Eagles
There has not been a lot for the Sea Eagles to write home about so far this season, but that does not stop them from having an impressive crop of youngsters rising through the ranks.
One of those is enigmatic centre Kaji Buchanan.
The Bowraville Tigers junior was involved in Nambucca Heads Under 18s grand final tilt in 2015, and after coming across to the Sea Eagles, has found much more first grade game time in 2018.
He scored in both of the Sea Eagles opening fixtures and has a proven ability to find the chalk when it is needed. With more early ball in his hands, this young flyer could turn into a very exciting prospect.
ZACK JOHNSON, Nambucca Heads Roosters
The Roosters are in trouble, there is no doubting that, but they have done enough in recent seasons that there is still hope they can turn 2018 around.
If they are going to do it, they need to look to the future in the versatile Zack Johnson.
Johnson has had a couple of years in the top grade to grow accustomed to the physicality of first grade football, and his heap of experience in Koori Knockouts also helps in his ability to play many positions.
He can easily slot into any position in the backline, but is better used as a speedy backrower with strength on his side.
If Nambucca are serious about staying on the field in 2018, they need to get behind a player like Johnson, and build from there.